Written by Tyler Smetzer

Before coming to Many Mansions, I had just served a year with Americorp (City Year) as a tutor, mentor, and role model for underprivileged youth. One day, I casually asked one of the students if she would be walking the stage for commencement. It’s something I asked a lot of my students to gauge if they still needed any last minute support to ensure they pass. I simply assumed that she was doing okay because of her pleasant demeanor and seemingly studious attitude.

Then she lifted the veil and shocked me like a parent revealing Santa’s true identity. She was failing multiple classes. She had just taught me an invaluable lesson about the danger of assumptions and the value of getting to know my students. After a discussion about what she had to do to catch up and how to approach teachers for support, she agreed to come in for tutoring after school every day until she caught up. She came in with a mound of work that would make an accountant do a double take – but it eventually all got done. The day finally came and she walked the stage with a big smile, proud of her accomplishment. Seeing her walk the stage only invigorated my want to help more.

After Americorp, I was determined to continue giving back to my community while completing my teaching credential. That was when I found an ad for a Children Services position with Many Mansions. The tagline caught my eye, “providing hope, homes, and life-enriching services.” After a bit of research, I knew it would be a great fit, and it was more than I expected. We don’t just provide services for youth—we provide a supportive community where kids can explore and grow. We focus on the whole child, making sure they are safe, healthy, and happy.

Given my past experience, I try to get to know each kid I work with. What drives them. What their goals are. What they strive to achieve. A kid who seems to be doing great might in fact be struggling. A kid who is bubbly might actually be upset. A report card doesn’t tell the whole story and a grade doesn’t define a child.

Last year, I asked for a girl to start Teen Club early because I saw potential in her. The program is meant to help prepare participants be successful leaders by the time they finish high school. It includes socio-emotional support, academic guidance, and opportunities to grow as a leader. She was already helping her peers with homework, reading to younger kids, and assisting to prepare snack during Homework Club—all of her own volition. Her strong work ethic, determination, and yearning for growth made her the perfect fit. She showed up to meetings whenever possible and even volunteered to lead Friday Program for youth in preparation for leading lessons during summer camp. Simply put, she was exceptional and saying “thanks for your help” was not enough. I wanted her to recognize what her contributions truly mean for her community.

At the end of the year, Children Services has an Open House where each kid is recognized for their positive qualities in front of their peers, parents, and Many Mansions staff. A few participants, however, receive special recognition for exceeding expectations. Because the special awards are done last, kids wait in anticipation to see who will be chosen. Each time we would announce the next award, kids would start whispering about who is still left, wondering if it might be them. The fewer possibilities, the more the anticipation rose. She was quietly shaking with excitement when she realized there was only one name left to call.

“This last person is receiving special recognition for their exceptional growth and leadership. She is always friendly and volunteers to help others. She shows maturity beyond her years and is a great model for others. This award goes to…” We had named this student for the award. Tearing up and brimming with pride and accomplishment, she made her way to the front of the room amongst thunderous applause.

This moment is what keeps me at Many Mansions: having the opportunity to make someone feel not just supported, but also to elicit a sense of pride and belonging. While I enjoy the daily happenings like homework help, arts and crafts, and playing games, nothing compares to the joy of seeing the dignified smile on a kid’s face when they get to share their achievements and exceptionalities with their community. It’s an honor and a pleasure to be a part of that, and it’s what drives me to make the program the best it can be.

Santa might not be real, but magic happens here every day.