Nancy Brand’s heart is repeatedly warmed by the stained-glass angel she received two Christmases ago from Leslie Miller.
“I look at it every morning,” Brand said. “And I knew she didn’t have the money to do that. She said, ‘I want to do it; you’re my angel.'”
In her role as Youth Core program coordinator for Catholic Charities of Schuyler County, Brand helps people in need of employment and other financial support. Brand first met Miller three years ago, when Miller was a recent high-school graduate struggling to make ends meet. Through Catholic Charities’ support, Miller, now 21, has earned an associate’s degree from Corning Community College and will begin attending St. John Fisher College in January.
Miller, who was born in India, was adopted when she was 11 months old and moved to Schuyler County. Her adoptive mother died when she was 5 and her adoptive father died six years later, both from cancer. Miller lived with other family members until graduating from Watkins Glen High School, and has pretty much been on her own ever since.
“It was kind of hard not to have them,” Miller said of her parents. “It still is a struggle, when I’m not sure what I should be doing.” She likened her situation to learning to ride a bicycle, with no training wheels or anybody to hold the seat steady before letting go. At that point of her life, she said, she had fallen off the bike and was faced with “the choice of getting back on that bike or just to give up.”
Miller decided to pick herself back up by seeking out Catholic Charities. “The first time she came here, she was kind of a shy person,” Brand recalled. “For her to say she was in need, it was very hard for her to do. But if you earn the trust first, then you can work with them.”
Brand described her connection with Miller as “an instant hit.” Through Brand’s guidance, Miller enrolled in a job program and often worked two or more jobs so she could continue living independently. Catholic Charities has also assisted Miller with rent, travel, food and school expenses, including an $80 allotment toward rent in March 2004 from the Catholic Courier/Catholic Charities Christmas Appeal.
Miller also cites Brand for encouraging her to apply for a grant from the Beaumont Foundation of America, a philanthropic organization. The effort paid off, as Miller was awarded a new laptop computer and printer.
Brand noted that Catholic Charities will continue to work closely with Miller to make sure her transition to a four-year college goes well. “We’re really trying to get her through this,” Brand remarked.
Yet Brand emphasized that Miller doesn’t need to have her hand held: “She really feels a need to be independent, which is a good thing. It makes her strong. She does what she needs to do.”
Miller has an apartment in Watkins Glen and often stops at the Catholic Charities office at 607 N. Franklin St. She serves as a volunteer for various Catholic Charities events and programs, and occasionally goes out with Brand for coffee or cocoa.
“She’s kind of become one of our own. She knows a lot of the family here in the office and comes and visits just to say hello, not just because she’s in need,” Brand said.
Miller will attend St. John Fisher full-time to pursue a bachelor’s degree in elementary education — another big step in a stirring journey from a difficult childhood. “I feel that I’ve accomplished quite a bit. I guess I feel like it can only get better. I try to think that way,” she said.
She gives a big chunk of credit to her angels at Catholic Charities, comparing staff members to the adult who steadies a child’s bicycle.
“I cannot begin to explain how much these people mean to me — not because they have given me money or provided me assistance, but because they have shown me friendship. They have shown me not to be afraid of what lies ahead, but to embrace it,” Miller remarked. “They helped me realize I had so much to do — and I can do what I want to do.”