There’s no better way to demonstrate how local charities and nonprofits make a difference than to meet individuals whose lives have been turned around. We spoke with three organizations about some of their favorite success stories.
For more than 30 years, Sunnyhill (formerly The Council for Extended Care) has provided residential and other supported living services for children and adults with developmental disabilities. “A Sunnyhill client could be your neighbor,” says director of supportive services Jessica Erfling, noting that the organization touches approximately 1,000 families a year.
Erfling tells the story of a teen afflicted with cerebral palsy who came to Sunnyhill in August 2007. “Nick had been diagnosed with oppositional defiant disorder, organic brain syndrome and ADHD, and his family could no longer care for him,” she explains. “He had been in and out of placement since he was 8 years old, with serious disability and behavior problems. Since he couldn’t be in school or on a bus with other kids, he attended one-hour classes after school by himself.”
Erfling credits a determined staff for turning Nick’s life around. “Sunnyhill really advocated for Nick. We have him at a home where he’s supervised by a wonderful staff. They signed him up for soccer, and they make sure he gets there every Saturday,” she says. “In school, we were able to increase his attendance to half days. In fact, the Monday before Thanksgiving he attended his first full day of school. He’s also been able to integrate and now rides the bus with other schoolchildren.”
Nick is now 20, and Erfling says he is “a very honest, funny and caring young man. His sense of maturity has really turned a corner.” Nick now has a roommate and has been able to go home overnight to see his family. “He’s learning social skills. He’s gone to dances, and during one of our fund-raisers, he got up and spoke to the group about his time at camp. I’ve even seen him hold a baby!”
Dress for Success
Since its founding more than 10 years ago, Dress for Success Midwest has helped more than 10,000 women in the St. Louis region become self-sufficient. Its parent organization, Connections to Success, also provides mentoring, career and development training, and a transportation program for men and women.
Program manager Amie Bossi says the organization’s involvement with women in prison is one of the best examples of its mission at work. “We’ve been taking our mobile unit, ‘Wheels of Hope,’ to the Greenville Women’s Prison in Illinois for five years. We just park it outside the front door, and 15 of our staff and volunteers come ready to help,” she explains. Last October, the prison held a job fair and Dress for Success helped suit about 50 women for the event. “Many of them have never worn suits, and some haven’t been in street clothes in 10 years. A few didn’t even know their current size!”
Bossi recalls the transformation of a woman named Regina, who had been in and out of prison and lost custody of her children. “Success for her didn’t happen overnight. But as we continually worked with her, Regina was able to find a job, get clean and sober, and regain custody of her children.” She remembers the day when Regina came to the office and gathered the staff for an announcement. “She had something hidden behind her back, and it turned out to be her certificate as a drug and alcohol abuse counselor,” Bossi says. “Because she was able to turn her life around, she made the commitment to helping others overcome their problems.”
Kingdom House touches the lives of as many as 20,000 people each year. Since 1902, the organization has been a pillar in south St. Louis, providing job training, day care, after-school programs, senior companionship, emergency shelter and other services to needy families.
Joyce Dunn-James, director of volunteers, church and community relations, says empowering people is one way to break the cycle of hopelessness and despair for those who seek their help. “One of my favorite stories involves Christie, whom I met when she was 15,” she says. At the time, Dunn-James was working as assistant director at the day care center while Christie worked at Kingdom House through the summer youth employment program. “Christie would always be the last person to leave. After the staff and kids were all gone, she’d still be sitting in the playground,” she recalls. “When I asked her about it, I found out that she and her mother were in jeopardy of losing their subsidized housing. Christie’s parents had recently divorced and her mother was having a hard time moving forward.”
Dunn-James says it took awhile for the staff to gain Christie’s trust but “we let her know that she could confide in us, and that we were there for her.” At one point, she says the girl stopped going to school. “Christie had a couple of younger siblings and she decided that there was not enough money to buy school clothes for all three of them. She decided to quit school and let her siblings go instead while she would try to find a job.” Dunn-James’ staff was eventually able to help her return to school.
These days, Christie is married, and she and her husband have a combined family of seven children. “Christie introduced her husband Chris to Kingdom House, and the organization sent him on a scholarship to a parenting conference. He has been a champion for our parenting classes and for fatherhood in general ever since,” Dunn-James says. “As for Christie, she does community work in hopes of helping others overcome their challenges. She’s also working on a book to tell her story.”
Dunn-James says Christie’s journey is an example of the way Kingdom House makes a difference in the community. “To meet someone at 15 who had to deal with some very serious issues, and then to see her get married, become a mom and graduate from college, that’s the reward,” she says. “Christie and her husband have so much compassion and willingness to give back.”