“I just hope they realize one day that someone cared,” Janice Grabowski answered when asked what motivates her to volunteer at St. Vincent’s Villa. Working with children who have severe emotional and behavioral challenges – providing them with mentorship and compassionate care – is something that Janice has been doing with Catholic Charities for nearly 30 years.
Janice first started helping out at the Villa Maria Residential Treatment Center (which later consolidated with St. Vincent’s Center to become St. Vincent’s Villa) in the mid 1980’s after reading an article in The Catholic Review about the need for volunteers. At the time her daughter was in college and her son in high school. “He didn’t need his mom around quite as much,” she said with a laugh.
At first, Janice was a mentor to children in the residential units, spending one-on-one time in the evenings after she got off work. Once she retired from the Social Security Administration in 2003, Janice started to volunteer during the daytime at the Villa Maria Schools, first in Timonium and then in Harford County. Now, she’s back at St. Vincent’s Villa, working one day each week in the diagnostic classroom on Pot Spring Road.
“I didn’t have a background in working with children with behavioral challenges,” she said. “I just came here to see what I could do to help.”
Help is exactly what Janice provides to the children she mentors.
“Janice has mentored so many children since 1986 that I’ve lost count,” said Lauren Porter, mentor program coordinator at St. Vincent’s Villa. “I am inspired by Janice’s commitment and I know that every one of the children she has connected with remembers her fondly. Now, 29 years later, she still continues to build many positive memories for children through volunteering in the diagnostic school.”
Janice approaches her volunteer work with a special empathy for the children and an appreciation of the types of trauma many of them have experienced.
“All of the children have their own problems. Some of them come from very troubled families,” she said. “They just need someone who will give them special attention.”
As she talks about the children she has worked with over the years, Janice remembers one young girl in particular.
“I was working as a mentor to a girl who was about 12, and who had been in the [child welfare] system since she was about five years old,” she said. “She had been in foster care and had gone through a number of programs. She had a lot of anger – a lot of anger.” When the child came into St. Vincent’s, Janice was asked to be her mentor.
“She didn’t like me at all,” Janice said.
She kept trying to make inroads with the girl but wasn’t seeing any progress. “It got to the point that the staff was going to change the assignment,” she said.
One day, however, the young girl began to open up to Janice, an unexpected breakthrough, and they continued together for another two years. After leaving St. Vincent’s, the girl began attending a school in western Maryland and the two eventually fell out of contact. A few years later, Janice learned that her neighbor had attended an event at the same school the young woman was attending, and by chance had met her. “Lo and behold, it was the same girl and she had done a complete turnaround,” Janice said. She and the girl, who is now 17, are back in touch. “I just hope they continue to bring her out of her shell,” she said.
Positive stories like this don’t come as any surprise to the people who know her.
“Janice has connected with so many children over the years, and everyone has experienced her naturally warm demeanor and calm presence,” said Lauren. “It is a special gift she brings to volunteering with children. She is the model of gentleness and kindness.”
For Janice, the thing that keeps her coming back each week for 29 years to work with the children at St. Vincent’s is summed up in a few simple words: “I just want them to know that someone cares.”
Interested in becoming a mentor? Learn more