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From designing rooms to planting gardens, volunteers lend help at St. Vincent's Villa

From designing rooms to planting gardens, volunteers lend help at St. Vincent's Villa
Susan Brennan, left. and Kathleen Willis volunteer their time working in the gardens of St. Vincent'’s Villa, in Timonium. (Doug Kapustin / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

When Julie Smith decided to volunteer after retirement, the Towson resident knew just where she wanted to go — back to St. Vincent's Villa, in Timonium, where she was a registered nurse from 1990 to 1996.

"It really makes you feel good to volunteer," Smith said. "I'm doing something that's meaningful without the stress of being a nurse."

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She loved the villa and the children who live at St. Vincent's, a Catholic Charities therapeutic residential facility for the treatment of children aged 6-14 who have behavioral and emotional difficulties. The villa is home to 80 boys and girls from all over Maryland.

Children are referred to the program by health professionals, schools or family members, and are considered to be no longer safe at home, said Michael Dunphy, the villa's associate administrator. The children might be suicidal or hurt themselves or others. Each has faced some kind of trauma and some, but not all, have been abused.

St. Vincent's offers a place of stability along with treatments ranging from group therapy to psychiatric services to spiritual development to recreation and the arts, said Ezra Buchdahl, St. Vincent's administrator.

Smith volunteers twice a week in the facility's health center, where she used to work as a nurse. She takes care of administrative duties.

"I like being in that setting, being around the other nurses," she said, adding that she also enjoys the chance to talk with the children.

About 400 volunteers help the center to operate. Some volunteer for a day or two to run a sports workshop or paint a mural in a hallway or the health center, while others come every week to spend time with an individual student.

Professional football players visit as part of the Ed Block Courage Foundation to meet and play with the children. "The impact on the players is as great as it is on the kids," Buchdahl said.

One volunteer, an interior designer, has been raising funds to redecorate the children's bedrooms with "trauma sensitive" pastel colors that have a calm and comforting effect, Buchdahl said.

While Smith gives of her time inside the building on Pot Spring Road, volunteers Kathleen Willis and Susan Brennan are working on its exterior.

Willis, a North Roland Park resident, learned about the villa's need for help cleaning up an overgrown courtyard a year ago and asked for the assistance of Brennan, a Master Gardener from Hampton, who gladly signed on.

That project led to more.

The pair spruced up two other gardens on the grounds, planting fragrant lavender and basil plants, spinach, kale and tomatoes — plants the children could smell and taste. Now they are working on a new garden located behind Villa Maria School, on Dulaney Valley Road. Some of St. Vincent's children attend the school, which provides education and clinical services for children with emotional, behavioral and learning challenges.

The first step in the new garden, which was completed last month, was to build around it a tall wire mesh enclosure to protect the plants from voracious deer. Daniel Queets, a Loyola Blakefield student and member of Scout Troop 1000, which is sponsored by Cathedral of Mary Our Queen parish in Baltimore, built it as his Eagle Scout project. Brennan said they're hoping build raised garden beds next.

Children from the villa helped mulch the garden.

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"They were so sweet and helpful and they loved it," Willis said. "It's a cliche that you get out of it more than you put into it but it's true."

"Ten fold," Brennan added.

The goal of the program is to let the children be children, Dunphy said. "We have lots of opportunities for kids to have fun here."

Each lives in one of six self-contained "houses" that contains a living room, dining room, play room and toys in the backyard. At the entrance of each house is a decorated sign bearing the word "SURF" to remind the children of the villa's values: safety, unity, respect, fun.

The children in the program go to school, do homework and play. The villa offers biking and hiking trails, tennis courts, basketball hoops and playgrounds, an art room and a Ravens-themed gym, along with sports workshops and fairs, breakfast with Santa, and a Christmas Wonderland that is the work of nearly 200 volunteers who transform the gym into a fantasy land with trees and trains and toys.

"When the children see it, especially the first time, they are in awe," Dunphy said.

St. Vincent's helps the children's families with home visits, group therapy and other tools. Research has shown that when families are move involved, the outcomes are better, according to Buchdahl.

"It used to be very child-centered," he said. "Now it's more family-centered and community-based."

The majority of funding for the villa's program comes from medical assistance with some funding from private insurance and the Maryland Department of Human Resources, according to Buchdahl.

St. Vincent's is happy to accept donations of money and volunteer time. Larger donations, including furniture and even cars, are also welcome. Car donations are handled through Catholic Charities, Buchdahl wrote in an email.

Donations help villa staff provide young clients with the fun activities that every child enjoys. Donations of gas cards help families who live far away make the trip to Timonium. Gift cards enable the children to go to the movies, bowl or eat at a restaurant.

Funds collected during the holiday season go into the Christmas Fund, which helps the center all year round, according to Buchdahl. It has provided iPads to help relatives of the children who rely on Skype to keep in touch, as well as everyday needs for the children's families, such as food and diapers.

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