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Committed to helping homeless, Laurel Councilwoman Nicholas to be honored for volunteering

Committed to helping homeless, Laurel Councilwoman Nicholas to be honored for volunteering
Portrait of Laurel Councilwoman Valerie Nicholas at the Laurel Municipal Center, July 15, 2019. (Nate Pesce / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

One morning in May, like many other mornings before, George Schulman, a volunteer at the Laurel Medical Center, stopped into the Starbucks off of Route 1 and ordered his usual: a venti mocha frappuccino. But that morning, the baristas could tell: George didn’t look so good.

They sat him down, and told him he shouldn’t leave the coffee shop to go to work.

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So he dialed his boss at the hospital, Valerie Nicholas, who doubles as a city councilwoman in Laurel. Quickly, she recognized Schulman’s lilting, slurred speech as a telltale sign of a stroke.

“He was talking, and then all of a sudden his conversation made no sense,” Nicholas said. “He was telling me that he was getting his favorite drink to jargon; I just couldn’t understand anything. And I said, ‘Hand the phone to the person in front of you.’”

That morning, Schulman would head to the hospital in an ambulance, rather than his beloved bright red 2002 Thunderbird convertible. Doctors would eventually diagnose the incident as a mini-stroke, technically a transient ischemic attack, with a loss of blood flow, according to the Mayo Clinic.

George and his wife, Pamela, don’t like to think about what might have happened if Valerie hadn’t picked up the phone.

Laurel Councilwoman Valerie Nicholas holds the Josie King Hero Award she received from UM Capital Region Health, July 15, 2019.
Laurel Councilwoman Valerie Nicholas holds the Josie King Hero Award she received from UM Capital Region Health, July 15, 2019. (Nate Pesce / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

“After he felt a little better, he would have said, ‘That’s OK’ and gotten in his car and driven off, which would not have been good,” said Pamela, 72. “The only creature I’ve ever met who’s more stubborn than him is my dog."

Sitting in the Laurel Starbucks this week, just a few feet away from the table where he sat back in May to await emergency services, George Schulman, 76, calls Nicholas “the world’s best boss.”

In June, Nicholas was awarded the University of Maryland Capital Region Health’s Josie King Hero Award for her life-saving effort to help her volunteer.

Her life-saving work in the community goes far beyond that Starbucks phone call.

For decades, Nicholas has worked tirelessly to feed and provide numerous resources to low-income and homeless families in her community.

Her home, which she jokingly calls “the store,” her car and her storage unit are loaded with food, clothing, toys, toiletries and school supplies that she purchases with her own money and gives out to those in need. After she pays her bills and buys her own groceries, much of the remainder of her salaries from the City Council and the hospital goes toward buying supplies for others, she said, adding that she spends thousands of dollars on it each month.

Now, she’s up for a Governor’s Service Award, too, in the lifetime achievement category, and she’ll find out if she wins in the fall.

Since that day in May, Schulman said he’s started taking blood pressure medication to help reduce his risk of stroke, for which transient ischemic attacks are often a warning sign.

The symptoms were familiar to Schulman. A dizzy spell once sent him hurtling toward the ground when he tried to sit at a bench outside of an IHOP beside his wife. But doctors hadn’t yet given him a diagnosis for his sudden attacks when he stopped for that coffee a few months back.

Nicholas has been a caretaker for most of her life, part of the reason why the stroke symptoms are easy for her to recognize. Both her father and her brother struggled with health problems, and Nicholas was there to tend to them.

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Now, she works as the volunteer services and patient relations coordinator at the University of Maryland Laurel Medical Center, and she’s interested in expanding her healthcare-related training so she can do more to advise the families she works with.

To many, Nicholas is known as “The Wounded Healer.” At several points in her life, she faced domestic abuse. She grew up in an abusive household, and in 1995, she lost her unborn child after beatings from her then-partner, she said.

