As we cope with a holiday shopping season that now begins on Halloween and lasts through the new year, more people are also going out of their way to stretch the best part of the season throughout the year.
Northwestern Michigan College has gotten statewide recognition for a program aimed at a group of young people who have long been little known and easily forgotten - 20-somethings who have grown up in foster care and usually have left the system.
They often have no family to turn to for support and advice. At an age when many of their peers are heading to college, they have to find a job and a place to live while making difficult choices about what they're going to do with their lives.
Lisa Thomas, NMC associate dean of Student Life, and Joseph Sanok, an NMC counselor, both came from a social work background and were aware of research showing that only 2 to 4 percent of kids who grow up in foster care complete a college degree. That's an alarmingly low number that sets the stage for a lifetime of just getting by.
So Thomas and Sanok worked with NMC’s admissions and financial aid departments and instructors to find ways to help them make it.
NMC now waives registration fees, hosts one-on-one campus tours and connects students to tutors and academic support centers. The financial aid office has a person to help with tuition assistance programs.
The Student Life office provides office space for Susie Greenfelder, an educational planner from the Department of Human Services who helps students troubleshoot situations they can't solve on their own.
The Muster Project, organized by Student Life and the Maritime Heritage Alliance, helps link students with a student mentor.
“The biggest predictor of success is if a student feels there is at least one person on campus who knows their name and cares about them,” Thomas said.
Students getting help from NMC aren't the only invisible people now on someone's radar.
A year ago, a group of 1987 Traverse City Senior High classmates responded to a Facebook shout-out concerning Joe Sersaw, who had been homeless for years,
John Lopez, who has known Sersaw since third grade, said he was upset about his former classmate's plight. Just over a year ago Sersaw moved into a mobile home his high school classmates bought for $2,500, fixed up and furnished.
Lopez credits Michelle Fehrenbach for her help. Fehrenbach, he said, "gave me a call and took the ball" and "did more for Joey than any agency could possibly do."
She recalls taking Sersaw to the grocery store, where shoppers nervously looked away from his disheveled hair and matted beard. A man approached, thanked her and slipped her a $20 bill. "Someone realized there was something special going on instead of ignoring us like we were invisible," she said.
Fehrenbach now runs the Facebook page, "Friends of Joe," where she frequently asks for help.
Beatriz Cruz, who works with Parenting Communities, is an advocate for Hispanic families and currently makes home visits to eight Leelanau County families, some of whom are here illegally and have little hope of going home for the holidays - or ever.
“I ask them, ‘What would you do if your parents fell ill or passed away?’ They tell me, ‘We came to this country knowing we might never see them again.’ I can’t imagine that,” she said.
Before Cruz's husband gained legal status, he couldn’t return to Mexico for five years, she said.
“I know during the holidays, it was very sad and depressing for him,” she said. “We were all celebrating and happy; my brother and parents were here. He had no one, so he was always like the Grinch.”
There was a time when many undocumented workers would cross the border for holiday visits, but heightened border security is making the risk too great, said a Leelanau County woman who has been here for 11 years. She has never made a return trip.
“If it was up to me, I would go back,” said the woman, 36, who sat at a small kitchen table while Cruz translated. “But it’s not just me now. I have to think about my two children.”
The woman said her children speak with their grandparents by telephone every Christmas and look at their pictures. But something is missing, she said.
Christmas is past, but the desire to help doesn't seem to have a season.