Unsung Hero: Linda Erickson

........................................................................................................................................................................................

“Red rover, red rover send Mrs. Linda right over!” sang a group of fourth- through sixth-grade girls with their arms outstretched and hands linked together.

Abigail R. Ortiz-News-Bulletin photo: Annamarie Carbona, right, shows 2012 Unsung Hero Linda Erickson her school pictures. Denali Murray, left, listens to Erickson tell Carbona she looks beautiful and waits to show Erickson her school portrait. Erickson was chosen as an Unsung Hero for her hand in the Girls Club put on by the First United Methodist Church.

“Hold on tight,” whispered one girl to the next, while girls on Linda Erickson’s team said, “Come on Mrs. Linda.”

Erickson hurtled at full speed toward the chain of girls, breaking the link and laughing and running back to her team with an addition.

The Belen native was chosen as a 2012 Unsung Hero for her countless hours of work in activities she’s single-handedly created for the First United Methodist Church, including the Girls Club, Boys Club and Kid’s Zone.

Children have a “really big” place in the lives of Erickson and her husband, Butch, which Erickson said was God’s doing.

Working with children in some shape or form was something that she and her husband felt “that’s what we should be doing,” Erickson said.

“I think He kind of puts little nudges in your heart and you just kind of follow that,” she said.

Erickson began her work with children about 28 years ago, when she and Butch fostered children in Bird Island, Minn.

“I think we just saw a need,” she said. “We saw kids needing and understood that kids needed some help, and their parents needed some help short term while they got things squared away in their lives.”

After three years of fostering children, Erickson and her husband were hired as house parents at New Mexico Boys Ranch south of Belen, where they took care of 12 boys living in a cottage attached to their apartment.

For six days out of the week, the couple placed the boys on a regular routine, where they got up, went to school, completed household chores and homework and ate super together.

“They came from dysfunctional families and were having difficulties in their families,” Erickson said. “Many of them came from broken homes and needed to kind of regroup and find their place again where they belonged; (they) were offered counseling and guidance and we’d spend time with their parents too.”

From there Erickson stayed at the Boys Ranch as an administrative assistant for 10 years before joining the Belen Chamber of Commerce as a representative for the Boys Ranch and later as director of the chamber. Throughout that time, Erickson volunteered in children’s events at her church, the First United Methodist Church, before the church’s pastor, Jay Armstrong, asked her to come on board as the church’s children’s director.

“She’s always been involved somehow or another, and that’s why I asked her to come on board here,” Armstrong said. “She jived with the community and liked to be involved in a lot of stuff.”

The mother of two developed a number of programs for children, ranging from toddlers to students in the sixth grade, over the past six years as the children’s director.

When Erickson began, the only activity offered to children through the church was Sunday School services.

Year after year, Erickson established free programs at the church. The Girls Club, which began three years ago, was first, then came the Boys Club the next year, the Kid’s Zone the following year and a Children’s Choir, which began this year.

“You tell them, ‘Come on. Let’s just go and have fun together,’ and we would just kind of play together,” Erickson said.

Throughout these programs, Erickson aims for children to know that the Lord loves them and can be integrated in their lives every day; develop confidence in who they are; recognize their particular talents and use them to help others and cooperate with one another by loving your enemies and working out solutions to problems with others.

“Just teaching basic life skills, honoring their parents, respecting their parents and don’t let the world tell them that they should be any different than that,” Erickson said.

Although Ruthie Gladwell didn’t know Erickson, she was the first person that popped into her mind when she saw the call for nominations for the 2012 Unsung Heroes in the News-Bulletin.

The Belen grandmother was impressed by Erickson’s involvement in the Girls Club on top of her hand in the staff luncheon for La Merced Elementary School staff each year.

“I appreciate what she’s done for my granddaughter and the other girls,” Gladwell said. “For my granddaughter, it’s helped increase self esteem, create a safe place to go to talk about some issues she faces, and it’s an outlet to go and have fun with other girls her age.”

Participants are involved in a whole myriad of activities, including packing boxes for soldiers overseas with the Blue Star Mothers of America, Inc., creating blankets for pregnancy centers, visiting homeless shelters, practicing their acting skills during small theatrical skits and go hiking and camping, along with teaching them about God.

“God is paramount for their lives,” Erickson said. “We’ve got to have someone we can fall back on when everybody else fails us and the Lord is good about that.”

The club creates a venue where girls can express who they are, have an opportunity to “just be girls” and develop methods to help them overcome obstacles they face as teenagers.

“We just want to get them ready to be a person that can stand up on their own and have some good quality and value in their lives and find good quality and value in friends and learn how to do that,” Erickson said.

Ashley Olson, 10, said the club allows her to be herself, talk about her day and gives her a support person to talk to if she’s having a problem.

Jaelyn Ezell, who is also 10, agreed.

“When you’re in there you can talk to anybody and they won’t make fun of you or make you feel uncomfortable,” Ezell said.

Three year Girls Club member Denali Murray, said she loves Erickson’s enthusiastic attitude and how she helped her come out of her shell.

Erickson strives to build relationships not just with children, but with their parents as well. Doing this builds a network of support for the parents while simultaneously reinforcing the beliefs, values and lessons parents try to instill in their children from another adult besides family.

She can still remember the few mentors who touched her life throughout the years growing up as a child with six siblings.

“That was important to me to have other people come along side you and make you feel important, special and unique,” she said.

Having an extended network to fall back on as a parent was essential to Erickson when she had small children. She learned the value of this system and wanted to pass on what an extended network had to offer to others.

“Everybody has a bad day. You just have to have someone come alongside and say, ‘It’s OK,’” Erickson said.


-- Email the author at aortiz@news-bulletin.com.