3/25/2019 11:02:00 AM Passion, love drives founder of teen center
Kevin Barlow The Pantagraph
CLINTON, Ill. (AP) — Michelle Witzke knows every teen struggles along the way.
“My teen years were not so fabulous,” she says. “So, I always had a heart for teens just because I know how difficult those years are for most kids. I got a degree in social work and teaching, My heart was in it to work with teenagers and help them through those problems they encounter.”
Now a mother of three in Clinton, Witzke’s life centers around her family and her vision: a nonprofit community youth center in downtown Clinton she developed for social, academic and spiritual growth.
“It hasn’t changed. Teen years are really hard,” she says. “In so many areas, there aren’t a lot of resources for teens outside of school and I wanted to change that here. I felt that God put this in my heart and at times, it seemed impossible, but if we trust God, we can accomplish anything.”
In 2016, she began pushing an idea she had been working on for years. She spoke to groups and organizations and, in November, approached the Clinton City Council, which endorsed her plan. After considering several sites, she raised enough money to buy the former Indecent Exposure, a 10,912-square-foot tanning and beauty salon at 802 N. Side Square.
Witzke, who was named as the executive director by a board of directors, spearheaded a campaign that raised more than $400,000 and thousands of volunteer labor hours. The Vault opened in October 2018.
“She has been a real force in the community,” says Lindsey Holtman, a Clinton High School senior who has developed leadership skills as a cafe student manager at The Vault. “It took a lot of guts and a lot of heart to put this together and it means a great deal to all of us.”
The Vault has made a difference in the community already, Holtman adds.
“I think it gives kids a sense of belonging. When it first opened, I noticed some kids who were kind of shy, maybe were a little down on themselves, and didn’t talk too much. Now, those kids are engaging in conversations and have real friends because of The Vault.”
“She has a genuine love for the kids,” adds Olivia Bierbrodt, also a senior at CHS. “You can see her love and passion for how the way she interacts with everyone.”
The Vault offers tutoring and crisis support and will add programs under the guidance of program director Kim Toohill. Classes will include substance abuse prevention, self-defense, financial literacy and computer work.
“Michelle wants every teen to be successful and she has really put so much effort into giving everyone the chance and the opportunity to be successful,” Toohill says.
Witzke credits the community with the effort.
“I lost count after we had more than 300 volunteers and 1,200 volunteer hours logged,” she says. “But as much as the community helped us, I think the community learned something about what type of difference we can make when we work together toward a common goal. We can’t rely on the government to help us out. Sometimes, we have to do things on ourselves to better the community. With this project, I saw teens working alongside adults and developing real friendships and so it has been positive for the adults as well.”
For Witzke, it’s all about the kids.
“We have kids whose parents have pushed them too hard, or they were severely bullied and some of them came here and found strong friendships with other students,” she says. “They found a place to connect. They found opportunities for counseling. If they were suicidal, they got the help they needed. Kids have relationship problems or need help with homework or just need a place to go where they can feel like part of the family. That’s what The Vault is about.”
Source: The (Bloomington) Pantagraph, https://bit.ly/2O9Ifgt
Information from: The Pantagraph, http://www.pantagraph.com