Have You Met?

On November 10, 2005, the Samaritan Institute will present Dr. Margaret Fomer, and two other individuals (Jean Jones, President & CEO of the Girl Scouts-Mile Hi Council, and Ron Bellows, Co-Founder of COBE Laboratories, Inc.) with the prestigious “National Samaritan Award” for making substantial contributions to human health and growth, demonstrating a religious sensibility in their work, and personally and professionally exemplifying the ideas of the Samaritan Program – which nurtures health and hope through professional counseling.

Former recipients of this award have been Barbara Bush, Rosalynn Carter, Norman Vincent Peale and various Coloradoans such as Bill Coors, Hank Brown, Nancy Gary, Dick Saunders and Bea Romer.

Blacktie-Colorado is pleased to feature winner, Dr. Margaret Fomer. Hearing Margaret’s remarkable story of triumph over such oppressions as the segregation in the South and the discrimination against women, who wanted careers in the sciences, is powerful.

Growing up in a small segregated town in Texas, she “learned by example” by watching her father and uncle fight, and never give up, for the rights of all children to be treated equally. After graduating with degrees in Math and Physics, Margaret soon became aware of her true passion to help children and to make sure all people had equal opportunities.

Margaret Fomer lives her busy life today with faith and enthusiasm and is truly an inspiration to all. Margaret has a sense of pride in herself that is unshakable, and rightfully so.

Tell me what it was like as a young girl growing up in Texas and then moving to Colorado. I lived in a home with my father and uncle - a school principal and a teacher - so early on, I said I would never work with kids. I grew up in the South when there was segregation. We were given hand me down books from white schools that were used and torn. I watched my dad and my uncle have to fight so that black children would receive the same books, etc. as the other kids, and they fought so that black kids could have their own gymnasium, so we didn’t have to go elsewhere to practice and enjoy sports. They were highly respected in the community for standing up and eventually getting what was needed for our kids, and they fought hard so we had a library of our own. I grew up in a home where we were disenfranchised just because of the color of our skin, not necessarily because we didn’t have what we needed economically or educationally.

As I grew up, it was always fighting for equality, so I’ve always been behind those who were culturally and economically challenged – people who couldn’t speak for themselves and the elderly. It was good to observe that in my home. As a child, I always wanted to know what made things tick, and what made things work. Math & Physics interested me, so that’s why I went into the sciences.

When I came out of school, being both a black and a woman, I was the only woman in the Physics Department. I had to even argue with some instructors that I could do things as well as a man. When I got out of school, I was placed on an assembly line at a major company, Texas Instruments, in Dallas. I had to tell them that this is not what I went to college for. I started college at 16 because, previously, I went to summer school to get more credits. To satisfy my dad, I did get my teaching credentials and began student teaching. I taught Math to earn money to get my Masters, and found that I really enjoyed working with kids. Being only 19 when I graduated from college, I could relate to the seniors in high school. They took a liking to me, so I worked with them and became their class sponsor and accompanied them on trips, and participated in their activities. I really enjoyed being a mentor to them.

When I moved to Denver, I got a job teaching school and began working with the Vice Principal and the Dean of Girls for 3 ½ years at Gove Junior High School during the time when de-segregation was taking place in the early 1970’s. I ended up only teaching a half a day, because I spent the rest of the day working with kids who had discipline problems and working on community problems around the issues of de-segregation of the schools. I worked with the parents and the community to make that go as smoothly as possible. As a result of this, I went back to school at the University of Colorado and got a degree in Psychology with an emphasis in Administration and Education. So, this is how I got involved working with children and families. While at Gove, I became a Big Sister to a student, and when I started working at Denver Girls before it became Denver Kids, I became her counselor at Denver Girls. This is how I moved from math and science into the human services arena.

