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Why’d you stop me? WYSM Foundation

“Without a sense of caring, there can be no sense of community.”

Anthony D’Angelo

When I tell people that there are amazing humans around us everywhere and most of us don’t even realize it, I mean that. I meet them all the time in the most unlikely of places and this is one of my favorite stories. I was at the StageCoach music festival and got separated from my husband. Standing next to me was a former college football player, a big man with an even bigger smile and heart. This stranger, named Jason Lehman, is a Long Beach Police Officer and nonprofit founder who also found my husband in the large crowd. We recently spoke about his work and journey from law enforcement to nonprofit founder and his mission to bring people together through his amazing work.  Such an inspirational man and story….

Charity Matters: Tell us a little about What WYSM is and does?

Jason Lehman: We are an empowerment educational organization that works to help build and strengthen relationships between the police and the community. We do that in scenario involved training by impacting six different aspects of a community. Not only do we provide education but we provide a three hundred and sixty-degree approach by bringing a police officer and an ex-felon to team teach these incredible messages of peace to police officers, schools and communities.

Charity Matters: What was the moment you knew you needed to act and start  WYSM Foundation?

Jason Lehman: I think I had three Ah-Ha moments and two of them are the most valuable. The first one happened in 2009 when I was working undercover in Gang and Violent Crime Suppression Team for the City of Long Beach. Working on this Gang and Violent Crime Suppression Team we did a bunch of things and one of them was we bought drugs from gang members who were selling them. There was an undercover drug deal that went bad. That drug deal ended up with me having to fight for my life and at the end of the fight, only one person walked out alive. Immediately after this happened, I thought to myself something could have been done differently. I didn’t yet know what that meant but I really tried to figure out what that meant. I spent two years trying.

At the end of it, I was found to have used the force necessary in the situation and my name was cleared, but that didn’t completely help. I spent two years seeing psychologists, dealing with family issues, and trying to figure out how or why all of this was happening. I was found to have done the right thing and been fit of mind but this justifiable homicide was a horrible situation for me. That was my first AH-Ha moment. In December 2011,  some informants tipped us off that there was going to be a gang hit on my life. It turns out that the person that died in the drug enforcement situation was a gang leader and the gang had spent two years plotting how they were going to ambush and kill me.

In hearing this situation I walked into a classroom at a local high school knowing that there were students in that classroom that were affiliated with the gang trying to kill me.  I walked in and spent about an hour telling them how scared I was and how much I struggled with power. The kids were listening and they were with me, they knew me as Tiny, the gang cop that worked in their neighborhood.

One kid at the end of the program raised his hand and changed my world forever. He said, “Hey Tiny, you talked about how scared you are but you haven’t said a word about me? Do you remember me? Two years ago you arrested me with a gun in my waistband, you made me crawl through the rain and layout in front of you. Did you ever think about who was standing next to me when you made me do that? My girlfriend. Do you know how it made me feel when you laid me down and put your knee in my back in front of my girlfriend? Did you ever stop to realize that gun wasn’t for you but for a rival gang? Did you understand I was raised never to be disrespected in front of a woman? I have had visions of hurting you for two years but after one hour of listening to you explaining things and what police officers go through. This is the first time I can ever say that I respect you.”

I walked out of the classroom and the principal said, “What’s the name of your program?” and I said, I didn’t have a program, I am going back to being a cop. The principal said, “We have a new website and I want to mention your work on it what do I call it? I said, ” The kids always ask me why did you stop me? So why don’t you call it that, Why’d You Stop Me? That was how we came to be.

The second AH- Ha moment was on August 10th, 2014 when we had our first nonprofit event. We had 200 hundred plus people coming and we had just gotten our 501c3.  I had not been watching the news so I didn’t know that Michael Brown was shot in Ferguson, MO by a police officer. We were the first organization of its kind in this country that could unite a police officer and an ex-felon to teach a message of peace. We knew that night that there was really something that WYSM had to offer and that is how we came to be.

Charity Matters: What are the biggest challenges you face at WYSM?

Jason Lehman: The biggest challenge has been funding. The grant process can be very frustrating. It is hard to measure the amount of change that your work is doing and grant funders want to see the measurement. When we first started the organization, I worked with my family to raise over one hundred and fifty thousand dollars to fund this work. I did this because I care enough about this organization to try and grow this message.  The other challenge is scaling the organization. We can’t scale without the funding, those are two biggest challenges.

Charity Matters: What fuels you to keep doing this work?

Jason Lehman: I think I have two fuel sources. The first one is the change that you see in the community members after they receive this training. We have a million amazing stories. One of them is about a young girl named Jasmine Simpson, she was placed in the foster care system for years and was dealing with some problems. Jasmine went to school two days in an entire semester and on the second day I had her in class teaching about positive outcomes to situations and in that messaging, I pulled her up on stage to re-enact a scenario to allow her to make some decisions. A few weeks later the school resource officer calls me and said you need to read what Jasmine wrote. She had submitted a poem in her English class that said, “I used to hate you but now I want to be just like you.”

The second fuel source is when we train police officers and talk about being kind for 2 minutes during every stop. Often times as police officers we don’t find time to be kind.  After a law enforcement presentation, I was approached by a Sergeant of 27 years and he told me, ” I just arrested someone a week ago and I vividly remember not saying a word to them. I remember them asking for air and to roll the window down, I remember them trying to talk about their problems but all I could tell them was to shut up. After your speakers came and spoke to us and asked us what it would be like if our own children were arrested and treated this way? How would we want our children to be treated by the police if they were arrested? He said to me after hundreds and hundreds of arrests I have never humanized one and I will never do that again after your training. More than that I will do my best to ensure that everyone I supervise in our department treats every person we arrest as a human being.” Those are the types of stories that fuel me to do the work that I do.

Charity Matters: When do you know that you have made a difference?