“When my baby died, I was in a deep, dark place,” she said, “and I truly asked God that if he would allow me to just get myself back on track, that I would dedicate the rest of my life to helping other people.”

That effort began when she moved to the Washington, D.C., area, where she’d work in the Department of Justice. On her way to work, Nicholas, who’s from rural Roanoke, Virginia, saw people sleeping on the streets for the first time in her life, and she was overcome with emotion.

“I cried all day the first day that I saw them,” she said. “I went to my co-workers and my boss and said, ‘There are people out there needing food.’ ”

So, she started to board the Metro each morning with a tote bag full of sandwiches to hand out on her way to work.

Since then, her meals have grown substantially. She purchases bags of organic spring mix by the crate for salads, and gets fresh produce like corn, cucumbers and tomatoes from local farmers.

Nicholas was part of the team that started Laurel’s community garden, and now Laverne Debnam, one of the farmers who uses the space, routinely provides her with bags full of fresh fruits and vegetables she grows, including cantaloupe, kale and string beans.

“She calls me at least once a week to see what’s in season,” Debnam said.

Nicholas will customize the meals to the individuals’ health needs, and her cheeseburgers and brownies, for special occasions, often get rave reviews, she said.

Last Thanksgiving, she prepared 26 turkeys for families in need, she said, and she’s been known to host birthday parties and supply Christmas presents, too. Right now, before the next school year begins, she’s gathering school supplies and book bags.

George Schulman, 76, of Bowie, talks about how his boss, Councilwoman Valerie Nicholas from Laurel and Volunteer Services & Patient Relations Coordinator at the University of Maryland Laurel Medical Center, saved his life by recognizing the signs of a stroke and getting him the help he needed while at Starbucks in Laurel in May.
George Schulman, 76, of Bowie, talks about how his boss, Councilwoman Valerie Nicholas from Laurel and Volunteer Services & Patient Relations Coordinator at the University of Maryland Laurel Medical Center, saved his life by recognizing the signs of a stroke and getting him the help he needed while at Starbucks in Laurel in May. (Nicole Munchel for the Baltimore / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

The trunk of her SUV is filled to the brim with toiletries, everything from shaving cream to shampoo. Her home, too, is filled with value packs of sanitary napkins and stacks of shampoo and mouthwash.

For Nicole Davis, a former Laurel resident who recently moved to Columbia, Nicholas helped pay her electricity bill to keep the lights on in her town home after she fell on hard times about three years ago.

“I was amazed that somebody was willing to help a family that she didn’t know,” Davis said. “Not a lot of people out here are like that.”

Nicholas also gifted her a tablet so that she could access the Internet to apply for jobs and since then, she’s secured a position at a Giant supermarket. Recently, Nicholas gave her a bus pass so that she doesn’t need to walk home from work alone late at night.

Laurel resident Joan Broadway read a news article about Nicholas several years ago, and realized she might be able to contribute.

“I had seen old episodes of ‘Extreme Couponing’ and I thought, ‘That can’t happen here. Things are just too expensive here,' ” she said. “But I got really good at it.”

Soon enough, she started to accrue extra toothpaste, toothbrushes, pasta and cereal. So, she starting donating them to Nicholas.

The two have become good friends over the years, and Broadway said she knows firsthand how hard Nicholas works to care for those who need assistance. Typically, she’s up at 3 a.m. to start cooking her meals and delivering breakfast before she heads to work.

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“Honestly, she does not sleep,” Broadway said.

It was a common theme in conversations with those who know Nicholas well, but Debnam said she’s careful to ensure Nicholas has some time for herself.

“Sometimes we just go listen to music,” Debnam said. “Because I know she works really hard.

"If I can just sit with her and listen to some music, she’ll detach for a while. "

By and large, Nicholas does her service by herself.

"I don’t want anybody around me that’s going to be looking down on people,” she said. “Because I’m one paycheck away from being homeless myself.”

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