Heart wrenching childhood events have the power to shape lives, even direct career choices. For Mary Elizabeth Soffera, Northampton Community College (NCC) student, the loss of her father at age 13 and grandmother at age 16 sparked a desire to help children suffering from loss.
Psychology major, Soffera, enrolled at NCC in the fall of 2022. She hopes to one day be a child life specialist working with children in a hospital or a hospice agency that provides comfort care to terminally ill patients as well as support and bereavement services to their families. She believes she is well-suited to work with grieving children because of her soft and kind personality and childhood experiences.
After her parents’ divorce, she lived with her mother and spent holidays and every other weekend with her father. She recalled a fateful visitation during Mother’s Day weekend of 2017. Soffera’s father liked to watch her play sports; so, he picked her up at an after-school softball game. She remembers being excited because she was playing second base that day. Afterward, they stopped at Boscov’s department store to pick up a Mother’s Day gift for her stepmother, but she noticed he wasn’t feeling himself.
The following morning, she woke up to her stepmother shouting to her older stepsister, “Call 911.” Her father was having a heart attack and fell and hit his head on the tile floor in their bathroom. He was gone by the time the paramedics arrived.
Three years later, she was at her grandparents’ home. Her grandmother, whom Soffera had nicknamed “Kitty,” went to shower. After midnight, her grandfather called to her grandmother, who was lying unresponsive on the bathroom floor.
Unlike when her father passed, this time Soffera, just shy of 16, helped to plan the funeral. She accompanied her family to the funeral home and suggested the casket be blue, her grandmother’s favorite color, and that her tombstone read, Alice “Kitty” Dietrich. She spoke at the funeral, wearing the silver dress she and her grandmother had picked out weeks earlier for Soffera’s upcoming 16th birthday party.
After death or during a family crisis, Soffera has observed, family members often fail to involve children with the intention of protecting them or because they think the children don’t understand what is happening. Based on her experience, she encourages parents to allow their children to be involved.
“It’s very important for children and teens to have a say and not brush them aside,” she said. “I hope one day to be the impartial children’s advocate who can talk with children to find out what they need or want and then, serve as their voice. I really want to help children in that way some day.”
In the meantime, she’s already giving back through her seasonal, part-time job with Spirit Halloween. This fall alone, Soffera raised $3,900 through the chain’s “Spirit of Children” fundraising initiative. During the fundraiser, each cashier asks customers if they want to donate to their local children’s hospital, in this case, the Lehigh Valley Reilly Children’s Hospital. Passionate about helping ill and injured children, she admits that she did a “soft sell,” informing people that the money raised not only funds a Halloween party with costumes and candy but also buys books and games for the unit and covers patients’ medical expenses not covered by insurance.
“Often, customers will tell me how their child or someone else they know has benefitted from the hospital. That further motivates me to encourage people to donate,” she said. To top it off, she also volunteers with her grandfather at a local food bank.
After finishing her studies at NCC, Soffera plans to transfer to a four-year university and earn her bachelor’s degree. But for now, she’s enjoying life as an NCC student. She likes NCC’s faculty, who she says “really care about their students.” She particularly liked Professor Jaime Gallagher, whose kind and supportive demeanor brightened her days.
Last year, she played on the school’s women’s tennis team and won first place in the 6th singles and second place in the 3rd doubles in the NJCAA Region 19 championship tournament. “In my entire life, that’s the accomplishment I’m most proud of.”
Her advice for other students is, “Get involved. Put yourself out there, and talk to people. If you play a sport, join a team at Northampton. I found so many friends. Do what makes you happy.”