By Suzette Belz
My name is Suzette Belz and I am the VP of Development and Major Gifts at YMCA Camp Ockanickon, Inc. I would like to believe that I am that “Fairy” that is able to find pot of gold everywhere. I am also a wife, a proud mother of two beautiful and strong-minded girls, Isabella (10) and Sofia (4). I am a daughter, a sister, a niece, a friend, a coworker, and a human being. I believe in empathy, fairness, respect and inclusion.
I come from a loving family that instilled strong values in me. My mother is a loving individual, very strict but loving. She is the worrier and the warrior all at once. She was a stay-at-home mom and took care of us while my father had to work and travel the world. My father on the other hand, was the most positive individual I have ever met. He was very accepting, supportive, and made friends wherever he went. He never judged anyone, at least to my knowledge. He taught me how to treat people with respect no matter what. He was also a workaholic and believed strongly in education.
People always think that I am from an exotic European Country because of my accent and my looks. Some even think I am from Minnesota. You know Venezuela and Minnesota sounds the same – I guess. I am originally from Venezuela, my mother is from Colombia and my father was from Argentina. I have a brother and a sister. I am the youngest of all. I always looked up to my sister and thought my brother was the coolest. I wanted to be like them in many ways.
I am asked this question numerous times, what brought you here? Well, I came to United States during the summer of 1997 to attend ESL classes at Morgantown, WV – Yes, Morgantown, WV of all places. My best friend was coming to Morgantown to attend the ESL program and I thought I should do the same. It sounded like fun, and I knew my father would not say no to this idea, since he believed education was important.
My friend’s dreams were to stay in the country and pursue better things. I, on the other hand, thought a summer was going to do it. I was only 21 and I came to the USA on my own and that was amazing considering how protective my parents were of me. I thought I was coming just for the summer, but I still don’t know which summer I was referring to , as I have enjoyed 20 summers so far, and I don’t plan on going anywhere else at this point. I love my family dearly, so leaving is not a choice.
After a couple months here, I knew I needed to stay and pursue another career. I had obtained an Associate Degree in Marketing and Advertising back home but deep inside of me that wasn’t enough. I guess my father instilled in me the value of education after all.
I wanted to pursue a Bachelor’s Degree in Journalism and Advertising at West Virginia University. I started to do some research and talked to different people at the university to find out what I needed to do to make this happen. Luckily, I was able to transfer my credits from my school back home and obtained my degree in 2 ½ years.
When I thought I was ready to go back home to be with my family, which I missed dearly and I still do, my life took another turn. I met the love of my life – my husband Tyson. I had the choice to leave or to keep studying. Therefore, I decided to pursue my Master’s Degree in order to stay. I knew my father wouldn’t say no to me staying to further my education. This time, I didn’t want my parents to pay for school, so I applied for a graduate assistantship at the School of Journalism.
Life took another turn, my professor, whom I call to this day my guardian angel, called me to tell me that they didn’t have any assistantships available for me, but he said that he believed in me and my creativity and that I deserved a chance, therefore, he was going to advocate for me to get a tuition waiver. These words meant a lot to me, I was coming from another country, yet someone believed in me and was going to advocate for me. That doesn’t happen too often –at least I thought. He asked me to meet him at his office so we could discuss. I arrived to his office and he was there with another student. He proceeded to tell me that I was going to be given a tuition waiver, and the only thing that I needed to do was to organize his messy office. He then proceeded to give me a copy of his key and said, once you are done just put the key in my drawer and close the door behind you – couple hours later, the office was cleaned, and the door was closed behind me as he instructed. I couldn’t believe this was happening to me and my parents were so excited for me. Two years later, I received my Master’s in Journalism and Public Relations – thanks to my professor– my guardian angel who gave me a chance.
He was not the only one who gave me a chance and believed in me while at school. I remember many times after I turned in my assignments for either my journalism classes or public relations classes that my scores were higher than what the assignment were worth. Yes, if the assignment was worth 10 points, sometimes I got an 11 or 12. The reason why, it was because the professors said to me that I was very creative and I deserved the extra credits. So, they saw past my grammar errors; not sure why, but they did. So it was nice to have the support and push from so many.
After graduation, my husband and I moved to Medford, New Jersey. I ended up staying here because more than one person took a chance on me. Not only did my husband take a chance on me by loving me – but by bringing me to his hometown and his home. My parents-in-law opened their hearts and their home to me right away. They took me in after losing a daughter few years back – I imagine that was not easy for them to do. I didn’t have family around and I needed that. They became my family very quickly and I am thankful for that to this day.
That summer, I was able to visit my family, and while I was there, my father was diagnosed with skin cancer. It was hard to hear but the prognosis was good at that time. I remember going with him to his appointments after the surgery he had to remove the tumor from his head. Following the surgery, he had a weird reaction and his face and neck were swollen; no one knew what was happening. We thought the cancer had spread but all the doctors said it didn’t. He visited different specialists and no one was able to identify the cause. It was a painful process. My vacation was over and I left thinking that my father was going to be alright, since all the doctors kept saying his swollen neck wasn’t related to the skin cancer.
