An Encounter with the Magical Miss Virginia

published 8/17/2009

Virginia L. Berry-Howlett - or "Miss Virginia," as so many children and volunteers in the Big Brothers Big Sisters program call the match support specialist - is a special lady, something of a living legend. Providing guidance after listening closely and discovering people's strength has allowed Virginia to make big magic out of little moments. Or so you've heard. Intrigued by the way others describe Virginia, you walk in her office door for a chat. Even before she greets you, the scent of fruit and florals invades your nostrils like an invisible cloud of pixie dust. As you'll soon learn, this perfume - "Royal Secret," Virginia calls it - is how pure magic smells.

At 74, she's not a young lady anymore. But with just a touch of gray in the sides of her hair, an upbeat fashion sense, and a poetic way with words, you see she's still in her prime. After all these years, she is still a youth at heart. "I play laser tag, go to the zoo, and go to baseball games with my two sons' children and grandchildren. I still bat pretty good, though I don't run as fast," she says. "That's been a blessing to me, working with children. I can speak their language."

As the senior-most employee besides Barbara Cempura, the agency president, Virginia has lost count of the number of matches between Bigs and Littles she's handled. "Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds!" she says, beaming.

Twelve years of smiling faces cover her tack board from top to bottom, each photo showing another story of two strangers who connected through the program and impacted each others' lives in ways they never expected. "I've had so many special moments," Virginia says. "They're countless." There's the decade-long match... the Little Sister who grew up and became a Big Sister...the sworn tomboy whose Big bought her the first dress she ever wore... the kid whose cheerless holidays brightened when his mentor started a tradition of buying and cooking Christmas dinner with him. "To me, it's all a lot of magic up in here!"

As Virginia knows from years of firsthand experience, it's not just the Littles who benefit from the one-on-one relationships the agency creates. Not by a long shot. "You know what I really love, how I know when a match is working?" She scoots her computer chair toward you. "When I hear my volunteers say, 'It meant as much to me because I learned as much from them.'"

But where does Virginia get the capacity to care for so many people? For one, she's from a huge family. When her mother faced severe illness in 1987, Virginia made the trip back from California to her hometown of East St. Louis to care for her. For nine years. "I'm a very family-oriented person. My favorite thing is seeing and spending time with my family," she says.

Virginia also finds strength in her faith, a value her mother instilled in her. Though on weekdays she advises volunteers and checks up on kids for Big Brothers Big Sisters, on weekends she ministers as a pastor at Parks Chapel A.M.E. Church of Centreville. Tireless in her stewardship and skilled at soothing others, she's been involved in the ministry even longer than she's worn Royal Secret.

It's all a part of her life's walk of faith. And her favorite symbols of that journey, as she points out, are shoes. "All these shoes have stories," she says, pointing around her office at shoe-shaped picture frames, a shoe calendar, shoe greeting cards, glass shoes on her filing cabinet, plastic shoes on her computer desktop. Ruby red shoes. Pink shoes with white studs. Black shoes with polka-dotted bows.

Then it hits you again, what a captivating speaker Virginia is. Shoes decorate every nook and cranny of this room, and you didn't even notice. You were too enchanted with her little pearls of wisdom. Virginia's right. This is a magical place.