The Can-Do Queen of Empowerment
Kathy Opperman: 2022 Good Neighbor Award Honorable Mention
- REALTOR® Kathy Opperman’s nonprofit, Pillars of Light and Love, offers a variety of programs to promote positivity and empowerment for children and teens.
- It operates a summer camp, monthly kindness projects and an “American Idol”–style vocal competition named in memory of a local 14-year-old girl who died by suicide.
- This fall, Opperman will oversee the opening of So Much to Give Inclusive Cafe, which is expected to draw people with special needs as workers and customers.
Last October, Maureen Stanko was fretting about how her son with autism Nicholas, then 19 years old, would fare when he aged out of the school system. “I’ve been panicking for years about what to do,” she says. “When he turns 21, there are hardly any services.”
She noticed social media posts by REALTOR® Kathy Opperman, who runs the local nonprofit Pillars of Light and Love, and reached out to her for advice on how to start a community program of her own called So Much to Give to help people with special needs improve their social skills.
“Not only do I think this is a fantastic idea, but you could be a division under my nonprofit,” Opperman told her. “And she added, ‘I have a building, and you can use my space for free. At no cost, you can hold any activities you’d like at my Empowering U Center. I just want to help as many people as I can.’”
That unfailing can-do spirit has fueled Opperman since she started Pillars eight years ago to give all community members—but particularly kids and teens—a homey, safe space to find support, build confidence and have fun.
Inside the Empowering U Center, a 5,000-square-foot, Cape Cod–style house outside Collegeville, Pa., she directs a summer camp, an “American Idol”–style vocal competition, monthly kindness projects, and support groups—there are separate groups for families who have lost a child to suicide and for those who have lost a child to overdoses—and workshops, which cover topics such as time management, stress management and healing from toxic relationships.
A few months after the January launch of this latest Pillars program, Stanko asked Opperman about adding a kitchen to the Empowering U Center. Opperman instead proposed leasing a separate space for a new restaurant largely staffed by teens and young adults with a diagnosed disability.
This October, Opperman, a 62-year-old grandmother, along with Stanko and dozens of community supporters, expect to open the So Much to Give Inclusive Cafe. People with special needs will be welcomed as both workers and customers.
“When there’s a need in the community, or someone comes to me and says, ‘I’d like to do a program for young adults with disabilities,’ I say, ‘OK, let’s create it,’” Opperman explains.
Teens love to sit on a big, plush thrifted red couch and bean bags and participate in group talks—sharing, for example, something good, something bad and something they’re grateful for. “It’s an hour-and-a-half reprieve from whatever else is going on,” says Jonathan Acevedo-Ali, coordinator and coach for adolescent and young adult groups.
Opperman, a fourth-generation real estate practitioner, traces her family’s start in the business to her mother’s grandfather, who arrived in Norristown, Pa., from Italy in the early 1900s and helped immigrants find houses. Originally, Opperman worked as a registered nurse, but switched to real estate when her kids were young, at her mother’s encouragement.
“I was a trainer, a bookkeeper, a conveyancer and the marketing person,” says Opperman, who started a support group for women who lost their mothers after her own mother died four years ago. Along the way, she picked up the social media skills that have helped her in real estate and with her nonprofit. “I learned how to market through Facebook,” says Opperman, who boasts 4,900 friends.
“I know that teens are struggling. We really want to prevent suicide and addiction and help overcome anxiety and depression in our youth”—Kathy Opperman
She runs several Facebook accounts, including a positive-messages group called A Dose of Sunshine. It’s a place to get the word out about Pillars. She got Eagle Scouts on board to build the restaurant tables and brought on kids with disabilities to paint them with abstract swirls in blue and hot pink, the colors of the So Much to Give logo.
Opperman, a cancer survivor, gets constant kudos for being a doer and for uplifting people. “Kathy is very organized, and she’s a visionary,” says Nina Aniskevich, a therapist who rents space at the center and volunteers, too. “She’s like an earth angel. Kathy helps people have meaning and purpose in their lives.”
When she transitioned the support group meetings to Zoom as the COVID-19 pandemic hit, they flourished. “If anything, it got busier,” Aniskevich says.
Through positive programs, Opperman aims to make young people feel special. One ongoing event, “Julia’s Joy Voice Idol Competition,” named in memory of Julia Morath, who died at 14 by suicide in April 2017, has an enduring impact for participants. “I deal with a lot of my issues through music and through performance,” says Colin Mash, the Idol winner in February 2020 and a coach and emcee in 2022. “That was the very last thing I got to do before life shut down. I take that with me forever.”
Decked out in a shiny gold vest and matching pants for his emcee year, Mash belted out classic rock song “Proud Mary” with Opperman and a lot of kids dancing along. For about four months, two groups of contestants (ages 11 to 14 and 15 to 18) worked with coaches and got pep talks from Opperman. “Whenever I had a bad week or it was tough at school, I was like, ‘At least I have Julia’s Joy on Sunday,’” says Mash, who now studies musical theater at Temple University. “It fueled my passion for being a stage performer.”
At the Courageous Kids summer camp, pretweens make “feeling thermometers” from a piece of paper with two holes and a pipe cleaner with a moveable bead. “You can tell the people to leave you alone or tell them you need comforting without having to actually say it,” says Daelyn Morgan, 8, who displays hers on her wall.
Pillars programs teach kids to be kind, to limit social media time and to cope with hurt, says Stephanie Hartzell, the mother of Julia Morath, who was cyberbullied. “It’s meant to help them build strength and resilience and confidence in themselves.”
“There’s so much that goes on in that little building that Kathy started,” says Erin McMonagle, a school counselor who leads the free talk for tweens once a month. “She makes it happen.”