This year, the Samaritan Institute is recognizing you as one of the recipients of the “2005 National Samaritan Award.” Congratulations, what a great honor! Can you tell us about your work with the Samaritan Institute – and the Denver Samaritan Counseling Center? Yes, R.J. Ross, the President and CEO of the Samaritan Institute, which oversees about 300 Samaritan Counseling Centers all over the United States and Japan, talked with me because he knew of my work with children and youth and my concern for their mental health needs.

So many children in families today, who are at risk, have a lot of mental health issues – many times because of their relationship with a parent. If these issues can be resolved in some way, the lives of these children could be different. R.J. and I had written a grant where the Samaritan Counseling Center could possibly work with Denver Kids, and so at that time, I agreed to serve on the Samaritan Board.

Funding for mental health issues is really down, but is most needed. The Samaritan Counseling Center is an organization that works with people who can’t afford to pay for mental health counseling. They do various fundraisers to help pay for counseling for those who are unable to pay or are under-insured. The quality of counseling is also important. We are seeing more and more young people who are acting out and showing a need for mental health services, that if the problems could be corrected at an early age, it would make a difference. We might not have to deal with so many of these issues later on in the juvenile courts and penal institutions with those who end up incarcerated. This proves there is such a great need. Helping these kids is just an area that is near and dear to my heart.

Can you tell us about one of your saddest stories as a counselor – and one of your happiest and most triumphant? One of the saddest situations is when we would get a referral about a child with problems and it sometimes would take up to six-months before we could step in and get that child out of that environment, something bad had already happened, and then it’s too late, and it broke my heart, to know that if we had gotten to them earlier, we might have saved them.

On the other side of it, having worked with children since I was 19, I’ve received letters from kids who I had worked with - even when I moved from Dallas to Denver they were able to find my address - and wrote to tell me what a difference I had made in their lives. I always tell people who are working in the field – and the volunteers - that if they think they aren’t making a difference; sometimes you don’t know that you have, until years later.

A staff counselor, who was working with young people, came to me in tears and told me she had received a letter from a girl in California that she had worked with who wrote: “The difference you made in my life helped me to graduate from high school and college.” The counselor didn’t realize she had made that kind of an impact on this young woman, so these are the joys that you get back when you realize that you didn’t lose that person, and you were the spark that made a difference. If you can just save one person, then it makes it all worthwhile.

Is there one place that you have traveled to that really stands out? Just recently, I traveled with my husband to Birmingham, Alabama and visited the Civil Rights Museum there. I lived through the time of the Civil Rights and was a survivor of segregation. I was remembering the people of all ethnicities, and how maybe we have failed to educate this generation, and make it more a part of our children’s history. As a result we have a generation of kids who are not aware of what took place during that time. This sparked an interest for me to do more to get our children to visit this museum, and see the life size statues of the attack dogs and the bombs that were used on the freedom riders on the buses; etc., it really stood out. The whole story of what took place then is in this museum.

What do you consider your proudest achievement? Because there is still so much yet to do, I don’t feel a total sense of accomplishment. Everything that I am doing for my family, my friends, my community should never end. I’ve been blessed with wonderful parents, sisters and brothers, a great husband and children – my church family; I feel like I’m just starting. Sometimes it’s just the being not the doing – it’s what I stand for, and as a result, others will benefit from that, and whenever a need arises, someone can call me, and I can be a listening ear for them. There are so many lonely people out there who are so alone. Sometimes it’s just putting your arm around someone; it’s just the human touch that people need and connecting with someone mentally and hearing what they are saying. I don’t have to serve on boards to do this; I can actually be there “hands on.”

What fundraising efforts are you involved in at this time? As a trustee of Colorado Christian University, we have been landlocked, so we are raising money to build a new campus on some property we have in Jefferson County. Also, I’m involved in raising funds for the Shining Stars organization and for the Samaritan Counseling Center.

What is your favorite charitable event to attend? Branch Rickey and Shining Stars.

