Valerie Mathias, a UNF psychology senior, doesn’t spend a lot of time on the couch watching television or going to the bars with friends. Instead, she spends most of her free time mentoring underprivileged children and volunteering in third world countries.
Mathias, 21, recently received the 2010 Caring Internship Finalists award for her work over the summer in Washington, D.C. For two months, she interned at the Heart of America Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting literacy.
This semester, Mathias is working for another nonprofit in Jacksonville, Girls Inc., where she assists underprivileged girls by encouraging their self-esteem, while teaching them how to read and write.
Mathias’ mother, Mary Jo Mathias, said her daughter has been the caring type from an early age. She said her daughter donated money to a charity organization instead of buying a high school class ring.
“We were so surprised because she was a young girl, and it was kind of unexpected to do such a thing,” Mary Jo Mathias said. “That was probably the beginning of it.”
Since then, Valerie Mathias said her goals in life have been geared toward helping others.
She began actively volunteering at the start of her freshman year at UNF, a choice she said would continue to shape her identity.
“I’m on my own. Who I want to be is going to be on me. How I want to impact the world is going to be on me.”
During her first week of college, Mathias said she went to the UNF’s Center for Community-Based Learning and met assistant director Heather Burk, the person who nominated Mathias for the Hearts of America Foundation internship.
“She was easy for me to nominate,” Burk said, “because I know she is going to commit a hundred percent.”
Burk helped Mathias with the process of finding an appropriate volunteer program in Jacksonville, eventually signing Mathias up to volunteer at Nemours Children’s Clinic in Jacksonville.
At the clinic, she cared for cancer-stricken children. She visited every Friday and worked with child-life specialists. While kids were receiving treatment, Mathias said she helped comfort them.
She is also involved with the Jacksonville Jaguars Community Scholars Mentorship Program, which is designed to help underprivileged children seek higher education.
Mathias has been mentoring a girl for three years with the goal of helping her get into college. Every week, Mathias meets with the girl and helps her study. She said they also discuss life and go to the movies. During the girl’s senior year of high school, Mathias helped her prepare for the SATs.
“She got into UNF. And I’m so happy for her.”
Last summer, Mathias spent three weeks studying abroad in Ecuador with the purpose of educating children about environmental issues at one of the schools there.
“Education is the most important thing,” she said. “I found that in Ghana, too.”
Mathias went to Ghana in West Africa as a part of the UNF honors program, in conjunction with the engineering program, to work in an orphanage in the town of Tamale. She spent a week working with engineering students on humanitarian projects to reduce the amount of malaria and diarrhea, which Mathias said are the primary killers of children in that area.
Mathias said what she endured in Ghana was a challenge but well worth it in the end.
“That was one of the hardest times for me,” she said. “But it was amazing just to be able to go there. It was one of those situations, you know, when they say, ‘You take more back than you ever gave them,’ and that is exactly how it is.”
Mathias said if students are interested in going on similar trips, scholarships are available and could potentially pay for a lot of the expenses.
She said she went to Ecuador for about $500 and Ghana for $100.
Mathias said she thinks the most important trait people should have when deciding to go on a trip like hers is having the dedication to pursue their goals.
“I hear people say, ‘Oh, my gosh, that is so cool, I want do that.’ And I say, ‘Well, you can do it.’ But then they go off and do something else. Anyone can do it. You just have to work at it. That’s all it is.”
As for the future, Mathias is still undecided but thinks she will continue to do things similar to what she does now.
“Volunteering is just having a passion about something,” she said. “This is what I was given. I was given this passion to go and serve others. You have to embrace what your passion is and use it for good.”
Mathias said the gradual progression in humanitarianism should not discourage people.
“That is what is going to hurt humanity. You have to know that you can do something for it. If that goes away, then there is nothing left.”
While in Ecuador Mathias taught children about the importance of the preservation of the fishing market, one of their primary industries. She also helped build 80 desks for the students there. They also did beach clean-ups.
While in Ghana Mathias was involved in building screens around playgrounds to protect children from disease-infested bugs. Alongside the UNF engineering program she worked to create systems that modified the drinking water so malaria would not contaminate it.