Inside Track: Compassionate educator comes 'full circle'
Mary Ruth Scholz, executive director of Noorthoek Academy, enjoys helping disabled students feel empowered.
Mary Ruth Scholz feels like she has come “full circle” in her role as the first executive director of Noorthoek Academy.
Noorthoek is a 30-year-old nonprofit that partners with Grand Rapids Community College to give a nondegree-seeking “college experience” to adults with learning challenges and other intellectual disabilities.
Each semester, the organization’s 80 students can attend one of several weekly two-hour classes. They are taught by Noorthoek teachers, though the classes are held on the GRCC campus, and students are given GRCC ID cards that allow the same access and benefits as GRCC students.
When Scholz was a child, her older brother by five years had severe mental and physical disabilities, and their parents admitted him to a state hospital in Pennsylvania at a young age before he died at age 16.
Their parents and Scholz’s four other siblings traveled from their home in Detroit to visit their brother often, she said, and her parents would take many home videos.
Though she likely was not aware of it at as a little girl, she could see the natural compassion in her face as she watched the videos later in life.
That experience and her compassion, she suspects, is why she has been drawn to work in the nonprofit field, particularly to clients she serves.
While some people follow a clear path toward the careers they choose, hers was unintentional, she said.
“I knew I wanted to help others and one thing kind of led to another. Looking back on this position now and where I started, it all seems to have led up to this,” Scholz said.
Scholz first began working with people with disabilities while studying music therapy at Western Michigan University.
During the summers, she would teach music to physically impaired people at IKUS Life Enrichment Services, a Grand Rapids camp. That also is where she met her future husband, joining him in Grand Rapids after college.
She was able to use her music therapy training straight out of college, something she said does not often happen because it’s such a narrow field.
She used music in her role as an activities instructor for an adult daycare program at what is now Hope Network.
Her first role as an official music therapist was at the former Muskegon Regional Center for Developmental Disabilities.
As state-funded mental hospitals were closed beginning in the 1980s, she left that job after five years before the center finally was closed.
She said it was difficult finding another music therapy job because so few are available.
Scholz felt she was at a “dead end,” and that’s when she “switched gears” and began a career in graphic design.
While raising a family, she thought it would be a good idea to start a home business. She already had an art background, and she took a few classes at Grand Valley State University to learn digital graphic design.
Though she has been through a couple career moves since then, she said the graphic design skill has served her well throughout that time.
“In this job, it’s a great skill to have,” she said.
Starting in 1992, she spent 10 years doing freelance work for nonprofit and for-profit clients.
“It was all fun, but I always gravitated toward the nonprofit side,” she said.
She became more involved with nonprofits through that work, and she was called to serve on a board for a choral nonprofit, in which she played piano, completed graphics work and helped with events for the organization.
The more time she spent involved in that space, the more she realized working for a nonprofit is what she “needed to be doing.”
“That kind of put it all together for me,” Scholz said. “I like the programs side; I like the administration and the marketing side. It kind of entails all the different skills I have in one little package.”
She began reaching out to her connections to find an entry-level position in development and marketing.
Scholz’s friend introduced her to Nancy Mey, then the executive director of Ronald McDonald House of Western Michigan, who was her friend’s neighbor.
Through that connection, Scholz was hired there as a development assistant in 2002.
“Even though I didn’t have any experience, she was able to see the potential I had,” Scholz said. “So, I would say she kind of opened the door to the field for me by giving me that opportunity.”
It was one of a few positions created for Scholz. She’s not exactly sure how that has happened, but she attributes it in part to her nature of not being afraid to face uncharted territory and create something new. Through that “self-motivation,” she has always been able to learn and teach herself new skills, she said.
While at the Ronald McDonald House, she researched and implemented a database, which she said was a “whole new experience.” She did the same for Noorthoek, which she said also did not have a database in place when she started.
She spent seven years at the small organization — which included Mey, Scholz and a volunteer manager — gradually taking on more responsibilities as she gained more fundraising and database experience.
Scholz then took a role as development and marketing manager for Catholic Charities West Michigan, another new position. She began shortly after a merger of three organizations, so there was a lot of branding and marketing work to do.
She decided she wanted more lifestyle and decision-making flexibility and began a fundraising consulting firm, MR Group, in 2012. She did many different projects over the next five years, including a lot of grant writing. She still has one client today.
Then, one day, she happened upon a job posting for a development director at Noorthoek. The position was 20 hours per week, and without its own location, she was able to work in her home office, which aligned with her preferences. Not only that but she also really liked the mission and getting back to working with the disabled population.
“I kind of looked at it as a completion to the circle,” she said.
Scholz had been working for a few years in this position when the board offered her the executive director job, in which she is providing an overall direction for the organization, as well as continuing the development responsibilities.
The position is officially 22 hours per week, though she worked 30 to 40 hours per week in June. The development position she started in will not be filled.
The classes, which are arts- and science-based, change each semester based on student input. They have studied countries, zoology and the solar system, to name a few. Each class includes an outing and projects that depend on the subject. Students also create a poetry book each year.
Tuition is $250 per semester, with scholarships available. Fundraising supplements whatever is not covered by tuition.
Scholz said leadership would like to double the number of students and include more skills-based classes. She would like the organization to offer additional social opportunities, as well.
The organization recently launched a pilot computer class, which has generated a lot of interest. Scholz also recently added a student leadership club, in which students make decisions about how to help the community. Last year, they participated in a food drive for the GRCC food pantry.
“It was a way for them to feel included,” she said.
Scholz said there has been talk of expanding the program to students at other schools or via satellite.
“People are attracted to it because we’re like a family; we’re very welcoming. They’re very included when they come to class,” she said.