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UIX: Stephanie Sheler's support aims mothers and children at success

Stephanie Sheler

Natasha Nyberg - Stephanie Sheler - Kathy Newton

Stephanie Sheler has always been passionate about mothers and children. She also admits she’s “always had a special place in her heart for D.A. Blodgett -- St. John’s,” where her passion is manifest in her position as a social worker for the Sisters in Support program.
Stephanie Sheler has always been passionate about mothers and children. She also admits she’s “always had a special place in her heart for D.A. Blodgett – St. John’s,” where her passion is manifest in her position as a social worker for the Sisters in Support program.
Sheler’s uncle was the executive director of D.A. Blodgett during the 15 years she spent as a second- and third-grade teacher after graduating from Calvin College with a degree in education. Her students would do service projects for the agency around Christmas. She later spent seven years as director of adult ministries at her church before joining the team at D.A. Blodgett – St. John’s in 2011, but says, “when I saw the job opening for Sisters in Support, I knew I had to apply.”
How it works

Sisters in Support follows much the same model as the Big Brothers Big Sisters of America program, only instead of working with children, Sheler works with young moms (referred to as clients) who are pregnant or parenting. Her job is to match each young mom with a volunteer mentor from the community, supporting both parties throughout the duration of the match.
 Sisters in Support
The mother, her children, and the mentor spend time together once a week—often doing child-friendly activities so that the children can be exposed to new things, like library visits, the zoo, the Children's Museum, baking cookies, trips to the farmers' market, etc. The client and volunteer also work on any goals the mom might have. Sheler says these could range from getting back in school, studying for GED tests, and applying for college to employment concerns, like job searches, writing resumes, filling out applications, and practicing interview skills.
“Another big emphasis is learning about healthy relationships because most of the clients haven't experienced or seen healthy relationships in their families or with men,” Sheler says. “And, of course, we are always focused on good parenting and child development. As you can imagine, each client is unique and comes to the program with different needs.”
There are several commonalities between the SIS clients. Sheler says while all of them live below the poverty line, many were also “not parented well"; have experienced abuse or neglect as children; have been in situations of domestic violence; have trouble meeting basic needs for housing, food, utilities, transportation and other necessities; and typically are “caught between a rock and a hard place.” These mothers all lack sufficient support systems, Sheler says, but they may also need to look for work while lacking a computer, network of people, transportation, or adequate childcare.
Helping clients surmount these problems and reach success is the goal of every mentor and client match.
Who it works for
“One thing I've learned is that success can come quickly or slowly, in giant steps or baby steps,” Sheler says. “It often happens in fits and starts. Sometimes it's two steps forward and one step back. But always there is some success, and sometimes it's remarkable success.”
One such story of success involves a client named Amy who connected with SIS in April.
“When Amy first joined SIS, she was a young mother with two boys, a toddler and an infant,” Sheler recalls.
Lonely, isolated, and looking for a friend, Amy was quickly matched with a volunteer mentor named Char.
“At first it was difficult for Char to build a relationship with Amy because Amy was so shy,” Sheler says. “It was almost as if she didn’t believe she had a right to any thoughts or opinions.” 
Eventually Amy opened up to Char and her social worker, sharing that her boyfriend was not only isolating and controlling her, but also physically abusing her. 
“Amy’s lowest point came when he assaulted her, and she had to call the police,” Sheler says. “It broke Amy’s heart that her children had to watch their father be taken away in the back of a police car.”
It was a major event in Amy’s life, but one that gave her the courage to make positive changes. She finally shared with her volunteer and social worker what had truly been happening in her home. The volunteer offered support and encouragement to Amy, and playtime for the children, while the social worker helped Amy connect to a variety of community resources. 
“For the first time, Amy felt worthy of standing up for herself and her children,” Sheler says. “With the support of SIS, Amy was able to secure her own apartment, navigate the maze of DHS assistance programs, file for child support and return to school.  Now she works full time at a job in her field, with benefits.” 
What keeps it working
When Sheler started with D.A. Blodgett – St. John’s in January 2011, she was the sole social worker for three and a half years. With the Sisters in Support program experiencing such high demand since then, a second social worker was added to the program in July 2014, and Sheler now acts as team lead.

The program can always use additional mentors, Sheler says, but there’s still a steady influx of volunteers who may hear the call through word of mouth, the Sisters in Support website, TV interviews, social media, or other means. Of course, any publicity for SIS is good publicity, she says, because it raises awareness about the needs of the clients and the need for additional volunteers.
“It takes a special person to be a Sisters in Support mentor,” Sheler says. “First of all, she has to have a heart for mothers and children, but additionally, she has to understand and want to help with the problems facing a typical SIS client. She needs to have compassion regarding the trauma that many clients have faced, and she needs to be able to build a strong, caring relationship with the mother and her children.”
Sisters in Support
The volunteers and clients are asked to commit to their pairings for a minimum of a year, but many last long beyond that. Some remain friends for the rest of their lives, Sheler says.
Sisters in Support is slated to serve 58 clients in 2014 with two social workers administrating the client and mentor matches, but referrals for new clients are received regularly through visiting nurses or other social workers from the Kent County Health Department. These people have regular contact with pregnant women or young children. SIS maintains a waiting list of anywhere from 10 to 25 clients who need mentors.

The whole of Sisters in Support is funded by donors and grants, with a Fund Development Team and Leadership Team putting in the majority of the work to garner those grants.
“We view this program as a way to prevent children from ever experiencing abuse and neglect,” Sheler says. “We hope that the children of SIS clients will never need our agency's foster care or residential services, and so we are always looking for additional funding from individual donors and grants. If we have more funding, we can either serve more clients or better help those we are already serving.”
For more information on Sisters in Support, visit http://www.dablodgett.org/what-we-do/mentoring/young-moms-sisters-support
Matthew Russell is the Project Editor for UIX Grand Rapids. Contact him at matthew@uixgrandrapids.com. 

Photography by Steph Harding 
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