How do we get more people involved in doing community volunteering and charitable giving? Those of us who are out there showing our passion – whether it’s for mental health, or just showing a child that there is something different than what their life has been about; when we are passionate about what we are doing, others will see it. When you share what you are doing with your neighbors and friends, let them know that it doesn’t take a lot to make a difference, even just a little bit helps. Your passion will inspire others.

Who is your hero or mentor? It started at home with my father and my uncle who were just amazing men whom I adored. They just pushed me and told me I could do whatever I wanted to do even though I was a girl.

Recently, my heroes have been the men, women, doctors, nurses, policemen and others who stayed behind to care for the people of New Orleans when their own families were displaced and their own homes were destroyed.

What are your hobbies or favorite leisure time activities? I love trying new recipes; my husband is the “Guinea Pig.” I enjoy traveling, reading, and participating in activities at my church – Berean Bible Church. I’ve been head of the children’s department, the music department, and youth department there, and I’m active with my sorority, Delta Sigma Beta. I’m also a member of Coterie, a black women’s literary organization, that was formed in 1915 where we meet once a month to discuss current issues or historical issues among Africa Americans.

What are you most disciplined about? I’m disciplined about prayer, and it’s not just about my time of communication with “Him,” but a time for “Him” to communicate with me. This allows me to see my frailties – but also what I am truly capable of.

What do you think is the greatest problem our country is facing today? We need to see globalization as not just a problem but as an opportunity. As a nation, Americans have always been very giving to other people. We need to know it doesn’t just stop right here in our own backyard. We need a concern for the world and its people, and not just how it affects us for our own best interest, but for us as a global society.

Who would you like to trade places with for one day, and why? I’d like to change places with Daniel from the Bible. I’d like to have the faith of Daniel – that entire faithfulness. It’s belief without fear.

You have a wonderful relationship with your husband, Robert, what do you think is the secret to a happy marriage? Thinking more highly of the other than of yourself. Our relationship is based on what can I give to the other person rather than what can I get from them. I’m giving more than I’m receiving. Because we have a covenant relationship, I’m going to do my part regardless of what the other person does. Covenants don’t change; they are forever. I was also just blessed with a wonderful person. Not just a wonderful husband, but a wonderful person and father who loves his family.

Aside from Colorado, where would you choose to live? As long as I could keep my home in Colorado, I’d like a second home in Texas - as long as I had a basement for tornadoes! I’d like to be near family.

What’s coming up in the future for Margaret Fomer? I’m now involved with international students, because we are becoming more of a global community here in Colorado and worldwide. We are just now starting to work with Whittier Elementary School on 28th & Downing along with Antioch Baptist Church. It’s a neighborhood that is really ethnically diverse. We will be working together to bring this diverse population together to build a neighborhood and a community. I’m going to be mentoring and tutoring the children there.

I love the Old Testament, and the message from Isaiah: “Help the poor and the downtrodden” - that’s where my inspiration comes from. I feel my spiritual gift is to serve, and when you are fulfilling that gift that you have been given, it just inspires me to want to keep doing more and more.

What would you like future generations to remember you for? That I was nurturing, but at times challenging. That I had a love for my family and wanted others to have equal opportunities. That I unselfishly gave to my family as well as to others. That I tried to teach my children - and that they should teach their children - that it’s not just about themselves.

Margaret’s Community Involvement: (A partial list) Board of Trustees for the Burt Foundation and the Colorado Christian University. Board of Directors for the Rocky Mountain Parents & Teachers Organization, and the Samaritan Counseling Center. Former President of Zonta Club of Denver and now Trustee of the Zonta Foundation, Former Board Member of the Family Homestead, Denver Areas for Christ, and Young Americans Bank Educational Foundation. Committee Member for the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame, Denver Foundation’s Human Services Committee, Shining Stars (activities for terminally ill children), Denver Public Schools Assistance Fund, Denver’s Minnesota Early Parenting Prevention Council, and on several committees for Rotary Club of Denver.