December, 17 2017

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Tough California Grandma Helps Troubled Teens

Mary Hopkins has withstood the test of time in more ways than one.

The 81-year-old Carmichael resident is celebrating her silver anniversary as a volunteer mentor for troubled teens in Sacramento County.

"I feel like this is my building and these are my kids," Hopkins said last week at her latest work site, the Warren E. Thornton Youth Center near Rancho Cordova.

About Grandma's Work With Teens

Everyone at the center, including about 100 young wards of the county's Probation Department, addresses her as "Grandma."

To recognize her public service, the Bank of America recently designated Hopkins as one of six "Local Heroes" as part of its fourth annual Neighborhood Excellence Initiative Awards.

Though proud of her achievement, Hopkins was a bit embarrassed to be honored for making a "significant contribution" to her community's health.

"I don't understand why I'm being rewarded for something I love to do," she said, contending that other hard-working seniors were equally worthy.

But Hopkins' boss, Chris Johnson, politely disagreed.

"There are many volunteers out there who will put in five years or 10 years, and that is outstanding," said Johnson, the chief deputy of the youth center at 4000 Branch Center Road.

"But 'Grandma Mary' has served many more years than that," he said.

"She has withstood the test of time," he added, shaking his head in wonderment.

A History of Helping

Hopkins, a New Jersey native, became a local volunteer in 1982 at the Children's Receiving Home of Sacramento, an emergency shelter for abused and neglected children.

After three or four years there, she joined the Foster Grandparent Program sponsored by Sacramento County's Department of Human Assistance. In this capacity, she began counseling boys and girls at juvenile hall.

"At first, I was working with the same kids I had worked with at the Children's Receiving Home," Hopkins said, citing the propensity of some abused or neglected children to become juvenile offenders.

"That kind of shocked me," she said.

For more than 20 years, she continued to mentor primarily at juvenile hall, but also at other juvenile probation institutions of Sacramento County.

Eight months ago, her primary base became the Warren E. Thornton Youth Center, where she continues to volunteer 20 hours a week.

Regarded as the "junior high" of the county's probation facilities, the center houses boys and girls who have been convicted of crimes ranging from petty theft to assault and battery. Their sentences require that they each remain at the Youth Center for at least 84 days, attending the center's school while receiving rehab treatment for anger management and other issues.

One Tough Grandma

"Many of the kids here are master manipulators who like to size you up to see what they can get away with," Johnson said.

With Grandma Hopkins, they don't get away with anything.

If she notices bad behavior, "she immediately calls them on it," Johnson said.

Hopkins is so outstanding, she's become a role model for other volunteer foster grandparents at juvenile hall, said Vernon Jackson, a foster grandparent at the Thornton Youth Center.

She has a passion for helping the children, he said.

The task of nominating Hopkins for her latest award fell to Dennis Brodsky of the Department of Human Assistance.

"They (BofA) only wanted like a few hundred words on the nomination form, so it was really hard to cut it down," said Brodsky, coordinator of the Foster Grandparent Program. "You can't cover 20 years of volunteering in a few hundred words."

Brodsky wrote: "Mary counsels the teens at juvenile hall ... She builds their self-esteem and eases their way through the juvenile court system.

Far Reaching Success with Troubled Teens

"Many times, Mary has sat all day and night with girls so troubled they have contemplated suicide," the nomination said. "Her energy is unyielding. She has helped with the success of 2,000 children."

Grandma Mary was a natural winner, said Dana Gonzalez, a member of the selection committee for local heroes.

"The committee was really impressed by her incredible commitment to youths," said Gonzalez, director of new site development for St. HOPE Academy.

"When Mary speaks, the kids listen," she added.

Besides receiving a trophy, Hopkins was able to donate $5,000 from BofA to the county's People and Resources Together Foundation. The foundation supports various programs, including Meals on Wheels for fragile senior citizens.

Hopkins, as active as a woman half her age, drives herself to work.

How long will she continue to volunteer?

"As long as God will let me," she said.

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