Jason Lehman: An individual is affected by our training when an organization brings us in. So a payday for me is when an organization wants to embrace the training. Whether it’s a school district, a police department or one of the county’s probation agencies., that is a payday for us. We want to change behavior and now we know we have an audience, a captive audience. We get on their level if we are talking to a group of prisoners we talk about their mind being free from the walls of a prison. When I talk to police officers I talk to them about being kind to someone to make it easier for the next police officer that pulls someone over. They get that. Being able to see the organizations buy into the message and then being able to see the individuals shift, that’s when we know we are doing good stuff.

Charity Matters: Tell us a little about some of the impact you have had at WYSM?

Jason Lehman: We are the only nationally endorsed program by the fraternal order of police. We have 380,000 police officers supporting our organization, we are the only organization in the state that’s been called the best practice organization by Senator Harris. Right now WYSM operates in 19 cities and five states.

More importantly, since we started doing this work that human beings see other human beings differently. When they see other human beings differently they have less opportunity to judge them for something they are not. We are now able to see more of the human being behind the condition in order to allow them to grow and thrive, the power happens when we see kindness in people where kindness didn’t exist before. Our work teaches people to cooperate with the authority to achieve their greatness.

Charity Matters: What life lessons have you learned from this Experience?

Jason Lehman: When starting WYSM I learned about myself. Back in 2008, I made a bad decision in my early years as a cop, that could have had me charged federally for excessive force. I am fortunate not to have been charged and having gone through this was horrible. In creating this movement and mission I have been able to hold myself to the highest accountability I can think of with WYSM. I am now in a position of leadership where I can model positive behavior for others and teach others to model behavior for those that come after them.

Charity Matters: If you had one wish for WYSM what would It be?

Jason Lehman: I have two wishes, one is for the community side and the other is for the police side. On the community side, I would like to replace the 7th grade home economics class with a class called, Cooperating with Authority to Achieve Greatness.

Police Officers take the lives of more approximately 1,000 community members each year is a big deal. Learning how to cooperate with the police and create safer contacts is more important than home economics.  I think the fact a police officer is dying in the line of duty once every 62 hours in this country is also too much.  Learning how to build safer police/community contacts is more important than learning to boil water. Police officers, our protectors, kill themselves at four times the level of a normal individual. If police/community conflict and violence were reduced, I believe we could reduce police trauma and ultimately see a reduction in police suicides.

On the flip side, I would like police officers to see value in what they typically view as hug a thug training. I hope that police officers see value in this training and that this training will spread across the entire country. Those would be my two wishes.

Charity Matters: Is there anything else you want to Share about your work at WYSM?

Jason Lehman: I think one of the most valuable and important assets of this training is that my partner is somebody who is a college graduate, was 2016 Long Beach’s Hero of the Year beating out firefighters and police officers. This man whose name is Rodney Coulter spent 29 years of his life in prison or on parole or on probation. He has been arrested 39 times by the Long Beach Police Department and his cousin is the person whose life I took in that undercover drug deal. Rodney and I are best friends and we stand side by side in unity and team teach. He is incredible. His line is, “I never thought a cop and a Crip could be best friends.”  Rodney teaches gang members why cops are good and I teach the police why people like Rodney are good. The power happens when together we see kindness in people where kindness didn’t exist before.

Charity Matters

 

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Becoming a leader

” Becoming a leader is synonymous with becoming yourself. It is precisely that simple and it is also that difficult.”

Warren Bennis

As many of you know I run a nonprofit that is a youth leadership organization. During the summer we run three separate weeks of leadership camp, where middle school students stay on a college campus for a week away from their parents, learning, having fun and having time to reflect on who they are and where they want to go. This past week we just ended our first session of camp with almost two hundred students transformed by their experience.

Our students do all of the traditional camp activities like talent shows, biathlons, a dance, cheering …you know the drill. What makes us unique is that students also learn a curriculum about becoming a leader. They learn to have a plan, a goal, how to communicate those plans, they learn to be life long mentors to others and most importantly they learn that you can not lead unless you serve. It is truly students teaching students leading by example showing the best of themselves and who they can be.

So often in the nonprofit space, we are running a business like almost any other with budgets, timelines, goals and the list goes on. What makes our work (nonprofit work) different is that unlike a company when your numbers are down, fewer people profit. In the nonprofit world, when you don’t make numbers, someone doesn’t go to camp, get fed, receive medicine and the list goes on. The stakes are real and there is a person affected by each choice, for better or for worse.

The other challenge in the nonprofit space is that you can often feel separated or removed from those you serve.  We work all year (our staff of two and 150 amazing volunteers, who will serve over 3,000 students) to send one-third of our students to camp with scholarships. Then the moment happens, we see their faces, we watch them grow and learn all week and our efforts beyond worthwhile. Children who live in the inner-city, who have never been on a college campus let alone stay on one and then to hear them share their experiences….well there simply are not words with how incredible it feels.

Each volunteer gives of themselves to change the life of another. You can feel the love, the kindness, the joy, the gratitude between our campers and our volunteer staff. Regardless of what is happening in the world, I know that our amazing college and high school volunteers are transforming hundreds of children’s lives for the better….renewing my faith in humanity and inspiring me to strive to serve more.

charity matters

 

YOUR REFERRAL IS THE GREATEST COMPLIMENT,  IF YOU ARE SO MOVED OR INSPIRED, WE WOULD LOVE YOU TO SHARE AND INSPIRE ANOTHER.

Copyright © 2019 Charity Matters. This article may not be reproduced without explicit written permission; if you are not reading this in your newsreader, the site you are viewing is illegally infringing our copyright. We would be grateful if you contact us.

Kula Project

Have you ever heard the expression one thing leads to another?  That expression has never been more fitting than with my introduction to the amazing Sarah Buchanan Sasson. You may remember a few weeks back the fantastic conversation with Cause Bar founder, Kristiana Tarnuzzer?  Well,  Kristiana suggested that I connect with Sarah, who is the founder of KulaProject.org, a nonprofit that focuses on eliminating poverty by developing female entrepreneurs in Rwanda. Sarah’s life is the perfect example of the expression, one thing leads to another. I can’t wait to share her incredible story and journey from suburban Atlanta to Rwanda. Our conversation was as inspirational as she is…..

Charity Matters: Tell us a little about what Kula does?

