Nicole Stefanowicz was only 6 when her parents divorced in 1993. It was a real shocker because she never saw them fight, and her father was a doting dad. “My mom worked on Sundays, so that was our special day together,” recalls Nicole fondly. “He was a terrible cook, so we had boiled hot dogs and ravioli, but I loved it because we were together.”
That all changed after the divorce.
Though Nicole’s mother recovered quickly—marrying a family friend who became a loving stepfather—her father Glenn spiraled into depression, anger, and alcoholism. “He really went downhill after that,” Nicole says. “It was hard to see him like that.”
Unable to accept his wife’s new relationship, in a drunken stupor, one day he vandalized the family car, forcing Nicole’s mother to file a restraining order. That was the end of Nicole’s contact with him. She didn’t see her dad for most of the next decade, only hearing occasional updates of how he had moved away to Vermont, was scraping by, was in and out of jail, and eventually wound up living on the streets.
Although Nicole knew she could do nothing to help her father, it planted the seeds of a caring heart in her—one she first noticed when a friend in high school had a drinking problem.
“I could see my dad in him,” Nicole says. “I wanted to fix people and make them better. I think secretly I wished I could fix my dad.”
Nicole became a community service devotee helping the less fortunate however she could. And a few years later, all those good works earned her a scholarship to St. Michael’s College in Vermont. When she arrived, one of the first things she did was look for her father. “Vermont is a small state,” Nicole says. “I figured maybe I could find him. But I couldn’t.”
She majored in journalism and threw herself into the volunteer work that was now part of her makeup. One thing led to another and soon she was working with the Committee on Temporary Shelter (COTS) at St. John’s Hall, a permanent housing location for displaced individuals. From the moment she arrived, Nicole was thinking about her father. But she was totally unprepared for what was to come. As she walked past the mailroom one day, she noticed a mailbox with her dad’s first name on it. “I got really nervous,” Nicole remembers. “I sat down and started playing a game to take my mind off of things. But I couldn’t stop from thinking and hoping that maybe it could be him.”
Then, as the residents were called in for dinner, Nicole’s wish came true. “My dad came in carrying his bike, and was totally nonchalant when he saw me,” Nicole recalls. “He just said, ‘Hey, there. Let me put my bike away, and I will come down and say hello.’”
Her fellow volunteers and the staff at the shelter looked on in shock and confusion as Nicole proudly informed them that the homeless man they knew as Glenn was her dad. “I was so happy to see him,” Nicole recalls. “I didn’t even think about how crazy it was. I was just glad we were together again.”
The two made small talk after dinner and left promising they would see each other soon. But Nicole wasn’t about to leave it to chance. She began volunteering regularly at the center, just so she would be sure to see him. “We would take long walks together and talk, sometimes go to the mall,” Nicole recalls. “I just enjoyed being with him.”
She also enjoyed the work. Seeing how the center helped Glenn made her think of all the residents differently. They were no longer faceless social victims, but rather they were people’s fathers, mothers, sisters, and brothers. In her sophomore year, after a weeklong field trip working with Hope House Ministries—a group that caters to some of the most desperate of disadvantaged souls—she knew helping the less fortunate was her life’s calling. She switched her major to sociology, and began working a lot more with COTS. “That’s when I really began to think maybe my dad and I could have an ongoing relationship,” she says. But that notion would soon be tested in a big way.
As part of her continued commitment to charity work, Nicole went abroad the following semester. During her stay, she received word Glenn had gone back on the streets and was involved in a serious accident while riding his bike. The news terrified her. “I first thought he might be dead,” recalls Nicole. “I never really thought about that being possible before, and it really affected me. That’s when it really hit me how much I cared for him.”
When she returned to the U.S., she was happy to see he was safely back in the shelter. She realized she would never be able to fix all his problems, but she also saw that having him in her life was a gift.
When Nicole graduated from college the next year, her father surprised her. He showed up in a suit, nicely groomed, and perfectly sober to cheer on the graduate. “He was so proud of me,” Nicole recalls. “It really filled my heart to have him there with the rest of the family.”
Today, their relationship endures and grows, even though Glenn struggles to stay sober and faces mental and emotional battles. One night last year, he wound up in the hospital with a breakdown. He called Nicole crying and apologizing. When Nicole showed up, she found him cold, wet, and starving.
But, some time later, when Nicole recently told him she was getting married, he beamed with pride and promised her he would be sober for the wedding. “It’s beautiful that he wants to be there for me, but I love him whether or not he shows up,” Nicole admitted at the time.
On the big day, December 29, 2012, her father not only showed up for the wedding but also walked her down the aisle, then shared a dance with his daughter at the reception.
For Nicole, the most important thing is having a relationship with her father—even if it’s an imperfect one. And grasping that lesson has brought her peace, both in her personal life and in her career.
“For all those years I didn’t have him when I was younger, I felt like I was missing something, and now I don’t,” Nicole says. “I feel like I have a rich and full life that he adds to. As long as he can continue to do that, then whatever we can have together is better than what we would have apart.”
Photo by Todd Stoilov/courtesy Nicole Stefanowicz.