Danielle Lea Nickerson, a foster care team leader and acting clinical supervisor for the National Youth Advocate Program in Columbus, is the September winner in a new leadership program sponsored by the Columbus Area Chamber of Commerce and the Columbus Young Professionals group. One young professional from the Columbus community is chosen each month of 2016 in the areas of life, community and work as someone who exemplifies leadership skills. Nickerson was nominated in the “work” category. The Republic is introducing the winners each month through this column.
Name: Danielle Lea Nickerson
City of residence: Columbus
Family: Tyler Nickerson (husband); Isabella Nickerson (daughter); Brian and Sandy Weber (parents); Savannah, Jennette and Adrianna Weber (siblings)
Education: 2006 Columbus East High School academic honors graduate, 2013 Indiana University graduate with bachelor’s degree in elementary education, 2016 Liberty University graduate with master’s degree in human service counseling with concentration in marriage and family
Your job: Foster care team leader and acting clinical supervisor for the National Youth Advocate Program in Columbus. We license and support local foster homes in Bartholomew, Jackson, Jennings, Shelby, Johnson, and Brown counties. We work as the primary case worker for the youth in our care, advocating for both foster parents and youth within the child welfare system.
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How many years have you lived in Columbus?
What are your activities and interests in Columbus?
I enjoy being active in the community. I coach youth soccer and volunteer with both my daughter’s Girl Scout troop and school. I also enjoying participating in causes such as Relay for Life and the CAP Adult Prom. In my spare time, I enjoy spending time with my family at the local parks, participating in sporting events and planning vacations for those traveling to Disney.
Give us some examples of ways you lead in the Columbus community through your work and activities:
I have always been very passionate about my work with children and their families. I believe this shows through in my day-to-day work and optimistic, upbeat approach to working with others. I attempt to always meet our families where they are with a non-judgmental, positive attitude, and I often go above and beyond to empower them to set and reach their own goals.
I also work with my team to do the same. If a family has a need, whether it is transporting a child to a visit or a couple hours to shop for Christmas, my team and I always try to find a way to meet that need with an positive and giving attitude. It is the same positive and upbeat attitude, combined with my organizational skills, that helps me make a difference within the leadership roles of the organizations I volunteer for as well.
One of the reasons you were nominated is creating your own nonprofit, Empowering Local Families, to assist relatives and foster parents in obtaining items needed for new placements such as cribs, high chairs and toddler beds. What motivated you to start it?
The inspiration for Empowering Local Families, or what I like to call ELF, actually came from a case I was assigned in 2014. I was working with a family in which the little boy was placed with his grandmother after being removed from his mother.
As a relative placement, the grandmother did not receive any additional support for the boy (as a foster family would) and was living on a fixed income. I would pick the boy up for visitations with his mother and bring him home twice a week. After visit one day, the grandmother asked me if I had a second before leaving. As we stepped out to her front porch, she began to ask questions about the mother’s plan for the little boy’s birthday.
The grandmother explained that the boy’s birthday was coming up and she was unable to do much to celebrate. She was going to be able to purchase the boy new shoes and take him to a fast food restaurant for dinner, but she did not feel she would be able to provide a cake or any other toys. The grandmother worried that she would disappoint the boy and began to cry. I knew at that moment, I had to do something.
Here was a woman doing her best to raise her grandson to be gracious, kind and giving and was unable to feel good knowing he would enjoy his birthday with her. In addition, the little boy had experienced trauma in which no child should experience and at no fault of his own. I felt he deserved a birthday cake and presents from his grandmother who was working as hard as she could. After speaking to my husband, I purchased several Lego sets and action figures. I also found a bakery in Shelbyville who donated an amazing Batman cake for the little boy.
The morning of his birthday, I took the wrapped gifts and cake to the grandmother and asked her to give them to the little boy from her. As she cried and thanked me, I knew I could make a small difference in the lives of our local families and ELF was born.
