BY SUSAN KNICKERBOCKER
You’re at a fancy celebration; black tie, evening gowns, crystal and white table linens.
You notice a humble man dressed in a blue work shirt and pants walking in. His eyes dart around the large room looking for an available seat.
The seat next to you is open. What do you do? Look the other way, hoping he won’t come to your table? Go up to him and introduce yourself and quietly offer to get him a tux to wear from the hotel lobby?
Or do you smile at him and subtly point to the empty seat next to you, not focusing on what the man is wearing?
With this month’s Hometown Hero, Gail LaVassar, her attention is not focused on the outside of a person, says Maria Knight, a single mom.
“I was in a bad way years ago by the time I finally got enough nerve to go into the Family Resource Center for help. Our water had been shut off, and my hair and clothes were embarrassingly dirty.
I walked in with my head down ashamed of the way I looked. But everyone there was so welcoming,” she recalls.
“Gail the director came out to greet me, and somehow by the time I left Gail’s office my life seemed to have turned around. I got the help I needed, and felt I had a lot to contribute to the world. I literally walked out a different person.”
Knight laughingly adds, “Why, I don’t even think I noticed what I looked like.”
Amanda Fisher, an administrative assistant at the Family Resource Center, says, “Gail sees people’s strengths and capabilities, not what their challenges are. She sees that everyone is treated with equal respect. Because of these guiding principles and her advocacy, many people who come seeking help turn around and volunteer, becoming key players in the success of all of the programs.”
One of the marks of living a life of class is when you interact with other people and they end up feeling good about themselves.
Crystal Coglas, a volunteer at the Family Resource Center, says that when she’s around LaVassar she feels important and loved.
“Gail is a role model for me to look up to,” Coglas says.
“I grew up in a very dysfunctional home with a serious lack of supervision and a lot of drugs and alcohol. This caused me to build up walls and close myself off to everyone around me. Gail taught me that you can be kind and still have boundaries, a skill I desperately needed coming from where I did.
“Gail also continues to make an effort to remind me that I am an amazing person and that I have a lot to contribute to this community as well as to this world,” she adds.
LaVassar says she’s inspired to help others.
“It’s not about someone coming to the Family Resource Center to get help — it’s about all of us working together and helping one another, and the community. People are so much more than their mistakes, their clothes or their current circumstance.”
LaVassar sits at a booth in Freeland Café. The waitress comes with a pitcher of water and LaVassar is delighted and gives her a warm smile graced with radiant, big brown eyes.
Her words demonstrate a sharp mind, along with a refreshing, joyful Pollyanna outlook in life. She gives genuine thanks every time the waitress comes to the table and also lets her know the salad is delicious.
LaVassar contemplates on what class means to her by sharing an example.
“When my son was 7 he realized he had lost his $10 bill in a small store. He was certain someone would have turned it in to the cashier. When he asked the cashier she looked at me strangely and said, ‘No one turned in any money.’ My son looked so disappointed and we turned to go only to hear the cashier say, ‘Wait, I was mistaken, here is your $10.’
“Later the cashier told me in confidence that the customer at the counter gave her the $10 to give my son.”
It’s a class act to do a kind gesture for someone anonymously.
LaVasser thinks of some of the young people who work with her.
“I know a man that has numerous severe illnesses. Still, the times when he is well enough he gives of himself to help other people in need, never expressing himself as a victim.
“Another person I know struggles each day without support from the adults in her family. She doesn’t blame the world for her problems. I know she must be hurting inside, yet she volunteers her time at the Family Resource Center and stays focused on getting good grades and finishing high school.”
Having class is not focusing on ourselves, and instead giving of ourselves and thinking of others.
LaVassar remarks, “We underestimate the small gestures of a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around. People come into our lives for a reason, a season or a lifetime and all need to be treated equally.”