A year passed, it was March of 2002, and I remember my mom calling me to tell me how hard it has been as my father was struggling. My father told me he needed radiation but he couldn’t have it as his kidneys weren’t strong enough. He told me everything was going to be fine, as he always did. A couple weeks later, I got a call from my sister to tell me that my father was in the hospital and he only had a couple days to live. It was the most devastating news I ever heard – I had to go home. My mother-in-law took care of the flights for me and Tyson as I couldn’t move; all I did was scream, cry and pack all my belongings.
We left Medford to be with my dad during his last days. I remember being on the plane with Tyson and feeling fearful I was not going to make it in time to see my dad. We made it to the hospital and I couldn’t believe the man I saw. He was not the same strong man I knew. For some strange reason, he almost came back to life when he knew I was there; the doctors couldn’t believe how much energy I had brought back to him. The doctors even said it was obvious I was his little girl and he wanted to fight for me. I was able to be with him for three short weeks before he died from complications from his cancer. He wasn’t meant to die from carcinoma, but his kidneys and liver failed due to Hepatitis caused by medication. Losing my father was one of the hardest things I have ever experienced. I lost his guidance, his support, his optimism; I lost my best friend. A couple of months later, I wanted to come back to Medford to be with Tyson, my other best friend, but I had abandoned my student visa to go home to be with my family so I didn’t have a way to go back.
My mother-in-law tried to find me a job at her company. Someone she worked with expressed interest in helping me out. I had long conversations with him over the phone. I came back to Medford for a scheduled follow-up interview that never happened for various reasons, but once again I was given a chance. As I was sitting in the company’s lobby, this person told me that unfortunately there weren’t any job opportunities for me during that time. I was shocked, as I was allowed back in the country due to this “interview” and possible job opportunity. Well, while sitting at the lobby the person that was going to interview me introduced me to the founder and publisher of a local newspaper from Philadelphia who happened to be at the Lobby at the same time as me. He told him I needed a job and that he needed someone like me at the paper. A month later, I started a job at the paper as an account executive and events coordinator.
I worked there for a little over a year. I was given a chance at this job and I took it. While at the newspaper, I started to realize that non-profits are the heart of our community and without them there is nothing. I wanted to help non-profits through the newspaper. I developed supplements to address social and health issues that were affecting the Latino community such as domestic violence, HIV/AIDS, education, etc. I figured that by creating awareness of these issues and by promoting the non-profits that were providing essential services to help those affected by some of these issues, that I was not only helping the community but the non-profits as well. Of course the newspaper made money, so it was a win-win for all.
During my job at the paper, I met another mentor who turned out to be my boss for the next 10 years. Once I met her, I knew I wanted to work for her. She was passionate about helping others and her enthusiasm about everything was contagious. I told her directly that one day I wanted to work for her.
A year later, she offered me a job at a local non-profit in Philadelphia as their first community relations manager; two years later I was promoted to director of marketing and philanthropy. I worked there for six years and my passion to help others grew and grew every day. I raised money for our domestic violence program, our shelter, our community education programs and our senior center. I saw women who escaped abusive relationships, women and children who were homeless, seniors that didn’t have anyone and adults who needed education.
I thought I will never leave that place but my boss took a job at a local foundation. She was my mentor and we worked so well together. It was hard to see her go. She started her job but she knew I could do great things at the foundation with her, so a year later I was hired as their first donor engagement manager. I worked at the foundation for six years. I loved helping donors fulfill their charitable giving, I learned about their needs and I found non-profits that matched their interests. It was a way to help them give their money away to worthy non-profits doing great things for the community. It was a win-win! I loved working there but one day I came across the opening for the VP of Development and Major Gifts at camp. I knew I had to apply. I believed in the mission of camp and the YMCA so strongly that I had to take the chance myself. I had some weaknesses, like we all do. I thought I wasn’t going to be given a chance at this job because of my weaknesses, but here I am two years later. I am that fairy chasing the pot of gold once again. It has been a wonderful opportunity to work here. I want to be able to keep raising the funds so many more children can experience the magic of camp. There is magic in this place – I believe it. There is magic in the people, the grounds and in everything. I love camp and all that it embraces and offers to those who cross the main entrance. This place is beautiful in so many ways. My favorite spot at camp is the dam. I love stopping there and looking at the openness, the beauty and the reflections of the opportunities ahead.
Sometimes I struggle to articulate my passions but I believe my passion is to help others, to support others and to see the best in everyone without judgment. My passion is to develop relationships and raise money. It might sound hard for others but for me it comes easy and I love it! I often think that the pot of gold is closer than I think. It is all about sharing the “impact.” We impact so many in so many ways in so little time. Whether is as colleagues, camp directors, leaders, counselors, etc. We are camp –therefore we make an impact.
I owe so much to those who believed in me, guided me, empowered me, and saw the best in me, that I feel it is my time to give back and that’s why I love working at camp. Here at camp, we all have the opportunity to empower youth. To instill values such as caring, honesty, respect and responsibility. Children come to camp and they find a place where they are accepted and develop a sense of belonging. I want people to see camp as the place where they were empowered to be better, a place where they felt accepted and perhaps as the place where many people saw their potential and gave them a chance. So I will ask you to consider making an impact in child’s life this summer by making a contribution to our Scholarship Fund, which provides children and youth with the opportunity to experience the magic of camp.