Sarah Buchanan Sasson: We help women in Rwanda build and grow businesses. We do that with both coffee growers and artisans.

Charity Matters: What was the moment you knew you needed to act and start  Kula?

Sarah Buchanan Sasson: In October 2008, I was living in Atlanta and went to a conference that had an African children’s choir. The first moment they started singing I had a come to Jesus moment. A little girl spoke about her hardships but she had such an inner light that was so outward.  I remember the moment so clearly.  At that moment I knew I had to go to Africa. That day I signed up to go to Kenya through a volunteer program for a mission trip. I didn’t even have a passport.

In April 2009, I was on my way to Kenya. It was my first time out of the country and it was really really hard. I was out of my comfort zone in every way. I went with a dental mission team and had no dental experience. I came back and had expected a transformative experience that didn’t happen. So I just went on with my life. A year later the same volunteer group was going and asked me to join them. I used money as an excuse not to go and shortly thereafter I received a note that an anonymous donor had paid for my trip, so I went back.

One year later, going back to the exact same place and seeing that nothing had changed for these women, I just saw the stagnation of their lives. I realized that poverty was about a lack of opportunity. Growing up in the South you think that people are poor because they don’t work hard.  I realized that poverty is not about being lazy but about a lack of access and lack of opportunity, not about not having money. I came home from the trip changed. 

 After going to Kenya in 2009, I changed my major from pre-law to International Development with a focus on African politics. I never thought about starting a nonprofit but began interning for other nonprofits. So many of the programs I was working with were not engaging the people they were serving. I began looking for organizations that did that and when I couldn’t find one decided that we should start our own. We started Kula in May of 2012.

I originally thought the more places we were in the more legitimate we were so we had programs in downtown Atlanta with homeless communities, Jamacia and in Kenya. Not a single one of those programs worked. I sold my car to fund the program in Jamacia and the program failed. I was working two jobs to try to fund all of these projects across the globe. Two years in and we were ready to quit.  Since we had sold everything and were planning on leaving the continent of Africa forever, I suggested we take one last trip on our way out of Africa to Rwanda. I remember thinking that this was going to be the greatest adventure of my life.

Charity Matters: Why Africa? More specifically, why Rwanda?

Sarah Buchanan Sasson: I had taken a class called Global Issues where we had an entire segment on the Rwandan genocide. It blew my mind about what I was learning about the genocide and how little we discussed it in the United States.   I had always wanted to go to Rwanda and thought we should go since this would probably be our last time on the continent.  I had this image in my mind that it was a place of destruction and then we got there and it was beautiful. It reminds me of Southern California. The food was great, the restaurants were great and I remember being so shocked and then feeling so guilty that I had had this horrible vision of this beautiful place. I honestly couldn’t believe what these people had overcome on their own.

We met with a coffee company that took us out for a few days. We were meeting with all of these incredible women who told us their stories survival and during the genocide.  They had overcome these things that most people can not imagine to be true.  Now all they wanted was to grow more coffee and better coffee to have an opportunity to sell it so they could afford to educate their children. These women believe that if they educate their children there will never be genocide again. That for me was my real moment.  I knew my quitting wasn’t an option. At that moment I knew that if these women can survive what they have been through then I could too.  

That was when we realized we needed to focus on women and to listen to what they needed. From that moment on all of our programs were designed by the women the programs were intended to effect.  That is why our first two years had failed. We went into communities and told them what we thought was best for them.  All those early mistakes we had made are the only reason our programs are working today, those mistakes are what taught us how to be successful. We relocated the Kula Project to Rwanda and now we have a staff of 23 and only three are American and we give all of our success to our Rwandan staff.

Charity Matters: What are your biggest challenges?

Sarah Buchanan Sasson:  I think like all nonprofits, fundraising. It is really hard to compete, it’s hard to stand out and everyday everyone thinks there is a new problem that we need to be addressing. We are constantly trying to find ways to break through all the noise and to become sustainable on our own.  We work with women who make baskets and grow coffee, they already have a product so let’s sell it. We are looking more and more about getting into the coffee space, hoping we can stand out with our story. When we sell our coffee directly to roasters our hope is that one hundred percent of the purchase would go back to Kula and fund the ladies that grew the coffee. Our goal is to be fifty percent sustainable by the year 2021 on our own.

Charity Matters: What fuels you to keep doing this work?

Sarah Buchanan Sasson: The work is hard. I have one thousand women and their families who depend on me to send their children to school and to eat. You feel guilty because you’re tired and you are working to support people who survived the genocide.  I’ve learned that I can’t compare my life to theirs.  Burnout is real when you give and give.  I have learned that in order to keep giving I need to find a way to recover and to differentiate myself from the organization.  

We have been doing this work for seven years and I have learned that I need to take solo road trips and love being out by myself inspired by nature. It really refuels me and gives me space to be inspired and feel in awe of nature. That gives me new ideas for our business and I have come up with some of our best campaigns.  

Charity Matters: When do you know you have made a difference?

Sarah Buchanan Sasson: I feel that most of us in the nonprofit space have a hard time celebrating those moments when all we usually see is what we need to do that is ahead.  I am really working on trying to pause and celebrate our wins. I know we have made a difference when I listen to the women tell stories of their lives. We have very clear goals for everyone in the program. We give these women skills to make a living we also do so much more. We train them, then they complete financial planning, family health and nutrition, gender equality, mentorship, business management, and community leadership classes. After that, the women submit a business plan and we invest in those who have invested in themselves and then measure our impact. 

When the women talk about things that we didn’t set out to change I am always surprised. One unexpected impact was a huge drop in domestic abuse. We do a number of in-home training and one woman told me that the more we come to visit her the more her husband stops beating her. That story created gender equity training for all the men in the households and while we do not set out to change the culture this one we needed to put an emphasis on. Being able to be a part of this changing conversation was something we really didn’t expect.

Charity Matters: Tell us what success you have had? What has your impact been?

