Susan Bartels stood in front of a children’s group home in Doylestown, Pennsylvania.
Inside were over 10 children, one of whom was 15-year-old Sarah Hash, a Telford, Pennsylvania, native Bartels had mentored since Hash was 9 years old.
Miles away from her mother and older siblings, in a crowded, unfamiliar environment, Hash was terrified.
Problems at home placed Hash in the foster care system several times throughout her childhood, and she said Bartels’ visits were one of the only ways she found solace from the discomfort of sleeping on a cot, the uncertainty of locked kitchen cabinets and the distinct feeling of having done something wrong.
“She always came to see me no matter where they put me,” Hash said.
Hash is one of six young girls Bartels has mentored over her 31-year involvement with Big Brothers Big Sisters, a national nonprofit organization that provides mentorship to children in need.
Bartels began as a volunteer mentor in college and worked her way up to CEO of the BBBS Lehigh Valley Chapter.
Bartels’ co-workers say her creative visions and drive have made a significant impact on preparing local high schoolers for their futures.
Many BBBS employees credit Bartels’ leadership for their increased community involvement.
Coming from a family of five herself, Bartels said during her time at Eastern Mennoite College, she was drawn to the one-on-one aspect of the mentorship program.
“When I was in college, I fell in love with the impact that the program has on you and you have on the child,” she said.
After graduating with a degree in social work in 1994, Bartels began her career as a case manager for BBBS in Schuylkill County, where she conducted family need assessments and developed case plans for children in the community.
Even as Bartels gained administrative experience, she said she never wanted to stop mentoring.
“The reason I still mentor is it helps me stay present to what kids are dealing with today,” she said.
Hash said Bartels’ unwavering support taught her kindness and the value of caring for others.
“It just took someone showing me that they cared to help me make it through,” Hash said.
As a full-time master’s student at Temple University, Bartels said she worked with local children through internships with BBBS Bucks County and Quakertown Senior High School.
After 16 years at the Bucks County office, earning her master’s in social work in 2013, Bartels felt she had maximized her impact in her position and was ready to look for her next challenge.
Bartels said her role as CEO of the BBBS Lehigh Valley chapter, which serves over 400 children every year, has allowed her to have a greater impact on the community through implementing strategic direction.
Maggie Klingseis, the program director of BBBS Lehigh Valley, credits Bartels with recognizing the value that an old Allentown church building could bring to the local community.
“Susan really saw the potential and all the things we could do if we had the space,” Klingseis said.
The location Bartels chose allowed BBBS to serve over 200 children that would otherwise remain without mentorship, Klingseis said.
“She’s definitely someone who’s a visionary,” said Dawn Haaz, a big sister and former Psychological Consultant at the BBBS Bucks County office.
Klingseis said Bartels identified a pocket of need when it came to preparing local children for the workforce and, as a result, created the organization’s “Beyond School Walls” program, which focuses on preparing local high schoolers for various careers.
Bartels said witnessing the disparity between the resources her 17-year-old son had access to and those available to her current little sister Leonna drove this initiative.
Bartels said she also started a Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics Lab as a part of her goal to prepare children for their futures.
“For me, it’s really about preparing the next generation for their success in the future workplace, and helping them see what’s possible if they can’t see it today,” she said.
Many of Bartels’ co-workers credit her leadership as a main motivator of their own community involvement.
Haaz said Bartels served as a match support specialist, overseeing Haaz’s relationship with her little sister Darby Keller.
Like any relationship, Haaz and Keller experienced challenges during their 12-year match, and Haaz said she looked up to Bartels as a role model throughout the process.
“She was always really good at striking that balance between fun and being firm with getting the job done,” Haaz said.
Keller, who was just 6-years-old when she first met Bartels, said she views Bartels as her BBBS mom.
She also remembers Bartels as a figure of support as she battled mental health diagnoses during her childhood.
“She would always ask what upcoming musicals I was in and how my choir concerts were going,” Keller said.
Keller graduated from the program in 2016.
During Keller’s senior year at DeSales University, Bartels offered her an internship with BBBS Lehigh Valley, and Keller has been an employee ever since.
Keller said on her one-year anniversary of employment at BBBS, Bartels gave her her favorite chocolate.
“She likes to hear about our accomplishments in life and work, and she likes to really push us to strive for the best that we can be,” Keller said. “She seems to know before a lot of us do.”
Reminiscing over the past three decades of involvement, Bartels smiled and said she could talk at length about BBBS.
Now a community volunteer herself, Hash said she strives to spread the lessons Bartels taught her.
“I only hope that I can accomplish as much and help as many people as she has,” Hash said.