COMMUNITY GEMS: Woman described as ‘a walking hug’ with a giving heart

Nikki Stefanow started as a volunteer at Family and Youth Initiatives 15 years ago, mentoring young moms and helping them to understand their worth, build healthy relationships and become great parents.

“I had been a teen mom myself, and I knew what it was like to struggle,” she said.

Now Stefanow is the executive director of the New Carlisle-based nonprofit, which works to provide hope and empowerment to participants in its programs throughout the Miami Valley.

The roots of FYI reach back to 1978 with the founding of a crisis pregnancy hotline, Stefanow said. FYI is a pro-life organization, she said, but it goes beyond keeping babies and into learning to care for them with its parenting network program.

Moms and dads learn parenting and life skills, meet with a mentor and receive childcare supplies. The parenting network serves about 200 families per year, with clients often joining when they are pregnant and using the program for around three years, she said.

“I just totally fell in love with working with the moms and the little ones,” she said. Her heart then grew for the organization’s other programs.

These include a community garden that provides participants with their own slice of earth and also has donated thousands of pounds of produce to local food pantries. The organization’s Real Life Teen Choices program teaches middle school and high school students in seven counties about healthy boundaries, relationships, mental health and more. A mentoring program focused on students in Tecumseh Local Schools in Clark County creates bonds and a constant presence in their lives.

“There’s nothing better for a child than to have one caring adult in their life who is consistently there,” she said.

Stefanow was nominated as a Dayton Daily News Community Gem by her daughter-in-law, Erica Stefanow, who has been communications coordinator of FYI since last summer.

“She just has this ability to make everybody feel comfortable. She meets them where they’re at, and there’s no judgement,” said Erica Stefanow, of New Carlisle.

Nikki was her first mentor when Erica herself was part of the parenting network. In addition to encouragement and lessons, FYI gave her confidence and recommended that she get the help she needed as she struggled. She credits the group for saving her relationship with her older son.

Erica called Nikki “a walking hug” with a giving heart who meets obstacles head-on.

“She thinks everyone is worthy of love and everyone is worthy of second chances,” Erica said. “When you’re around that, it’s contagious.”

Nikki Stefanow, who said she didn’t understand her own value for so long, now helps others see it in themselves. Many times, she and her dedicated team of 20 staff and 80 volunteers won’t know when or how FYI was an influence. When she does cross paths with those she has helped, witnessing their success “means everything in the world to me,” she said.

“Every bit of my heart is there because I’m seeing lives changed every day,” she said. “That’s what’s important to me.”

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