Sarah Buchanan Sasson: We started in Rwanda five years ago, and our first year we planted 5,000 coffee trees. These coffee trees take three years to produce, it is such a long term investment. We planted over 100,000 coffee trees in the first five years.  By the end of this year, it will be 170,000 trees that we have planted.  We have done over 4,000 one on one training and over 3500 hours of one on one trainings. We took all that we had learned and put it into a fifteen-month fellowship program where they learn about coffee farming and artisan training in addition to all their classes, having access to formal banking and a multitude of training and classes. This class is our first official graduating class. 

We launched our first impact analysis and discovered that before the Kula Project of the 474 women we spoke to zero of them had a savings account and now 87% of the women have savings accounts. We conducted pre and post analysis and learned that before Kula  12% of women were afraid to speak their mind and now 93% of these women feel confident enough to speak their mind. It is the biggest compliment. 

Charity Matters: What life lessons have you learned from this experience?

Sarah Sasson: The biggest life lessons I’ve learned is that what was supposed to be feared is what is supposed to be learned. Travel changes what is true. You think things are the way they are until you see them in person.

Charity Matters: How has this journey changed you?

Sarah Sasson: I would have never considered myself a tenacious person but when I looked at trying to empower the success of others you look at your ability to not to quit differently. I do not think I am not the same in any way since I started. There is nothing about myself that is the same.  My views have changed. How I see the world, how I see people struggle and how I understand poverty all of that is different from being in it so much.

Charity Matters: What is your Wish for Kula Project?

Sarah Sasson: I want to see a generation of Rwandans doing great things. We want our ladies to know that a better future is possible and we believe in them and we believe that will directly translate to their children. My biggest dream is that in twenty years I am at University graduation with one of our ladies who was able to put her children all the way through university because we empowered her. That we not only helped her build a business but that we helped her create a vision that she even believed that was possible for her family. I think that the ultimate wish is to watch the next generation of Rwandan girls not even have to be told they can do it because they were raised in the very beginning believing that was possible. 

 

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Copyright © 2019 Charity Matters. This article may not be reproduced without explicit written permission; if you are not reading this in your newsreader, the site you are viewing is illegally infringing our copyright. We would be grateful if you contact us.

 

Traveling with a purpose

“Some travel to see the difference, others travel to make a difference.”

Author Unknown

As we put graduations behind us and begin to prepare for summer vacations many people have asked for suggestions regarding vacations with a purpose. While having sons in college we have not done much international travel these past few years I am looking forward to planning some of these excursions for our family and began the research which I wanted to share with you.

Like any trip the questions of who, what, where are always good places to start. Are you taking young children or elderly parents? What do you want to accomplish through your volunteering and who do you want to serve? There are so many fantastic organizations in need all over the globe but thinking about this helps you narrow down the hardest question which is where should we go and who do we want to serve?

Step one: Research

For me, the starting place was visiting websites like Responsible Travel. Since 2001 they have been planning vacations and have served over 150,000 people in that time. They have a huge team even though they are based in England they have amazing programs that also give back to other organizations when you work with them Their site is great looking and easy to navigate. For sure this should be your first stop in researching your travel with a purpose.

Another great place to continue to explore and research is Volunteerforever. com Since 2015, Volunteerforever.com has compiled some of the best volunteer abroad programs around the globe with over 900 international volunteer abroad programs and thousands of reviews on all of them. Their goal is to take the guesswork out of choosing a program.

You also want to take a look at  International Volunteer HQ if you are searching for another place to begin to vet meaningful volunteer work and experience a life-changing vacation this is a great place to get information about programs and volunteer opportunities abroad. They offer some of the world’s largest volunteer abroad projects in over 40 destinations across Africa, South America, Central America, North America, Europe, the Caribbean, and the Pacific. International Volunteer HQ has helped over 102, 000 volunteers since 2007, so they certainly know what they are doing.

Step Two: Consider an Eco-Tourism Trip

Eco-tourism is another way to make your travel this summer meaningful while also helping the environment. There are so many options whether you want to do a trip like we did a few years to the Galapagos that focuses on endangered ecosystems and habitats or you want to explore endangered wildlife there are a number of organizations that can help you with both.

If you think you want to do something to save our oceans or that focuses on marine habitats then GoVoluntouring.com is a great place to start exploring a way to mix your passion with a great vacation. Their goal is to turn one million travelers into one million volunteers. They offer everything from eco-biology to wildlife volunteer programs for a host of ages and in countries across the globe. Goecocom also helps the vetting process if you are looking for something more environmental, marine and ecology based.  Another option is to go straight to the source of an organization you want to serve like the WorldWildlife.org They are a nonprofit that has been connecting their own supporters and volunteers to their cause and they have a number of ways you can get involved.

Step Three: Set your goal with who you want to serve

Serving people in need can offer so many opportunities to not only learn about other cultures but also ways to teach your children empathy and use your time to truly do something meaningful. Opportunities can be anything from building homes, feeding the hungry, bringing water into areas without fresh water and the list goes on.  Again you can go directly to a nonprofit that you already know and love like Habitat for Humanity, One World, Pencils of Promise or a host of other large nonprofit organizations and have them connect you to a project. You can also look at Projects Abroad and Pack for a Purpose as well for suggestions. So many of these opportunities allow you to really get to meet new people, work with them and learn so much about how others live.

The bottom line is no matter how you choose to spend your summer vacation there is a way to include even a small portion of service into your trip. So consider looking into a few of these resources and let me know if you have any others?  Like all good trips, it takes time, careful planning and getting tips from multiple resources to plan a memorable experience that will enrich your life and someone else’s as well. Just imagine how great your summer travel could be with a fantastic destination, a cause, a purpose and an opportunity to be more compassionate, empathetic and giving. It sounds like a perfect recipe for joy. Happy Summer and safe travels!

Charity Matters

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Copyright © 2019 Charity Matters. This article may not be reproduced without explicit written permission; if you are not reading this in your newsreader, the site you are viewing is illegally infringing our copyright. We would be grateful if you contact us.

