Holiday helpers highlight the need for volunteers and mentors at Vista Maria beyond Christmas

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Photo by Sue Suchyta
Volunteers Artelia Smith (left) and Eartha Gee sort through new holiday clothing gift donations for girls at Vista Maria.

By SUE SUCHYTA
Sunday Times Newspapers

HEIGHTS – As volunteers wrap donated holiday gifts Thursday for girls at Vista Maria, Becky Hermann, associate manager of volunteer services, talks about the need for volunteer mentors and tutors year-round.

“It’s really an hour a week… or three hours once a year,” Hermann said. “Our volunteer opportunities are very, very different… a lot of people think they have to donate a thousand dollars or a thousand hours to make a difference, and that’s just not the case. A little bit of time and compassion and caring goes a long way with our girls.”

Hermann said volunteers make a difference at Vista Maria, a residential campus with treatment and therapy for vulnerable girls, young women and their families to help them heal and succeed.

She said they have 30 volunteers mentoring one-on-one with the residential program girls, and they are always looking for additional volunteers, as girls enter and exit the program, which can accommodate up to 164 girls. Hermann said Vista Maria is now close to its capacity.

Mentors for girls in the residential treatment program need to be women who are good listeners, caring and willing to accept the girls the way they are, Hermann said.

“They’ve been through a lot in their young lives, but they’re getting by and they’re starting anew here,” Hermann said. “I tell our mentors you don’t have to be their therapist… be the cool aunt, be the big sister they never had… that’s your role.”

While girls in Vista Maria’s residential program attend Clara B. Ford Academy, a charter school for ages 11 to 18 on the Vista Maria campus, Vista Meadows, also on-site, is a coed charter high school for about 100 day-students who need a safe and nurturing learning environment with strong staff support, including small class sizes.

Men and women volunteer tutors help students at both schools with homework, American College Test or ACT preparation, filling out college applications and essays and offering career workshops.

After-school activities, like clubs and workshops, often have volunteer leaders, Hermann added. She said popular classes include cooking, guitar lessons and dance.

Volunteers tell students about their careers as well.

“I think a lot of kids think there are two paths – either failure or success,” Hermann said. “They don’t realize there are (many) different paths… which lead to the success path as well. They just need time to explore it.”

She said some harbor a misconception is that Vista Maria’s residents are ‘bad kids.’

“Our (residential) kids… have had a rough go at life,” Hermann said. “They were reacting the only way they know how, and they’ve had bad things happen to them. So they are coming to us to heal, to be restored and get that chance that they might not have had otherwise.”

Because many of the residential girls at Vista Maria have never had a “normal” childhood, Hermann said they try to bring that to them, which includes making holidays and birthdays special.

She said the volunteer department brings groups on campus to provide everything from pizza parties to gift-wrapping. Above all, they try to provide normalcy, she said.

“For a lot of our girls Christmas has not been as exciting as it should be for a kid that age,” Hermann said.

She said with their wish list program, now about 20 years old, volunteers buy specific items, like skinny jeans, an Mp3 player, boots or a radio for girls in their residential program. Each girl gets four major gifts as well as stocking stuffers.

“It boosts their self-confidence and it gives them a huge sense of self-worth,” Hermann said. “First of all these complete strangers out here care about (them) and want (them) to have a good Christmas. (They) finally get a Christmas that everyone keeps talking about.”

She said there are trees in each of the buildings and a party on Christmas Day, run by volunteers. She said the girls enjoy playing board games, and having a special comfort food dinner like fried chicken and macaroni and cheese.

The tough economy makes people more aware of the need to donate and volunteer, Hermann said. Some donors tell her they do not need more possessions, and they would rather buy gifts for someone who has never had them at Christmas.

She said they also received donations made to honor the memory of the victims of the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

In January, she hopes volunteers donate their time to be mentors, tutors and program leaders. She added that meeting new people improves the girls’ acclimation skills.

“Our afterschool programs will always need folks with different ideas and different careers and different backgrounds to help these kids,” Hermann said. “The more people you meet, the better your communication skills.”

She added that they would like to have volunteers start an after-school drama program.

This Christmas, she’s thankful for volunteers like Eartha Gee, who began helping when she retired.
“I’m happy to give back to the community,” Gee said. “If you’ve got free time in life, give back.”

She said when her pastor at New Providence Baptist Church in Detroit spoke to the congregation about volunteering it encouraged her to take that step.

“When a man of God speaks… you go with that,” Gee said. “Knowing that you can bless someone and knowing that you can have some kind of impact on somebody’s life.”

Artelia Smith volunteers through the American Association of Retired Persons foundation. She said the organization has a family atmosphere.

“If you are looking to give back, it’s most rewarding,” Smith said. “I think that is what people my age are looking for. We’re not physically able to do a lot, but it gives us an opportunity to participate and I feel it’s just a wonderful thing to be able to come here and work with these girls.”

“Really, we can’t do it alone,” Hermann said. “Having (an) army of supporters and people who care about our kids so much is just awesome.”

To volunteer, call Hermann at (313) 271-3050, ext. 114 or send an email to rhermann@vistamaria.org for more information.