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Tapping Into Brutal Pasts to Help Make Changes
But today, decades later, that horror at the hands of her adoptive father has made Mary Lyn Hammer not only a strong woman, but a strong advocate for other young people in similar situations.
“My father was a physician,” Mary Lyn says. “No one suspected him. And my mother drank her way through life. It was rough.”
So she created Champion College Services, where she has the opportunity to be the bright spot in young lives. A division called Champion Empowerment Institute offers life skills classes and financial literacy training. But it’s her Champion for Success program that really makes her smile.
“I walk into a room filled with at-risk kids who’ve been abused, bullied, and pretty much left to fend on their own. I know what they’re thinking: ‘What does this white chick know?’” She chuckles. “But when I tell them my story, they understand that I’m actually one of them.”
Mary Lyn believes the best teachers and healers are human beings who have gone through pain. That makes her perfect for the kids she works with. She knows how lives can become increasingly overwhelming with home issues and school demands. She says the kids end up with no training, no social or life skills, and certainly no job-hunting skills. Often, they turn to crime or contemplate suicide.
That’s where Champion for Success shines. In addition to the life and financial skills taught, she’s also able to guide them to grants that can help their home situation, covering costs for a safe place to live or to help caring for siblings.
The organization currently serves young people in Arizona and Montana. But Mary Lyn, who often advocates for at risk kids in Washington D.C., is building statistics to replicate her program in other states. She sees local business involvement as a crucial component to the success of her programs.
“We don’t teach accountability anymore, not in the home or at school. Getting a participation trophy doesn’t prepare people for real life. Kids need to learn how to lose and how to be a gracious winner.”
That, layered on top of a bad, and often dangerous home life, plus lack of education is a sure recipe for a wasted life. And it’s not just a local problem, or even a small problem. As the number of at-risk children grows into adulthood, their inability to assimilate will affect society as a whole.
“You can use your past as an excuse for your behavior,” Mary Lyn says. “Or you can use it to make a change. I chose the latter. It makes all the difference to have someone say, ‘I believe in you.’”
Mary Lyn didn’t hear those words until she was in college. That’s also when she first became a mentor in her home state of Montana. She worked with at-risk kids, one of whom was a 14-year-old girl who had been bullied and stabbed in the stomach. Despite looking for her, Mary Lyn had lost touch for over 35 years, until this past Christmas.
Mary Lyn posted a picture of her wintery Montana home on Facebook. The young woman, now with a different last name, commented on the picture, saying she missed that view every day. Then she wrote: “You’re my hero. You changed my life.”
And that’s Mary Lyn’s goal: one life at a time.
Judy Pearson is a journalist, published author, and the founder of A2ndAct.org. Her organization supports and celebrates women survivors of all cancers as they give back to the greater good in their 2nd Acts. Her passion is finding those who have have healed themselves by helping others.