Village of Hope: Area agency provides foundation for students to rebuild their lives

By Tom Kirvan

Legal News

Cameron Hosner is more than the president and CEO of Vista Maria, Michigan's largest nonprofit residential and community-based treatment agency for girls.

He is a mentor. Sometimes on a 24/7 basis.

It is a role that he relishes and one that dovetails neatly with his responsibilities guiding an agency that annually serves more than 1,000 children who have been abused, neglected, and traumatized.

Hosner, head of Vista Maria since 1997, unofficially became a mentor last year. A Vista Maria graduate had just completed her first year of college. She was full of hope, determined to build on the academic and social skills that she developed while at Vista Maria.

"She was a real success story," said Hosner of the girl who overcame assorted odds to walk down the school aisle in cap and gown.

Her mother has struggled with substance abuse problems, and is currently waging a day-to-day battle. Her adopted mother died at an early age. Her father's whereabouts are unknown.

She has been abused since childhood, living in a family web of poverty and neglect that frames many of the girls placed for treatment at Vista Maria, which is located on a well-tended 37-acre campus in Dearborn Heights.

Suddenly, one year after perhaps her proudest moment at high school graduation, the teen found herself homeless -- again. It was time for Hosner to step in -- again.

"With some doing, we found a place for her live in a safe setting and to find a job for her over the summer," Hosner said, downplaying his role in making it happen. "It was good to be able to help out."

Several months later, after returning to college, the young woman was at a crossroads again. She was back in campus life, far from her Detroit roots, feeling isolated, overwhelmed by the sudden responsibilities of adulthood. In short, she needed a boost, and Hosner was there to provide it, offering her the support and encouragement to stick with her studies, while also sending a periodic check or two to cover day-to-day incidentals.

"This job has taught me that one person can make a real difference," Hosner said of his mentorship responsibilities. "If I can be that sort of person for someone -- anyone -- then there can be hope where there was none. The vast majority of the girls that come here have little reason to expect hope based on what their life experiences have been. They have been exposed to nothing but heartache and abuse since childhood. It is our job to put them in a position where they have a chance to lead a normal, healthy, and productive life."

The Vista Maria vision is to build a "Village of Hope," a place where the "intergenerational cycle of abuse, neglect, and poverty" can be broken by providing children and teens with "treatment, education, daily living needs, and supportive social connections critical to their sustained success."

That is the goal of Hosner and supporters of Vista Maria, who turned out in force May 5 for the gala 12th annual "Celebrating Women" event, a fund-raiser that took on even greater significance this year. The festive evening on the campus of Vista Maria offered supporters a chance to recognize the "achievements of three outstanding women role models, as well as three exceptional young ladies who have overcome immense obstacles and are excelling in their academic studies and treatment," according to Hosner and Jim Vella, president of the Ford Motor Company Fund, the principal sponsor of the fund-raising event.

The women honorees included: Jennifer Baird, CEO of Accio Energy, a wind energy company; Lydia Gutierrez, president and CEO of Hacienda Mexican Foods, a leading manufacturer and distributor of authentic Mexican food products; and Colleen Haley, president of Yazaki's OEM Business Unit in the U.S.

They were joined in the spotlight by three "girl honorees," each a teen-age student at Vista Maria with life stories that could fill a book. Tyreia, Tracey, and Monica are their names, and each spoke eloquently about the hurdles they have overcome (see related story).

Their stories of achievement came at a physical and emotional cost that is impossible to calculate, according to Hosner.

"The abuse and suffering that they have had to endure is hard to put into words," Hosner said. "They have been through so much, but yet they have found ways to survive and to succeed. Their futures are now full of promise instead of continued despair."

Hosner said the agency is in a "position to expand its services" over the coming decade if it can meet the terms of a "unique challenge." The challenge comes in the form of a promised $500,000 grant from the Kresge Foundation if Vista Maria can raise $382,000 by June 2012. Securing the Kresge grant would enable Vista Maria to complete the expansion of the first phase of its Village of Hope initiative, the Child and Family Resource Center.

The project is dear to the heart of Robert Young Jr., the chief justice of the Michigan Supreme Court. Young, a member of the Vista Maria board for the past 15 years, has been a guiding force for the nonprofit agency during his two tours of duty as board chair.

"This is a very tough climate to raise money, but we continue to reach out to those in the greater Detroit community who can help us achieve our fund-raising goal," Young said. "We have a track record of success in turning around lives and we're confident that we can do even more good in the years ahead with the help of this (Kresge) grant."

The Vista Maria mission is built on "meeting the special needs of children" by offering "residential programs for girls that are focused on mental health, trauma recovery, substance abuse treatment, and community reintegration." Hosner said the agency is "treatment driven instead of being placement based," hence the development of two on-campus alternative education charter schools over the past decade as well as "a continuum of highly intensive foster care services for boys and girls."

Hosner can relate to those in need of a second chance at finding their educational rhythm. He admits to being less than a stellar student in high school in Mount Clemens.

"I had something like a 2.2 GPA," Hosner said. "Colleges weren't exactly clamoring for me."

Ferris State gave Hosner a chance to prove himself academically. He did, completing his freshman year with nearly a straight-A average and gaining admittance to Central Michigan University, where he graduated in 1974 summa cum laude. It would be a stepping stone to a master's degree in social work from the University of Michigan and an MBA from Lawrence Technological University.

Hosner, who was senior vice president for Arcadia Services before joining Vista Maria, returned to Ferris State four years ago with a different purpose in mind.

"I was there as we went through the accreditation process for our first charter school," Hosner said. "I told them that a 'grateful son has come back' and that I would be forever indebted to Ferris for giving me the chance that I needed. I got the chance to succeed because of their open enrollment policy."