 

The Comfort Cub

Have you ever had a friend that keeps telling you, “you need to meet so and so.”  Well, a friend of mine has told me for years that I needed to meet her friend, Marcella Johnson, who is the founder of the nonprofit The Comfort Cub. The stars finally aligned and we had a conversation last week that was supposed to last for forty-five minutes and when I looked at my clock and saw that two hours had passed I was in awe. She was beyond worth the wait and such an inspiration.

In 1999, Marcella’s fourth child, George died shortly after he was born from congenital heart disease. Marcella used her grief as fuel to help others who were suffering from broken heart syndrome and trauma in her creation of the nonprofit the Comfort Cub.

Charity Matters: Tell us a little about what The Comfort Cub does?

Marcella Johnson:  The Comfort Cub is the world’s very first weighted therapeutic teddy bear.  After I lost my newborn son George in 1999 due to congenital heart disease we developed the Cub to help other mothers who suffered from the loss of their infant. The Comfort Cub is specially weighted and is intended to simulate the weighted comfort of cradling a newborn. While the initial intent of The Comfort Cub was for child loss, research now shows it provides profound relief for any traumatic event. This includes having to leave the hospital while your baby is still in the NICU, the loss of a spouse, parent, loved one or beloved pet. It has also been effective for occupational & autism therapy, adoptions and those experiencing divorce or traumatic loss. Due to deep touch pressure, holding The Comfort Cub triggers the brain to release the neurotransmitters dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin, which causes the body to relax and feel comforted.

Charity Matters: What was the moment you knew you needed to start The Comfort Cub?

Marcella Johnson: Leaving the hospital empty handed, with nothing in my arms was one of the worst parts of the whole experience of losing a child.  It was doubly heartbreaking because when it was time to be discharged my husband took all my things and went to get the car.  I was in the elevator next to a woman both of us had just delivered and she had balloons, flowers, her baby boy and I had nothing to hold, it was so painful. Then when we were both wheeled outside to pick up her husband has the video camera, the balloons, and the joy. I just wanted to die. Then my husband pulled up and to see his pain looking at this happy new family was so hard, watching him suffer. We just drove off in silence.

What happened when we got home was that the emotional pain felt like an open wound. My chest literally hurt and my arms ached and no massage or Tylenol made it go away. There was a dull ache in my heart and I thought I was losing my mind. Twenty years ago people didn’t know about Takotsubo Syndrom, also known as broken heart syndrome, but research eventually proved that I wasn’t alone. 

A week after the funeral I asked my dad if he would meet me at the gravesite and he had this beautiful pot of flowers to leave at the grave. When I held the pot the aching in my heart and arms went away. I was sure I was losing my mind. Then I began doing my own research on grief and discovered women who were grieving would hold sacks of flour or carried a pineapple wrapped in a blanket and realized that the pot was about the weight my child would have been.

I had asked people to donate teddy bears instead of flowers in baby George’s name that we would bring to the local Children’s Hospital. We had a lot of teddy bears and about four months after the funeral I saw a Build a Bear and I went to the manager and told him my story and that I wanted to try to create a comfort bear for other women like me. He told me he would help me after work and to go and buy all the split peas that I could find. We opened up the bears and filled them with 6.7 lbs of lentils (baby George’s weight) until we got the weight just right. The following year we started the organization because I was determined that I am not going through this in vain and if I can help just one other woman than I will be satisfied.

Charity Matters: Tell us a little about How you started The Comfort Cub after the prototype?

Marcella Johnson: Helping to me is second nature. I wanted to make sure that no woman in San Diego left the hospital the way that I did. My husband and I started a fund with the money that we would have spent on baby George. So instead of the money to buy diapers and formula, we bought teddy bears, ribbons and spilt peas. A hospice organization asked for ten bears and the Children’s Hospital asked for twelve. I got my girlfriends together and we started an assembly line.

I realized early on that this doesn’t belong to me but I am simply a steward of this. The way people have responded to this bear is so much bigger than me. The reaction from parents and people who have gone through trauma has been so inspiring. Unfortunately, when there has been a tragedy we have sent the bears. My sister lived near Sandy Hook and showed up at the office with the bears. The office manager said they had received 60,000 teddy bears and didn’t need another bear. When she told my story the office manager said she would hand deliver each Comfort Cub to tall of the parents of Sandy Hook victims. Then the parents of the teachers who were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary requested the bears. We made three hundred cubs for the grief group of the Vegas tragedy and just this past week we delivered bears here in San Diego for the recent shooting at the temple.

Charity Matters: What are your biggest challenges?

Marcella Johnson: Our biggest challenge is to get people to understand. Twenty years ago people didn’t know about the physical effects of grief and Takotsubo Syndrome. People can sometimes feel overwhelmed by helping women who have lost children and they either get it or they don’t. The Comfort Cub isn’t about sadness but about hope and healing. People are much more interested in talking about trauma than death. Why it is uncomfortable for many of us to try and find the words for people who lost someone we can not turn our backs on those who are suffering. 

There have been times when this work has been hard. When the economy changed and we had the financial crisis in 2008 funding became more challenging. I had three other children, was making the bears, distributing them and it was a lot. We had a Comfort Cub hotline where we offered them for free to anyone in the United States who had a need. The San Diego Hospice group ran the hotline and funded much of the program in the beginning until a few years ago when they closed down. In 2013, I officially started running everything and in 2015 we became our own nonprofit.

Charity Matters: What fuels you to keep doing this work?

Marcella Johnson: This work is internal and in my heart. It is in my soul and I feel called to do this work. There are so many people that are grieving out there and we need to help them. I believe that I am supposed to be doing this work. 

Charity Matters: When do you know you have made a difference?

Marcella Johnson: There are so many ways….I hear from the hospital all the time the comfort and peace the cubs give to so many. The people who write on our Facebook page about what an impact the cub has made.  I find out second hand because I do not directly distribute the comfort cubs. However, a few years ago I received an award and they brought out a woman who had lost a child and she was carrying something that looked like the velveteen rabbit, it was so worn and loved. I realized as she began to speak about what the comfort cub had done for her that she the loved thing she as holding was her comfort cub.  It is just wow to realize the difference we have made and it takes your breath away.

