Categories: Community Service
Mary Michael has made a career out of volunteering. She has been a volunteer in a children's hospital in London, a CASA worker, a reading tutor in a literacy program, a tutor in a mentor program at a middle school, a "Meals on Wheels" volunteer, and an active participant in "Project Linus" (making quilts and blankets for children in stressful situations). In our interview, she shared some of her amazing experiences and revealed how prayer and inspiration from the Bible helped her help others transform their lives.
Your career has been in volunteering. How did you become a volunteer?
My husband's job caused us to move a great deal, and being a volunteer was one job I could do anywhere, anytime, and for any length of time.
What were some of your volunteer jobs?
Almost all involved children. When we were in England and my children were in school, I volunteered at a children's hospital for the incurable. They had never had a volunteer. The women were quite suspicious. It took them a little while to believe that I was just coming to work with the children. I worked with a little 3 year-old boy (who looked 18 months) who had been left at the hospital because he had a heart condition; his parents felt they couldn't take care of him. The only contact he had was with a nurse who would change his diaper, put a bottle in his mouth, and leave. When I first started with him, he had kind of a blank look. I would go out two times a week and talk constantly to him, take him on the swing, hold him. He had never sat up or walked or anything, and during the time we worked together, he learned to sit up and respond to people. I was there at least a year. When it was time for me to return to the States, I didn't know what was going to happen to him, so I prayed.
What did you pray?
I think my prayer dealt with the fact that we are all children of God, and that He loves us equally. God's love could come through many different ways. I felt very confident about this, even though I didn't know if another individual would be there to care for him. But he rightly deserved God's love. I went in and the nurse met me and told me that when the little boy's mother had come and brought his shoes, the little boy said, "Mama." The mother recognized that he was capable of recognizing her and responding to her, so they took their son home.
What an answer to prayer! You were also a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA). What did you do as a CASA worker?
A CASA worker is appointed by the judge when there is a critical situation when children are removed from their parents' home because they are not safe. CASA requires about 30 hours of training in which we are informed of the rules of the court and our responsibilities. As a CASA worker, I was a little bit of a private detective and lawyer, as I would write a report and give it to the judge before the court day. The judge would rely on the CASA worker rather than the lawyer. There was always a lawyer for a child, but often the lawyer didn't see the child except at the court date. We were the eyes and the ears of the court for a child; we spoke for the child. The CASA worker agreed to visit the children no less than every other week, usually for an hour. We were with the children, visited their schools, talked to their teachers, and sometimes visited their pastors to really understand the situation. The first goal was to get the children back home. If it became apparent that there was no way of fixing that home, then the next goal was to get them adopted with parental permission. I worked to gain the trust of the child first and then of the parents.
What challenges did you face trying to get the children back home?
The biggest challenge was trying to get the parent squared around. Often alcohol, drugs, or a bad relationship had caused the problems. Parents needed to take courses and do other work to go back to being parent. It was heartbreaking in many cases because some parents could just not respond. But when they did, and the children were able to return home, the CASA worker monitored the situations.
What role did prayer play in working through different challenges?
Prayer was very important. I could choose my own assignment. I would start with the first chapter of Genesis: "God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good" (1:31). There were some situations where the parents had done something very cruel. I decided it was my job to look beyond the appearance and know that inside those parents was the good that God had created. I knew I could speak to the good and love in them and that they would respond. People respond to love. We were able to work through tough situations because I was not judgmental.
Can you share some of the specific cases you've had?
A mother who was border-line mentally disabled had left a child in a high chair. The child fell out and was seriously hurt. The mother lied about what happened. I made the decision that I was not going to speak to that disabled mentality; I was going to speak to the intelligence that God had given the mother. She was basically a loving person; she had just made some really bad mistakes. Speaking to the intelligence and love in her helped her finish all the classes. She gave up drinking, and she met a wonderful man who loved the children. She met him when she was walking to the hospital, carrying one of her three children. She didn't have any transportation, and he picked them up and drove them. I kept wondering why this man was coming into this situation. Finally I had to ask him. He saw that she really was loving and wanted to do the right thing. It was his way of expressing God's love. They finally married. She needed the sense of stability he provided. I hear from them every once in a while; they're doing well.