Collectively, Hosner and his wife, Gail, experienced the profound beauty of a second chance some 19 years ago. It was then that their son Jimmy was born. It wouldn't be long before the infant was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. The disease was at the Stage 4 level, the threshold where death comes knocking.

"There didn't seem to be much hope for his survival, but through rigorous chemotherapy treatment he is alive and well," said Hosner, whose older son, Cameron Jr., is an electrical engineer for Chrysler Corp. "Jimmy is now a student at Oakland in a pre-vet program. He is an Eagle Scout as well. He was given the ultimate second chance."

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One teen's life story:

One of three Vista Maria students honored earlier this month for their academic and individual accomplishments, Tyreia spoke of her "journey" at Vista Maria's 12th Annual Celebrating Women event on May 5. Her remarks, delivered to more than 300 supporters of Vista Maria that evening, appear below.

Good evening. My name is Tyreia and I am 18 years old. As you may have already assumed, my life has not been the greatest, but I honestly think it could have been worse. To understand how I found myself in Vista Maria, let me take you back to May 5, 1993, the day I was born. Yes, today is my 18th birthday . . . but I want to talk about this day 18 years ago. My mother delivered me, a healthy 8-pound, 8-ounce infant. She gave me the name Amber Lynn. You are probably wondering why my name is now Tyreia if I was born as Amber. I will cover that momentarily.

The very day I was born, my mother was disgusted with the person she had conceived me with. She did not want to hold me or see me or even name me. It was not until later that night, when my grandmother and my mother had a long conversation . . . what they said I have no idea . . . but it impacted my mother enough to give me a name and take me home.

As years passed, my mother and father had a continuous off and on relationship. My mother was a workaholic and my father was an alcoholic and a heroin addict just trying to get his next fix.

When I was about 4, I had already had more pistols to my head and knives to my throat than I could possible count on my hands and feet. My father even strangled me once with a spiral telephone cord.

About 2 months after my fifth birthday, I learned the real meaning of survival. I was living in abandoned homes, tents in the woods and with various people that my mother hooked up with. I was living on one box of cereal, and a couple cans of vegetables for a whole month. I saw the disappointment in my mother's face every day. While walking through stores, I saw food, socks, underwear and toothbrushes waiting for the taking. I shoved as much as possible in my clothing and backpack, then, before anyone ever noticed, I headed for the tent in the woods.

My mother lost many jobs and moved to many different places. By the time I reached third grade, I already knew how to hold a pistol and sell drugs. My father was going through a stage where his body would lock up, and he would try his hardest to get his fix of heroin. This scared me because I knew what would happen when he didn't get the drugs he needed.

I learned how to melt heroin over spoons and in metal bowls, then draw it up into a syringe. After my father would stop shaking, he would point to a vein in his hand, forearm, or the crease of his arm. He would wrap a necktie around the top of his arm then watch the blood bulge in his veins. After he was satisfied with what he saw, he would look up at me and say, "Do it." As you might have guessed, I gave my father his dosage of drugs many times a month just trying to help him.

While I was in third grade, I attended six different schools in half a school year. At the end of third grade, I was placed in the foster system. In my first foster home, I was beaten repeatedly and my foster mother stole the only companion I had, a Pomeranian puppy.

I was moved from there to a different home where I was constantly molested by my 16-year-old foster sister. I could never say anything to anyone because I was so embarrassed. By the time I was 10, I had already lived in 13 different foster homes.

In 2004, my best friend committed suicide due to a bully in school; it has been hard to make friends ever since then. A year later, I was adopted by my aunt and that is when my name was changed to Tyreia. Around Thanksgiving 2006, I was sexually assaulted in my own home by my aunt's friend's boyfriend. He is currently serving 10 years in prison. After that my trust in people declined rapidly and practically diminished.

I became everyone's worst nightmare and my own worst enemy. I would stay out all night popping pills, drinking continuously and engaging in various sexual behaviors. Eventually probation took over my life. I was charged with two felonies and several misdemeanors. I had lived in 18 different placements and truanted from almost every single one. I had been in Vista Maria twice.

In 2008, I found out that my father had been murdered two years earlier. Someone put arsenic in his heroin. A year later my brother died in Iraq. He was a great father and a wonderful brother; I owe a lot to him. My grandfather also died that year of leukemia. I have lived in fear of losing more people in my life, but I have never let it stop me from living mine.

Last year became one of my most uncontrollable years. I was drinking so badly that it literally took over my life. I would eat, sleep and breathe alcohol. I would even wake up with a bottle of vodka sitting next to me. My caseworker placed me in Saginaw Juvenile Detention Center; there I went through withdrawals and panic attacks every night. I was there for almost five months and then I entered Vista Maria for the second time.

While being in Vista I have realized that not only am I protected and safe, but miracles really do happen here. I found out in February that I have enough school credits to graduate high school this June. Though I hadn't seen my biological mother since I was 8, we were reunited in March. On May 25, all my criminal charges will be expunged from my record. On that same day, I am going to live with my biological sister.

My GPA is now a 3.7 and I plan to go to college and get my master's in bio-genetic engineering. I have been accepted to the University of Michigan and Wayne State University.

To anyone who is or may know someone who is in the system, live and let live. Be yourself and don't take life for granted. Try to prove to yourself that you can do better and be better than what you think you can. Time doesn't stop for you so get ahead in life and wait for everything else to catch up. Be happy with who you are and who you want to be. Don't let anyone bring you down. Success is always one step closer . . . you just have to be ready to wake up in the morning and take that first step.

Published: Tue, May 24, 2011

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