Raising HOPE Through Empowering Ulster County Women

Life can certainly throw you some curve balls, especially if you are a single mother, recent college graduate, ex-substance abuser or domestic violence survivor. 

For marginalized women who lack proper resources, oftentimes the only option is to seek help through social services. Perhaps these trials of life have left you stumped and discouraged, asking yourself, ‘how do I possibly move forward?’

Raising HOPE is here to say that not every woman goes in a straight line in their career, and that’s okay! They are here to help. 

The women’s mentoring program Raising HOPE (Help, Opportunity, Passion and Empowerment) was created by United Way in response to Ulster County’s needs. The purpose of the mentor program is to help women in need of support to achieve educational and career goals so they can become financially stable and self-sufficient.

“There are a lot of amazing non-profits and human services in Ulster County. However, it was more like the nitty gritty, like how to get food and how to get shelter,” said Director of Raising HOPE Amy Summers. “They weren’t addressing how to get past that initial emergency situation, grow as a human being and then be able to attain something much more than that. We saw this big hole that wasn’t being filled.”

Passionate about women’s empowerment, Summers has a degree in Women’s Studies and a speciality in workshop design and facilitation. Before moving to the Hudson Valley, she owned a workshop center in Amherst, MA called Transformations Workshops, Gallery and Holistic Emporium.

“I had all of this experience building workshops, creating workshops and it was coming very natural to me,” Summers said. 

Then in 2009, life threw Summers a sinister curveball. Her car was hit head-on by a drunk driver, resulting in 16 broken bones in her body at once. Summers spent two years learning how to walk again and almost 10 years recovering to return to full-time work. 

During her recovery, Summers saw a position advertised for the director of Raising HOPE and realized this would be a perfect fit for her since she “loved making matches, supervising and helping people mentor other people.” 

Since becoming full-time a year ago, Summers has found that it’s usually fear or low self-esteem that keeps women stuck in their initial challenges and prevents them from moving forward. The idea behind Raising HOPE, therefore, is to teach women how to break down their goals into digestible bites so they won’t give up on their aspirations all together. 

“With a mentor/mentee, the mentor is really there to just hold the space and empower the mentee to make decisions that maybe she was afraid to make herself,” Summers said. “She is going to be there for her in a way that maybe somebody has never been.” 

To become a mentor with Raising HOPE, you must be a minimum age of 30 and have a sincere desire to help another woman. Summers emphasizes that you do not have to know all the answers or even know how to be a mentor because every new mentor undergoes training. 

Karla Vermeulen, an associate professor of psychology at SUNY New Paltz, became a mentor in June of 2019 after seeing a notice in the Ulster Core newsletter that Raising HOPE was looking for mentors. 

“I’ve been a hospice volunteer since 2003, which is a very rewarding kind of volunteering, but I was really looking for something where there would be more of a longer term relationship building thing on an individual level,” Vermeulen said. 

Because of Vermeulen’s focus and strength in education, Raising HOPE paired her with mentee Jessica Walker, who was toying with the idea of going back to graduate school. 

“I have just really enjoyed getting to know Jessica who, even though we live in the same community and even though she is an alumna of SUNY New Paltz, we have never crossed paths before and we probably wouldn’t have under ordinary circumstances,” Vermeulen reflected. 

Vermeulen makes it clear that, as a mentor, you are not the mentee’s counselor. Instead, she describes her role as a mentor as that of an “aunt” or a “village elder.” 

“I’m not there to fix anything for her, I’m there to just talk through what she is dealing with, what she is aspiring to be and what her long term goals are, basically making her goals into steps that she can figure out how to follow,” Vermeulen clarified. 

The criteria to become a mentee is to be 18 years or older, living in Ulster County, free of substance abuse and passionate about an educational or career goal. 

Walker, a 2011 SUNY New Paltz alumna and a single working mother to a nine-year-old and a six-month-old, has asked Vermeulen to assist her with focus and accountability.

“I appreciate Karla. She’s a great listener and either reflects or reframes things in ways that allow me to do some introspective thinking,” Walker said. 

Prior to joining the program, Walker was recently unemployed, pregnant and had her oldest son to consider. 

“That outside accountability was integral. [Vermeulen] has encouraged me to go back to SUNY New Paltz to complete my masters degree,” Walker testified. 

Currently, Walker’s goals are to obtain her masters in school counseling, continue to maintain stability and ultimately become an academic advisor and motivational speaker. 

Beyond the mentor/mentee relationship, Raising HOPE provides other crucial resources as well. Summers orchestrates monthly dinners complete with a curriculum of speakers who provide information on resume writing, problem solving, thrifty lifestyles, yoga and meditation, financial literacy and managing stress. 

“I think that everybody, no matter where you are in your life, would do well with a mentor. There should be no stigma to asking for help or to asking for someone to be there for you,” Summers said. 

Raising HOPE encourages SUNY New Paltz students, and other university students, to consider becoming a mentee. 

“Your parents are telling you what to do, your family members are telling you what to do, you are getting a lot of advice,” Vermeulen said. “But to have someone who is a bit outside of that, who is just listening to what you want and helping you figure out the next steps forward, I can see that being incredibly valuable for someone who may be graduating soon.”

If you are interested in becoming a mentor or a mentee with Raising HOPE, go to ulsterunitedway.org/raising_hope-main. You may also contact Assistant Director Tasha Ortloff at tortloff@ulsterunitedway.org or at 845-331-4199 extension 5.

Nicole Zanchelli
About Nicole Zanchelli 82 Articles
Nicole Zanchelli is a fourth-year journalism major with a sociology and Italian studies minor. This is her third semester on The Oracle. Previously, she worked as a sports assistant copy editor, an arts & entertainment copy editor and features copy editor. Her favorite articles to read and write deal with exposing corruption and analyzing social injustices.