Says Joe Maddon: “The volunteers are the unsung heroes. Without them, none of our efforts occur.” Every month, the Respect 90 Foundation will salute a distinguished volunteer from the communities of Tampa, FL, Chicago, IL, Mesa, AZ, Southern California, or Joe’s Hometown of Hazleton, PA. Respect 90 will present a $1,000 grant to that volunteer’s charity. Should you have someone who is deserving, please let us know.
Stacey Hirn | Grow Into You Foundation (Tampa)
Stacey Hirn’s youngest of three children had just left for West Point after graduating high school. Her teaching partner of eight years retired, as did her principal. She lost her 81-year-old father to congestive heart failure.
“There were a lot of changes happening all around me, big changes” says Stacey.
Maybe, thought the 12-year Hillsborough County elementary school teacher, it was time for her to do the same.
Her husband, Jeff, urged her to find something she wanted to do.
She did. It was called the Grow Into You Foundation, a small non-profit dedicated to life coaching and mentoring at-risk youth and their families, with a focus on kids who have aged out of foster care.
“Those teens live in a black hole,” explains the foundation’s founder and driving force Erin NeSmith, a certified life coach. “There is very little support out there for them.”
And that’s exactly what motivates Erin and volunteers like Stacey.
“This is more rewarding than actual teaching because I don’t deal with the bureaucracy,” admits Stacey. “I love teaching, there’s no doubt about it, but the job part of the teaching was getting me down. So, I started guiding myself toward non-profit work a bit more.”
Actually, a lot more. Especially when it comes to the foundations’ Oak House, a residence for those who aged out of the foster care system and are swallowed up by its confounding rules and as a result, find it difficult to consistently qualify for proper funding.
Oak House is a home owned by Erin’s father who donated it to the foundation for two years to allow them to renovate it completely. Erin found general contractors and suppliers to donate their time to convert the three-bedroom, one bath sixties-era house to a more modern, fully furnished, four-bedroom, two- bath for boys who aged out of foster care.
Because of the safe, structured environment created at Oak House, the state assists with the boys’ rent.
While Erin and her family currently serve as the anchor family for a pair of 18- and 19- year old boys living in the house, Stacey and her family are critical to its success.
“Stacey had no reservations when jumping in to build relationships with our guys at Oak House,” says Erin. “Her background as a teacher, as a mother of college age children and her sweet spirit have been the perfect ingredients to care for our boys in ways that leave them better. She and her husband Jeff have helped them budget, brought them meals, taken them to baseball games, on boating excursions and hosted them at their condo for our first Oak House family vacation. I’m so thankful for her dedication.”
That dedication started when Stacey tagged along with Jeff to the Grow Into You Foundation charity golf tournament. Once there, she asked if she could help and threw herself into the most basic tasks at the tournament. She found it fun and began learning about the foundation’s work.
“Right after that, I was talking to my teacher friends and I said once the students are gone (for the summer) I would really like to do something more with helping at-risk youth,” Stacey says. “And doggone, if not the next day I got a call from my daughter’s jROTC instructor saying one of the girls was suddenly homeless and they were looking for her to go to a good family for a couple of weeks until the school counselors could figure out her next steps. She lived with us for two weeks which ended up being two months, but it was a blessing. I was able to help her with her online classes so she was able to graduate.”
Stacey had found something. She reached out to Erin who invited her to attend her next training program for mentors and coaches. It wasn’t long before Erin reached back out to her newest volunteer.
“Erin said she really needed help with one of her teens who was having struggles with her math skills and I just started working with her one-on-one,” says Stacey. “I began volunteering more and more, helping these kids and it evolved from there.”
One young man from Oak House, Mike, who had been in foster care since he was two, had the opportunity to go to a prep school in Tallahassee to play football. A dynamic individual, quarterback and homecoming king, he had a dilemma. “How does one get to Tallahassee and with whom?”
After conferring with Erin, Mike asked Stacey who was only too happy to oblige. She drove him to Tallahassee, shopped with him and got him settled into his surroundings.
“There are a lot of walls,” explains Stacey. “It takes a little bit of time for them to get to know and trust you. Now, it’s awesome because the kids are calling me up or texting me and saying ‘Look at this, look what happened or I have a game coming up, can you come?’ And it’s so rewarding because I become a part of their family.”
Sometimes it’s one step forward and a couple of steps back.
“One girl I worked with a lot was in a toxic situation and she ended up moving,” recalls Stacey. “So, I told Erin give her my number if she ever needs to call me. I didn’t hear from her for a long while then and all of sudden I got a text that just simply said ‘Hi.’ I didn’t know the number, but I knew it was her. I was just a little nugget of her life but enough to reach out. Then we were able to talk and communicate and meet up again.”
While Stacey has a fast-growing extended family, at the center of it all is her clan. Her kids recognize her passion for giving and so does Jeff, involved in his own right whether patiently providing first-ever golf lessons to some of the kids, or helping an at-risk teenager get his GED.
Stacey grew up in Maryland, the youngest of two daughters of Harry and Phyllis, both educators. Her sister, Diana, is a recently retired teacher.
“I know I get this passion from my parents,” she admits. “I remember my mom volunteering at a nursing home when I was little. She used to make us come with her. Here she is now at 82, playing the clarinet in the church orchestra and the piano at a nursing home every week. It’s a highlight of their week. My father was a champion of the down and out. Always helping. There were times when my dad wasn’t in the best financial shape and we were like, ‘Why are you doing this?’ We all learned that it feels better than anything else when you can help someone.”
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More from Erin on her mission. “I work outside of the system because I see a need for there to be one-on-one teaching and mentoring- even almost a parental role- for. That’s not possible within the system.
“Everything the kids do with me is voluntary. Unlike court ordered counseling where they are mandated to participate, this is their choice. They’re not given a lot of choices, so this has to be a choice.”
At any one time, Grow into You is involved with 12-20 young adults seeking consistent support. With those individuals, Erin has three missions:
1) Planting hope that when they leave her, there is a plan in place for the future.
2) Empowering them to feel like they have choices, that they have direction and that they can make conscious decisions that align with their values, hopes and dreams as opposed to just existing and surviving.
3) And shifting perspectives. She says she can’t change their circumstances, but she can help them change how they see them.
“For some of those teens, the mission of GIYF goes above and beyond. It can be hunger, their placement or a lot of other things,” continues Erin.” I try to fill in the gaps when a kid is struggling. Unfortunately, it’s when a kid is struggling, a lot of times, they are dropped.
“What we need is more people like Stacey. We need to have mentors in place and continuous resources to offer kids.”
Rick Vaughn | Executive Director, Respect 90 Foundation
For more information on the Grow Into You Foundation, go to GrowIntoYouFoundation.org/