ELF’s mission is ensure the children within the community get to experience a childhood that is as “normal” as possible. This encompasses helping families, especially relatives who do not get a per diem for the children in their care, provide children with birthday presents and cakes, Christmas presents, appropriate sleeping arrangements in cribs or bedding, clean clothes to wear to school, and the list goes on. If there is a need, ELF will try to help in anyway we can.
Your nomination said that many children arrive in the foster care system with little or nothing in the form of possessions, and you provide them with some clothing or a new toy, sometimes paying for the items yourself — what prompted you to take this on?
Anyone who has worked in the child welfare system could tell heartbreaking story after story. I am no different. I have seen so many children come into care with nothing but the clothes on their back, and sometimes even those don’t fit right. After my experience with the little boy and his grandmother, I realized how fortunate I really am and wanted to give the children in our community hope and confidence.
It is amazing what a new toy or outfit can do for a child who was just removed from their parents. I also truly respect the work that our relatives and foster parents do on a daily basis as they are the ones that experience the effects of the trauma our children face 24/7. If I am able to help a family obtain a high chair for the new set of twins they are now caring for, why not?
I truly believe it takes a village to raise our children and our children will be the future. If a $10 gift will positively impact a child’s day and in turn their week, I feel it is my responsibility to give what I can.
What types of volunteer activities are you involved in?
I began volunteering at a very young age. My elementary school created a service learning club when I was in forth, fifth and sixth grade called SOCS (Serving Our Community and School). We did numerous projects, such as relandscaping property in Mineral Springs after a flood, and that is when I fell in love with volunteering and making a difference in my community. I remained involved throughout high school in opportunities such as Dance Marathon, Kids on the Block, Youth As Resources and Interact Club.
Most recently, I have spent a lot of time focused on building ELF and working towards my dream of having a location parents can bring the children in their care to pick out a stuffed animal to keep them comfortable during their frightening journey.
In addition, I have been involved in Relay for Life, the American Cancer Society’s biggest fundraiser, after my youngest sister was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 7. I have also volunteered my time as a wish-granter for the Make-A-Wish Foundation and a Parks and Rec youth soccer coach.
What I find most meaningful in the volunteer opportunities I choose are that they are truly focused on making a difference and you can see the impact of your work almost immediately. There is so much negativity in the world today. Being able to see the positive impact you can make for others, not only helps them, but spreads the positive in a ripple effect that touches so many more.
If you could change Columbus in any way, what would that change be?
While we have many organizations and programs focused on child welfare, I would love to see a bigger awareness surrounding childhood trauma, how to work with youth who have experienced trauma and how to minimize the impact of traumatic events.
During my undergraduate as a elementary education teacher, we never really delved into trauma, the effects on children and how to best support these children in our classrooms — the place they spend most of their day. I have also had countless conversations with individuals who are unaware of how to become foster parents, how to advocate for our youth or how to make a difference for our families in crisis.
Our family units impact our children so greatly, we cannot afford to take a back seat in the future of our children.
What do you think shouldn’t change about Columbus, and why?
I really enjoy the diversity and opportunities that Columbus provides to all ages and families. Columbus, as a community, provides numerous events encouraging family participation and interaction. I always enjoy participating in community events and seeing everyone coming together to have fun. It promotes healthy family interactions, which in my line of work does wonders.
I also feel as though Columbus cares about its community as evident by the numerous organizations, nonprofits and community projects throughout the year. There is always seems to be an organization, business, event or activity that someone can connect with regardless of their interest, background or education. The community feel and participation, along with our architecture and history, makes Columbus an amazing place to live and work.
If someone asked you what they could do to help the community of Columbus, what would you advise them to do?
Get involved! Period. Find what interests you or what you are passionate about and find a way to use that interest and passion to make a difference for those around you. As I stated before, Columbus provides something for everyone, you just have to pursue it.
Everyone brings different skills, ideas and perspectives to the table and in order to improve and continue that improvement we need the help from everyone. Make it a family thing. Bring your friends. Make it fun. Give an hour or give several. Just give back.