Clara B. Ford grad hopes to return to help others

Photo by Sue Suchyta

Brook Gross (left) and her daughter Susan Hallman share a hug on the Vista Maria campus Thursday, the day before the Village of Hope Academies’ graduation ceremony. Hallman, who will attend Wayne State in the fall to study social work, hopes to return to Vista Maria after college to give other teens the help and support that she feels made a difference in her life.

Sunday Times Newspapers

HEIGHTS – Not many high school graduates plan to return to their high school for anything beyond an occasional class reunion.

Susan Hallman is not an ordinary graduate. As valedictorian of the Clara B. Ford Academy at Vista Maria, a residential treatment facility, the one-time runaway with self-described mental health, substance abuse and anger management issues, plans to become a social worker so she can return to her alma mater to counsel other teens.

“You can help the girls in here by doing what you do,” Hallman said. “The other girls will see that and be like, ‘Oh my gosh, she’s graduating high school, she’s valedictorian, she’s going to college next year.’ It shows that it is possible for a girl in (residential) placement to graduate (high school) and go on to bigger and brighter things.”

Inspired by the teachers, therapists and mentors who have helped her change her life, she now plans to earn a degree in social work so she can return to the Village of Hope Academies, which include Clara B. Ford and Vista Meadows Academy, to give other teens the same life-changing help she received.

“I’ve been through so many different social workers since the time I was little,” said Hallman. “I was seeing therapists because I was going through so much… seeing how many therapists I’ve been through, how many have not stuck by me… It’s really important for girls, for kids, for anybody to have a social worker who really cares.”

Hallman, who will attend Wayne State University in the fall to major in social work with a minor in technical theatre, has overcome numerous odds.

As she entered her teenage years, Hallman, dealing with the death of her grandfather, developed symptoms of bipolar disorder. Before she was properly diagnosed and received life-changing medications and counseling, she said her life became unpredictable and self-destructive.

She said she became a substance abuser, ran away from home and battled anger-management issues.

She originally was treated at the Youth Opportunity Center in Muncie, Indiana, and when her mother moved to Michigan, Hallman initially attended Southgate Anderson High School, then Advantage Academy Alternative High School, housed in the Asher School building in Southgate.

However, she said she wasn’t receiving the level of support and treatment she needed and her life was not improving.

Her mother, Brook Gross, says that it was her daughter’s residential placement at Vista Maria in Dearborn Heights by the juvenile justice system that gave her daughter the life-changing opportunity she needed.

“I can’t say enough good things about Vista Maria,” Gross said. “What really works is a supportive staff who can immediately deal with issues, as well as mentors.”

Hallman agreed, and said she likes the fact that the staff worked one-on-one with her. She said that her relationship with her teachers and their communication with the students has made a difference in her life.

“I’ve had teachers say nothing but nice things about me ever since I’ve been here,” said Hallman. “Everybody knows how to help you…they don’t put you down for anything you’ve done… they don’t always focus on your past.”

Vista Maria’s staff, as explained on their Web site, help at-risk teens heal by providing a residential environment where healing can occur, in which staff talks with – not at – the young women.

Hallman spends weekends at home with her mother, and stays at Vista Maria during the week. After Friday’s graduation she will begin planning for college. She plans to live in a dorm at Wayne State University.

In addition to her social work major, Hallman plans a technical theatre minor. She said she is inspired by her love of theatre – onstage and behind the scenes – and it has allowed her to be herself.

“I want to mentor,” Hallman said. “The principal has asked me to come back probably next fall to talk to some of the girls about what it’s been like to be at Vista Maria, to graduate from here, to be valedictorian and to be a college student and tell them about college life.”

Gross said the change in her daughter through high school has been profound.

“I couldn’t have imagined that she would be where she is now… Susan’s the one that ‘climbed that hill’ to the top… she’s had friends that have fallen down and they gave up,” Gross said, “but Susan has successfully climbed that hill and reached goals that she never thought she’d have.”

Gross said her daughter’s perseverance has inspired her to give back as well. Now that her youngest child is college bound, Gross plans to go back herself.

“I’m so proud of her,” Gross said. “Where she’s come from, where she is now, and the fact that she wants to give back, that she wants to help… She’s come a long way.”