By CONNIE ESHThe Wilson Post
Lebanon seems to attract people who really want to make a difference.
Linda Schenk is one such person. Her efforts to help her neighbors led to her winning the Volunteer of the Year Award in the Middle Tennessee Region for 1998 from Tennessee Conference on Social Welfare.
When she came to Lebanon 24 years ago with her husband Dr. Bill Schenk, an ophthalmologist, and two small daughters, Lindsey and Allie, she wanted something to do that would let her also stay at home with her girls.
“I was used to working, but I wanted to be at home with my kids,” she said. Volunteering was her answer.
She had been a special education teacher while Dr. Schenk was completing his education, so she started out as a substitute teacher at Prospect Inc.’s preschool. They trained her to work for the parent crisis help line so she could stay home.
Later as the girls grew and started school, Joanne Smith who was then the director of the local Department of Human Services office called and asked for her help in forming Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA.)
“We formed a steering committee and I got Philip E. Quinn, the author of Spare the Rod, to come and speak,” she said.
The book, she said, outlined Quinn’s experience as an abuse victim and offers guidelines to help stop abuse.
With his help and that of several community people, Schenk was able to start CASA, which works with children who must go to court, to help them understand what is happening.
The CASA volunteer meets with the child and the family and serves as a mentor and support person for the child, attending all court appearances as an advocate for the child.
Through her work with CASA, Schenk was asked to become a mentor in the Families First program, which helps recipients of public assistance become independent.
“I helped people to find work and day care,” she said. “I helped them learn more about shopping for food, and about budgeting.”
Later her concern for children led her to start teaching parenting classes.
“At first they were mostly parents who were court ordered to take the class,” she said. “But later they also were referred by the schools.”
She noted working with the parents was very rewarding.
“Some parents came with problems that seemed very serious, but looking at the problem from the outside I could help.”
As part of a project during her year as part of the Leadership Wilson class, she helped organize a volunteer fair at Lebanon High School to let the students know about volunteer opportunities.
“If everyone gave just one hour a week, can you imagine what could happen?” she told the students.
She has also served on the Wilson County Christmas for All board for three years, as well as volunteering to help gather, pack and distribute the gifts and food.
“It’s the only thing I know of that has such a great impact in such a short time,” Schenk added.
For the past seven years, however, Schenk’s “job” has been Teen Court, which started out with a $5,000 grant obtained with the help of Judge Barry Tatum
The program, which she administers under Tatum’s supervision, offers first time teen offenders a chance to clean up their act and avoid having a permanent record.
“Student volunteers are the jury,” Schenk said. “The teen comes to court only if they admit guilt. They present their case to the jury. Then the jury asks questions and decides what the sentence should be.”
The jury can send the student to anger management classes, require them to do community service, and sometimes they require the student to come back and serve on the jury, too.
The court, which has heard about 120 cases so far, Schenk said, not only helps the young offenders, it also takes some of the load off the regular court system.
And it’s succeeding, she noted. “We have two student volunteers who went on to law school and some who went in to criminal justice. The kids take this all very seriously.”
The program also offers scholarships to participants, she said.
Schenk said she has a bit of advice for people who want to have a rich, rewarding life and make a difference in the lives of others at the same time.
“Find a place and give your time,” she said. “You don’t have to have money to help. Find what you care about, what you are passionate about, then give yourself. You’ll get more back than you give.”
She also pointed out that volunteering is a great way to spend family time.
“Take your kids along to volunteer. What better way to spend quality time with your family than helping others.”
Staff Writer Connie Esh may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.