That was one of the happy ones. There were those situations in which the children weren't able to return home. But I felt that in each case, we got the children into a better situation.
How did you decide to become a CASA worker?
I saw an ad in the paper that there was a desperate need for people to be advocates for children. It struck me as something I would like to do.
How did you hold up emotionally, because you probably saw some pretty drastic situations?
I have to admit, I spent many sleepless nights ruminating before I would finally come to and start praying. I would turn to my Bible and get inspiration. A great majority of the individuals with whom I worked responded. There were even some with whom I could pray and share a Bible verse.
What verses did you find helpful?
One of my favorite is:
Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths. (Prov. 3:5, 6)
I shared this passage often. It gave these individuals a direction. It gave them their responsibility: their responsibility was to turn to and trust in God and then to listen to God's guidance. This would help keep them on the straight and narrow, doing what was right for them to do. For example: the woman with the mental disability would get so close to finishing her courses, but then panic and blow it. So, we prayed together and saw that she could "trust in the Lord." God was guiding her, enabling her to do what she needed to do. We acknowledged Him as her intelligence. Near the end of the year in which the mother had to complete all her coursework, the foster mother with whom the children had been living had been given a cruise for the last two weeks. This would have nullified all the work that the mother had done to get her children back. I told the judge and lawyers that this was absolutely not right. The judge told me that the children could go home for the last two weeks if I would check on them every day. I did. God had directed them the whole way.
What other types of volunteer work have you done?
While most of the work has been with children, the first summer we lived in Florida, there was a desperate plea for people to do "Meals on Wheels" -- deliver a hot meal to elderly people living alone. It was a way to help them and check up on them. So, I signed up, and it's been absolutely delightful. The challenge has been that from time to time, you run into situations where they are quite seriously ill. And that's why you're there -- to catch those situations. Not too long ago, I pulled up to the door at the house of one of my ladies, and the son was sitting on the steps. I asked if everything was okay. Her son replied that she had died that morning. After a few words, I started leaving, but I had to turn back around; I just couldn't leave it there. I told him, "Your mother and I have had such wonderful conversations about God. She told me, 'I know that God loves me and I'm in God's care.' And then she'd ask, 'Well, will you pray for me?' I assured her that I would pray. I am absolutely confident that she knew that she would be in God's loving care, no matter what. And I'm convinced that she is in God's loving arms." He said, "Thank you, lady, that's just want I needed to hear." Most of these people I've been with two years now, and it's always been my privilege to put them in God's care. It takes about an hour and a half to do the route, and I silently acknowledge that they're living in Love and that they're not alone and not afraid.
You've also done work with illiterates. How was that experience?
In the first place, it takes a tremendous amount of courage for adult illiterates to walk into an office and say, "I don't know how to read." They have spent their life covering up. It's amazing the things they get by with, saying they've forgotten their glasses, asking their children to read as an exercise or having others read while they worked and listened. When I was in New Orleans, one particular woman came in and said she wanted not to lie to her minister and say she had forgotten her glasses when he handed her the Bible to read. So we started in, and we used the Bible as our reading book. As I recall, we started in the New Testament with stories that were familiar to her. She was quite a church goer. I think it was probably about a year that I had worked with her before we were leaving. I was concerned, wondering if she had gotten it. I went to see her, and she met me at the door with tears streaming down her face. She told me that the minister handed her the Bible, and she had read it. She couldn't stop reading the Bible.
What would you say this has done for you?
There aren't words to say. It fills me so full. I think that I have learned to love so many different kinds of people from different walks of life that I never would have known. I have had the opportunity to realize all their wonderfulness. I have seen people express joy in situations where one might ordinarily wonder how there could be any joy at all. I have gained such an appreciation for the goodness in all of us.
Your life has been dedicated to helping others. You've had a wonderfully giving life.
I have had the privilege to do that, and I've enjoyed every minute of it. And I've thanked my husband for allowing me to use my time exactly as I've wanted -- to express my own sense of individuality and understanding of God's goodness and love for His creation.