An investment in a child not only empowers families, but changes communities, said award-winning author, educator and advocate for children Stacey Bess.


Bess was the keynote speaker during the first Hearts for Hope & Homes event organized by Mental Health America Aiken County of United Way.


Hearts for Hope & Homes focuses on youth homelessness.


Bess spoke of her journey in getting started in the education field; she was too young, just out of college and already had a family


Then a break came: teaching classes in a school for homeless children behind the homeless shelter.


“I said, 'Why me?'” Bess said. “And after listening for a long time, the answer came back to me. It isn't your skills these people will remember, it is you.”


Bess turned her first teaching assignment in Utah into a published book, “Nobody Don't Love Nobody” – a story about the only job she could find at “The School with No Name.” Her memoir inspired the Hallmark Hall of Fame movie “Beyond the Blackboard.”


Bess jotted down her experiences of all the children, including a visit from former Utah Jazz basketball player Karl Malone.


Malone left Bess with a lasting impression.


“'I have followed your career for a long time, and, Ms. Stacey, today, please don't let me hide behind this uniform,'” Bess recalled Malone saying to her. “'I don't want to be Karl Malone the basketball star. Today, I want to come and love your kids.' I learned a big lesson that day. Don't hide behind your credentials. Get down on the floor and be a human being – that is what's remembered.”


Donors can become a Heart for Hope for a donation of $50. All donations go toward Nurture Home.


Nurture Home is a residence established and operated by Mental Health America Aiken County for single women and mothers who are homeless, and most often victims of domestic violence.


For more information about Stacey Bess, visit www.staceybess.com.


Maayan Schechter is the city beat reporter with Aiken Standard. An Atlanta native, she has a mass communications-journalism major from the University of North Carolina Asheville. Follow her on Twitter @Maayan-Schechter.