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So long, Hank!

After 19 years of faithful and caring service, Hank Szlenkier, caseworker for Oxford-Addison Youth Assistance, is leaving. “All good things come to an end,” he said. The public is invited to e-mail their goodbyes and well wishes to Photo by C.J. Carnacchio. (click for larger version)
January 26, 2011 - What do you say to a guy who's leaving the community after devoting 19 years of his life to helping, counseling and mentoring thousands of local youth?

Residents have until Feb. 14 to think about it because that is Hank Szlenkier's last official day as the caseworker for Oxford-Addison Youth Assistance (OAYA).

"They're pulling me out of the field," he said. "All good things come to an end. Nothing stays the same."

Szlenkier's being transferred to Oakland County Youth Assistance headquarters at 1200 N. Telegraph Rd. in Pontiac, where he will oversee the recruitment, training and retention of volunteers for the Mentors Plus program on a countywide basis.

"This is new ground for me," he said.

Although this change of scenery will give Szlenkier the opportunity to impact an even greater number of at-risk youth, he's really torn up about having to leave the community he's faithfully served for nearly two decades.

"I'd be a fool not to believe it will be an emotional departure," Szlenkier said. "I've grown to care and love this community as if it were my own."

His house is in neighboring Brandon Township, but his heart belongs to Wildcat country.

"This is like home to me," Szlenkier said. "I shop here. I come to the movies here. I'm really ingrained in the community. It's going to be a tough transition."

Through his role as a caseworker, Szlenkier estimated he's worked with more than 2,000 youth and their families during his 19 years here; the aim always being to reduce delinquency, neglect and abuse.

"There's been thousands of kids that have come through here and I treated them all like they were my own children," he said.

Szlenkier recalled working with one troubled youth whose future he "couldn't predict." Those cases always worry him.

Fortunately, he recently received a phone call from the youth's mother who told Szlenkier "what a loving, caring human being" her son had become. He's working and helping to take care of her.

"That was very gratifying to hear that he really made it," he said.

Szlenkier's stats increase by another 11,600 youth and families when one takes into consideration all the others he's helped with various OAYA programs such as adopt-a-camper, shoplifting prevention, parenting classes and skill building.

"Throughout the years we instituted many new, innovative programs, let alone maintaining the core country programs," he said.

Of all the programs, his favorite is the Children's Community Garden, located in Oxford Village's Scripter Park on S. Glaspie St. The garden gives kids the opportunity to work together, learn skills and responsibility, and help feed those in need.

"That's something that's always been near and dear to my heart," Szlenkier said.

Szlenkier freely admits all the wonderful things that OAYA's accomplished during his time here have been a direct result of the group's hardworking volunteers and their fund-raising efforts such as the "Rural Pearl" bicycle ride on the Polly Ann Trail and the annual Duck Race along Paint Creek.

"We made a lot of money as a group and we spent it on kids year after year," he said.

While it's true that OAYA is a team effort, it's also true the group wouldn't be where it is today without Szlenkier steering the ship.

"I hate to see him leave because his leadership since I've been there has been impeccable," said OAYA Board Member Darlene Toliver, of Oxford. "He realizes there's problems out there whether the schools or parents want to admit it or not."

Toliver believes Szlenkier's been so successful working with local youth because he's "very laid back" and the "kids respect him"

"He relates to them. He's almost like a father-figure," she said.

Toliver credits Szlenkier for helping her granddaughter deal with her parents' divorce. Today, she's an honor student at Oxford Middle School.

"I don't think she would have got there without the help that she received when she needed it," Toliver said.

When asked what he'll miss most about working here, Szlenkier replied it's "the people" such as volunteers, business owners, teachers and local law enforcement.

"What is life, but relationships," he said. "I've developed so many of them here. Thanks for the memories."

Szlenkier is very grateful to all the local governments that continue to sponsor OAYA through annual contributions. These entities include Oxford Township and Village, Addison Township, the Village of Leonard and Oxford Community Schools.

"We're truly one of a kind," he said. "You can look all across the country and where else can you find government caring so much about their youth and families that they're willing to spend time and money to keep this program going because it's the right thing to do and the humane thing to do."

All across the county, local governments have been cutting their funding for Youth Assistance, but not Oxford and Addison.

"That's certainly the exception to the rule," Szlenkier said. "The Oxford-Addison area deserves to have this type of program."

Szlenkier will be replaced by friend and fellow caseworker Cassandra Goulding, who will work here three days a week.

"She's good people," he said. "She's got a good heart and a lot of experience. I'm sure she'll do fine here."

Those who want to drop Szlenkier a line, say goodbye or wish him well are invited to e-mail him at shop-lifting prevention, parenting classes and skill building.

CJ Carnacchio is editor for The Oxford Leader. He lives in the Village of Oxford with his wife Connie and daughter Larissa. When he's not busy working on the newspaper, he enjoys cigars/pipes, Martinis/Scotch, hunting and fishing.
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