Charity Matters: Tell us what success and impact you have had?

Marcella Johnson: Since we began we have given over 15,000 Comfort Cubs. So often we learn that these cubs are usually passed on to at least three people. People want to give their cub to someone else who is hurting and now needs it. When you do the math that is touching almost 45,000 lives. I have a friend who is a nurse practitioner and she was recently doing a physical exam. The woman undressed and had a comfort cub tattoo. My friend asked about her tattoo and the woman explained that she had lost a child and that the comfort cub literally saved her life and she wanted it tattooed to always have it with her. That was an impact that I never expected. 

Charity Matters: What life lessons have you learned from this experience?

Marcella Johnson: Before losing a child I always thought it was best not to mention a person who has died’s name. I have learned that you do not want a loved one to be forgotten. I make it a point to always tell people that whoever they lost, mattered. Also, the more you can do to help someone who is grieving the better, it doesn’t have to be anything grand but just to let them know you care.

Charity Matters: How has this journey changed you?

Marcella Johnson: My son’s passing changed my life forever. I wanted to know when he died where did he go? Where is my child? His death sent me on a quest to know more about my faith. It made me realize that we are not in control of anything. Life is short and we need to enjoy and celebrate all the goodness in our lives. Let’s go to the birthday parties, let’s go to the graduation parties and see our children in their plays.  You need to tell people who are meaningful in your life that you love them and what they mean to you because it is fleeting. This is my journey and this is my life….

 

Charity Matters.

 

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The Cause Bar

Inspiration comes in many forms, as does making a difference. When a girlfriend told me she had just met an amazing human who was approaching philanthropy in a fresh and exciting new way, I knew I needed to know more. A few weeks ago, I had a fantastic conversation with Kristiana Tarnuzzer, the founder of The Cause Bar. In her previous life, Kristiana was involved in mission trips to third world countries,  co-founded a nonprofit in NYC and was the go-to girl for all things philanthropic from events to fashion that gave back. A move to LA from New York inspired Kristiana to look for a one-stop place where she could find ways to make a difference in her new city. Once she realized it didn’t exist she decided to create it…The Cause Bar.

Charity Matters: Tell us a little about what The Cause Bar does?

Kristiana Tarnuzzer: The Cause Bar is a social media-driven destination for empowering, inspiring and educating on how to live a more cause focused lifestyle. We do that by highlighting for purpose brands, changemakers, people who incorporate charity in a unique way and ways to volunteer. 

People can give through attending an event, some people like to roll up their sleeves and get dirty and others want to drink wine at an event. The Cause Bar is morphing into a community where we give light to people doing great things.

Charity Matters: What was the moment you knew you needed to start The Cause Bar?

Kristiana Tarnuzzer: I think what opened the door for me to do this was a little bit like a force. We moved from NYC to LA in 2018 for my husband’s career and dream job. I have lived in New Jersey and New York my entire life and had been a full time working mom in NYC. My career didn’t exist on the West Coast and I basically had a mid-life crisis leaving my life behind to move to the west coast with my husband and two young children.

Once we moved, the only thing I knew and had was this idea of The Cause Bar.  It wasn’t anything new for me, because it was essentially the way I had always lived my life. I have always been involved with charitable works from a very young age. I had co-founded a nonprofit in my twenties, to going on mission trips in my thirties and people have always asked me how to find volunteer opportunities. 

Once I had children it became, how am I going to lead my life by example for them? How can I raise these two children to be the next generation of philanthropists? How do I  leave the world better than I found it? I saw so much interest in my own personal network from my philanthropy. People kept asking me how to find volunteer opportunities because it is overwhelming. I became a personal resource because of the way I lived my life. So many people want to give but are busy and don’t always know how. So I thought what if I put this concept out to the larger world, maybe there will be others that are interested in this? I initially launched The Cause Bar as an Instagram, I knew no one and immediately started getting traction. I let it ride for six months and knew that if other people are honoring this then I knew I had to commit to The Cause Bar.

Charity Matters: What are your biggest challenges?

Kristiana Tarnuzzer: My biggest challenge is figuring out what the perfect next stage of the model will be. How can I make this the most impactful? How do I get my mission and the work that I do every day and how can we multiply my life exponentially? How can I do more than just do this myself? How can others do this alongside me and how do I bring that to life?

Charity Matters: What fuels you to keep doing this work?

Kristiana Tarnuzzer: I couldn’t imagine going back and sitting in an office for something else after really being in this world. Something happened to me in my thirties and forties knowing there is so much more to be done and I want to sit on this side of it. I want this to be more. The move was one of the harder things in my life and it turned out to be the door that opened.

Charity Matters: When do you know you have made a difference?

Kristiana Tarnuzzer: I call these my green lights. When I realize that we raised thousands of dollars for a nonprofit. When I overhear someone talking about something The Cause Bar has done. When we get online feedback about the products people are buying, the events they are going to, the connections that are being made and the support being given to nonprofits is when I know we are a part of moving the needle. Those moments are my green lights.

Charity Matters: Tell us what success you have had and What your impact has been?

Kristiana Tarnuzzer: We are 100% self-funded. The humble brags are things like the “the site is beautiful” or “we thought you have been around a long time.” Being an entrepreneur is so different from my old life of getting constant feedback from a team. Our feedback comes online and I know we are successful when we have impacted nonprofits and the way people live their lives.

Charity Matters: How has this journey changed you?

Kristiana Tarnuzzer: I have always had a tribe. I never had to even think about a support group, people, family or my resources. I have always had a team and been part of a team in life and in my career. In doing this move and The Cause Bar I had to rely on myself, trust my gut and it was just me. 

Charity Matters: What life lessons have you learned from this experience?

Kristiana Tarnuzzer:   I have learned to try to love myself more and to adapt. I’ve learned to give myself the grace and the space to become and to enjoy the journey.

Charity Matters: What is your wish for The Cause Bar?

Kristiana Tarnuzzer: I wish that giving back becomes more a part of everyone’s lifestyle and that we are a big part of that. There are so many benefits to giving back and it is not just for ourselves but for what we can do for others. 

