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Rita Sauerman Dion helped save, improve young people's lives | Laurence Reisman

Laurence Reisman, Treasure Coast NewspapersPublished 4:14 p.m. ET June 13, 2018

(Photo: ALEX BOERNER/TCPALM)

Rita Sauerman Dion was a magnet for volunteers.

“She made everything fun,” said Barbara Schlitt Ford, who succeeded Dion in 2006 as executive director of Youth Guidance, Indian River County’s oldest youth mentoring program. “Everybody wanted to be a part of it.”

“It was just a magic touch,” added Laurie Wykoff, who knew Dion for 40 years as a volunteer mentor, board member, and friend. “Rita had that innate ability to connect with people so they felt close to her.”

Dion became one of the brightest lights in local social sciences circles when she moved here with her two children and first husband in 1965. She was a professor at Indian River Community College before becoming the second chief executive at Youth Guidance in 1975. 

Dion, 78, died Friday at Indian River Medical Center. A celebration of life is expected to be held in July. 

“She never aged,” said Wykoff, noting Dion planned to work with Felix Cruz, Youth Guidance’s current executive director, to raise $500,000 to $750,000 to renovate the nonprofit’s building at 1028 20th Place. The agency plans to restore the county’s old library across from City Hall.

Rita Dion (Photo: CONTRIBUTED PHOTO FROM INTA CLOUD)

In December, the agency announced the new building would be called the Rita Dion Mentoring Academy. It would include a multipurpose room for large group activities, a learning lab and a kitchen and dining room to serve meals and for cooking classes.

Dion never had to work magic on buildings. She worked in cramped quarters on a shoestring budget. The program, begun by the county in 1973 partly with state grants, was designed to match at-risk children with adult mentors.

Brian Connelly, then 9, was one of the first students involved. His mentors were Sam and Jacelyn Block, who started the program.

“I didn’t know at the time what was going on,” said Connelly, a lawyer in Vero Beach. The Blocks, before they had children of their own, took him to baseball games and for dog walks and boat rides. “When I access these memories, they come with a warmth of emotion.”

Connelly, who lived with his two brothers and divorced father, said his home was like a “modern-day Animal House.”

But with the Blocks, “here was this beautiful family that seemed so normal.” They had such a positive influence that when he returned to Vero Beach, he and his wife, Laurie — now the agency’s events coordinator — were compelled to volunteer.

 “It was the full circle,” said Connelly, noting Dion remembered him when he returned to town. “(As a child) I didn’t know people like Rita existed and cared.”

Few, if any, cared more, said Michael Kint, CEO of United Way of Indian River County.

“She epitomized true devotion,” Kint said. “She was totally, totally committed and passionate about the kids and programs of Youth Guidance. She knew every one of those kids.”

With dozens, then hundreds, of youngsters in the program, Dion had no easy task. For years, Dion worked hard to match children and adults properly.     

Ford was in the local Exchange Club in 1990 when it hosted a party for Youth Guidance children. She was paired with a little girl, Donna.

Toward the end of the party, Dion approached Ford.

“Wouldn’t you like to be a special friend for Donna?” Dion asked Ford, noting she could be a big sister to Donna once a week.

Ford agreed, and it changed her life. A lawyer, Ford returned to college for a master’s degree in education and became a teacher. Years later, she was the perfect fit to replace a retiring Dion.

“To be able to spend your time positively impacting kids — I can think of very few things that are more rewarding,” Ford said.

Those rewards made it easy, Ford said, for Dion to ask people to volunteer for Youth Guidance.

“You are inviting (would-be volunteers) into something that will make their lives better,” Ford said of Dion's philosophy.

In other words, Dion didn’t just help children who craved more adult interaction. She helped adults.

 “It seemed like I’ve learned everything from her,” said Wykoff, 19 when she began volunteering for Dion. “Everything” includes leadership, fundraising and human interaction.

“(Rita) touched so many lives,” Wykoff said.

Dion began doing it long before the Gifford Youth Achievement Center, the Boys & Girls Clubs of Indian River County and Big Brothers and Sisters.

“She was there for the kids,” said Pat Callahan, who, as director of the county-city Recreation Department, welcomed Youth Guidance children in summer camp. “One of her greatest qualities was her humility. She was just a hard worker.”

Dion’s untimely death struck her friends and relatives hard.

“It’s very tragic,” Ford said. “She had a lot of life left. ... But look at her legacy.”

It’s a legacy that not only survived spinning off from a county program into a standalone nonprofit and continuing to thrive.

It’s a legacy of building an agency that now serves almost 300 children per year with after-school programs, cooking classes and more. It’s a legacy that will be celebrated by friends and relatives in the coming weeks.

“We don’t have any more Ritas,” Wykoff said. “She’s going to be greatly missed.”

This column reflects the opinion of Laurence Reisman. Contact him via email at larry.reisman@tcpalm.com, phone at 772-978-2223, Facebook.com/larryreisman or Twitter @LaurenceReisman.

Who We Are

Innovation in Mentoring
 
Youth Guidance is the longest operating mentoring program in Indian River County. Youth guidance has been serving at risk youth from low income, single parent families since 1973. As a pioneer in the mentoring movement in Indian River County, Youth Guidance exemplifies a grass roots, community supported solution to the problem of children growing up without sufficient positive adult role models in their lives.
 
Our Mission
 
Youth Guidance is dedicated to enriching the lives of Indian River County youth through mentoring relationships that inspire trust, self-esteem and positive futures.

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Grants Update

YOUTH GUIDANCE AWARDED 2018 IMPACT 100 GRANT
 
On, April 18th, the membership of Impact 100 voted at the Tenth Grant Awards and Annual Meeting to select the winners of this year’s awards. Since this year’s membership consists of 466 members, four $100,000 Impact Grants were awarded, with the remaining $66,000 divided evenly among the three Merit Grant winners.

Youth Guidance was amoung the 4 recipients of the 2018 Impact Grants!
 
"We are very proud and excited to have developed a partnership with Impact 100 and look forward to a productive collaboration in the healthy development of the children and families of Indian River County." - Felix Cruz, Executive Director, Youth Guidance

 Find out more about Impact 100 by visiting www.impact100ir.com 
 

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