Thursday January 11, 2018
Volunteering has always been a part of South Burlington resident Brenda Balon’s life. A big part. “Throughout my childhood my mother volunteered extensively for her church community,” she explains. “That set a strong example for me, that helping others is sort of a standard operating practice, not an optional endeavor.”
Balon moved to South Burlington a decade ago from Needham, Massachusetts with husband Doug Smith and their two children, Nolan and Audrey. There, she was a leader for a group called Parent Talk that provided playgroups, babysitter co-ops, and family oriented events for parents with preschool-aged children. But when Smith was offered a position with Green Mountain Power, they felt the time was right to move north. “We jumped at the chance to get away from the overcrowding and hectic life of the Boston area,” Balon recalls.
Balon is a part of the restorative justice panel for the South Burlington Community Justice Center. She has managed fundraisers and taught classes for the First Universal Unitarian Society of Burlington including the Our Whole Lives, an eighth grade sexuality program. A certified Master Gardener, she often lends her talent, and trowel, to nature-based community activities. All that is on top of her day job, where she regularly substitutes in the South Burlington School District when needed.
Today, Balon is one of the longest-serving mentors for the South Burlington Healthy Schools SB Mentoring program, which she has been involved with since its inception seven years ago. She has long been an active participant in school PTOs, taught supplementary classes such as Hands On Nature, and served on the Citizen Budget Committee.
Balon first became involved with South Burlington Mentoring at the request of the program’s director, her friend Susie Merrick. The program is designed to match young leaders, children in South Burlington Schools, with caring community members who can spend time with them each week to help them “find their spark.” Balon’s young leader for the past five years is a fifth grader who loves to build and play games both indoors and outside. “I love that he likes a variety of things,” Balon said. “The variety helps keep the hour-long sessions fresh and fun.”
Balon has grown close to her young leader over the years, which poses its own challenges. “It can be hard for me sometimes, not being able to give gifts” or to bring him treats, she admits. “I come from a culture where sharing food is a way to bond.” But Balon loves the work and the community bonds it builds. “The most important part is to make sure everything is in the best interest of the kids.”
Other apples in the Balon-Smith household are clearly not falling far from the tree. Both children have continued the tradition of volunteering. Audrey, now a junior at South Burlington High School, racked up nearly 40 hours of volunteering her freshman year, beating her older brother’s record. Balon is proud of this family legacy.
“It sounds corny, but I’ve been thinking a lot about why America is the great country it is,” she reflects. I think it’s because many members of former generations had a ‘can-do’ attitude, and extended themselves to the betterment of all. That’s the model I want to emulate in volunteering!”
SOURCE: Zach Perrotte, a University of Vermont student working with Healthy Schools South Burlington.