 

Charity Matters

 

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Shields for Families

A few weeks ago I attended an incredible event at the Hilton Foundation that I wrote about. One of the women who spoke at the event was named Danielle Lowe and at lunchtime, I approached her and told her how impressed I was with the work she was doing with her nonprofit Shields for Families. I told her that I would love to learn more about the organization and asked if she by chance knew the founder. Danielle got a huge smile on her face and said, “Why yes I do, it happens to be my mother, Kathryn Icenhower.” A few weeks later the three of us, Danielle and her mother Kathryn and I had a fantastic conversation about the truly unbelievable work that Shields for Families is doing to serve South Central Los Angeles and thousands of families dealing with a full spectrum of needs like shelter, housing, transportation,  substance abuse treatment, education, homelessness and breaking the cycle of poverty. This amazing mother and daughter team is a perfect example of what is right in our world.

Charity Matters: Tell us a little about what Shields for Families does?

Kathryn Icenhower: We attempt to provide families everything they need to be successful in life with whatever the dreams are that they set for themselves and not make that hard, by providing a full range of services. It always frustrated me when I was a social worker that families don’t come with one problem and our social services have always been set up in silos that make it challenging to get help. I don’t feel that getting help should be that hard. We tried to set up an organization where families can get whatever they need. We are all about believing, building and becoming.

Charity Matters: What was the moment you knew you needed to act and start  Shields for Families?

Kathyrn Icenhower: To be honest, I got really mad. I was working for the Los Angeles County and I was in charge of programs, planning, and development. We had a massive drug epidemic and in 1987  The Martin Luther King/Drew Medical Center alone delivered 1,200 neo-natal infants that were exposed prenatally to drugs. Children were being ripped from their families and in most cases being placed far away. Our models for delivering treatment for substance abuse were not effective. So, I developed a model where women could bring their children with them to treatment every day and we had no funding. I met with the Assistant Director of the Alcohol and Drug program for the state to present my idea. At the time there was nothing like this in the country and she literally laughed me out of her office.

What I didn’t realize at the time, is that there were two doctors were presenting a similar idea at the state level about the medical ramifications of these children being born with drugs in their systems. The state agreed with the doctors and went back to the same woman, who had laughed at me. She called showed them my plan and it became the pilot program for the State of California. That was 1990 and the first program called Genisis began with $350,000. Norma Mtume and Xylina Bean helped make this happen and the three of us are still together.

Charity Matters: How did you start?

Kathyrn Icenhower: We listened to families to see what they needed and then I used my skill as a grant writer and we began asking for funding to meet those needs. We were able to get funding to build our treatment program. Then the county wanted to keep some of these programs local so that is when we expanded into child welfare and mental health. Danielle was five when we started Shields.

Charity Matters: What are your biggest challenges?

Danielle Brunn Lowe: I think one of the biggest challenges that Shields is very innovative with solutions and as a result, we are often waiting on funders or the community to catch up with us. We are very selective with our funding and we ensure that our funders mission needs to match ours. Sometimes we end up with a gap in services and end up doing a lot of pro bono work. 

Kathyrn Icenhower: Families don’t have problems in a vacuum and you can’t address them in that way. We have outcomes to prove that our programs are effective. We partner with ten different agencies that bring a wealth of information to us. In the past couple of years, there has been such a focus on accountability. While accountability is important, the amount of time for measurement audits and scrutiny is sometimes overwhelming. We have fifty grants from the federal government, the state, and private funders.

Charity Matters: What fuels you to keep doing this work?

Danielle Brunn Lowe: I was raised that everyone on this earth was put here for a purpose. I have been blessed to find mine. That is what keeps me going. To see people achieve things they never thought they could never do is the best and a blessing. This is my purpose and I was blessed enough to be I born with this work watching my mom. I was there as a child as she did this. Helping to give people the skills they need to advocate for themselves really keeps me going.

Kathyrn Icenhower: My spirituality lead me here. I had a calling. I’m not going to lie, this is hard work. I would not have survived this had I not stayed in touch with the people I help for the past twenty-nine years. I am grounded by the people we serve. I can’t take any credit, I just listened. That is something everyone needs to do. I love attending all the events we do to remind me why I do this work every day. It is all necessary. These families remind me why I do what I do.

Charity Matters: When do you know you have made a difference?

Danielle Brunn Lowe: The outside world defines family success differently. When I watch a family go through a treatment program and reach their goals. When our families become independent. When I see one of our teens help another through coping skills that we have taught them, I know we have made an impact. I tell all my families the line from Nanny McPhee, ” When you don’t want me but need me, I’ll be there. Go fly and call me to tell me how you are flying.”

Kathyrn Icenhower: I know we have made a difference when kids graduate from college. When mothers in treatment get their masters degrees. What we are able to accomplish changes, whole families. “We” made a difference when someone can have their children back. There are so many minute things. Seeing families being successful in accomplishing their goals and that they are caring for one another. We have been able to change the trajectories of entire families.

Charity Matters: Tell us a little about your impact?

Danielle Brunn Lowe: With our charter schools these are students who have been kicked out of a traditional school for a host of reasons. On average our students are about a year behind when they start with us.  Forty percent are homeless youth, involved with child welfare or probation and we have a ninety percent graduation rate with 85% transferring to a four-year college.

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Kathryn Icenhower: We serve over 10,000 families a year with 350 full-time staff and a thirty million dollar budget. Historically, our models have been very successful, our treatment centers have an eighty percent success rate versus the national average of twenty-five percent for long term treatment. We have an upfront assessment plan when a child needs to be removed from the home due to drugs or abuse, we assist the family with services for treatment and do whatever we can to help keep the child at home or make sure the parents voluntarily let the child go while they get help. Within a year and a half of implementing the program, we have reduced the out of home removal by 62% and are now training other agencies on how to use our skills.   We saved the County of Los Angeles over one hundred million dollars and that program became embedded in multiple other programs.

Charity Matters: How has this journey changed you?

Danielle Brunn Lowe: I have learned to always speak for what is right. My mom showed me how.

Kathyrn Icenhower: When Danielle was little we were at a meeting and she spoke up for something that made her upset. She has always done that which makes me proud. This journey has made me stronger. The challenges may try to knock you down but I’ve had to learn to trust myself and to maintain my faith, that it is all going to be ok.

Charity Matters: What life lessons have you learned from this experience?

Danielle Brunn Lowe: I have learned the ability to be humble and vulnerable. Sometimes we all take for granted everything that we have.  I am always humbled by what I learn about resiliency and faith from those we serve. To watch them working towards those goals that every human being deserves. Being open is a constant reminder of what is actually meaningful in this lifetime. This work is a constant reality check that it is not the money that gives you status but what you have to offer from within.

Kathyrn Icenhower: I have learned to always have faith. I must always do what I believe is correct no matter how difficult that path may seem and have faith that will carry me through. 

Charity Matters

 

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The Fig Factor Foundation

 

” The best gift you can give others is your positive attitude.”

Jackie Camacho-Ruiz

For the past year, I have been contemplating writing a book. A few weeks ago I reached out to a number of authors and publishers to talk about how to begin the process. One of the people I was referred to was a woman named Jackie Camacho-Ruiz. She is the author of fifteen books, has a marketing agency, a publishing house business, and is also a pilot. We had a terrific phone call about writing and in the process, I discovered that Jackie started a non-profit called The Fig Factor Foundation. This woman is a dynamo! After learning about what Jackie was doing for others we had an additional call about her work mentoring young Latina women that was beyond inspiring.

Charity Matters: Tell us a little about what The Fig Factor Foundation does?

Jackie Camacho-Ruiz: The Fig Factor Foundation helps unleash the amazing potential in future Latina leaders. For us, it is recognizing that young Latinas have something beautiful inside. What we do is a series of four steps to help bring that out. We serve girls from the ages of 12 to 25. The first step is our CORE program where the girls complete a two-day course where we go through a series of exercises based on eight factors; discovery, wisdom, humility, persistence, vulnerability, vision, awareness and passion.

The second step is all about leadership, where one mentor is paired up with two young girls, usually between the ages of 15 and twenty, for six months. There is a curriculum where there is a theme per month and the mentor’s report back what they did for that theme, whether it was a field trip, reading a book together or a variety of activities. Then step three is exposing the girls to as many enriching experiences as we can. We take them to experiences that they would not have access too, such as the Facebook headquarters in Chicago, take them flying and a multitude of experiences. The final step is to ask the girls to give back. The girls come back and volunteer to give back to the other girls going through the program.

Charity Matters: What was the moment you knew you needed to act and start your non-profit/philanthropic organization

Jackie Camacho-Ruiz: I am a survivor, poverty and a two-time cancer survivor. When you get to a place in life when you are so grateful for all you have. When you go to the kitchen and you want an apple and you see that you have five apples and everywhere you look there is an abundance of love, you are filled with gratitude. So five years ago on my birthday, I was turning thirty-one and feeling nostalgic because I had been given a second and third chance to live. I told my husband I had an inspiration or a divine download, as I like to call them. I said I didn’t need anything for my birthday, instead, I wanted to bring thirty-one friends for my 31st birthday together for the day and make them feel like princesses.

Ninety percent of the women happened to be Latina, and one by one I asked them to get up and share their dreams. All of them stood up and shared their dreams and for every dream, there were three reasons why they couldn’t accomplish it. So I asked all the girls at my birthday to vote for who inspired them the most and they voted for a young 16-year-old girl who had come to the celebration. It was this young girl that had a number of challenges but was still trying so hard against many odds.  A few days later, in August 2014  I was sharing the story at work about this girl and my co-worker said, “Why don’t we through her a quinceanera?” My co-worker and I ended up giving this girl a huge quinceanera. My client Dale Carnegie Institute gave this girl a scholarship to the Carnegie leadership camp.

When I talked to my business mentor at Dale Carnegie Institute he asked me about my dream and I told, ” I just want to make a change in the world.”   He said, “You can do this Jackie.” In 2014, I started researching and figuring out how to make empowering young Latinas dreams to happen on a bigger scale. I got that fire and knew I needed to make this happen.

Charity Matters: What are your biggest challenges?

Jackie Camacho-Ruiz: I think getting more donors and more people to support our work. This is a labor of love and not having an Executive Director to run the day to day organization is a challenge. We have an amazing board who is working with me to implement the dream but we would love to have someone fulltime.

Charity Matters: What fuels you to keep doing this work?

Jackie Camacho-Ruiz: The impact. How could you not want to help when a young Latina says,” thank you for believing in me.” When the girls see the magic. For me, the countless miles of hugs, tears, dancing…it is beyond anything. I feel like I have the energy to give to thousands because of what these girls have given me. The mission has found me.

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Charity Matters: When do you know you have made a difference?

Jackie Camacho- Ruiz: I am an aunt, a mother, a sister, a mentor to these girls and when I reflect on the interactions I have had with these girls. I know we have made a difference and that I would do anything for these girls.

Charity Matters: Tell us what success you have had and What has your impact been?

Jackie Camacho-Ruiz: This is always a very interesting question because you have qualitative data that you are converting into quantitative results. We have been working with an executive at Google to create a survey for their pre- Fig Factor experience and their post experience to measure the factors of our results. We have had 112 girls go through our program who are thriving, going to college and following their dreams.

One thing that we have done was in March of 2017, I called the second biggest city in Illinois and asked them if they would consider promoting a young Latina day? My hope was to create a spotlight for these young women. The city said, “Sure, that would be a great idea. Would you come to our City Council meeting on April 11th (my birthday, the day this all started) and bring your girls and present this?”  We did and they made April 11th, Young Latina Day. This year we are going to seven cities with our bus full of young Latinas spreading the word of our mission and we are taking Young Latina Day international in eight countries as well.

Charity Matters: What life lessons have you learned from this experience?

Jackie Camacho-Ruiz: I have learned that if you operate from the heart, in the sense that the energy that is being created, that magic has to be protected. The biggest lesson I have learned from this journey is that if you encounter resistance that sometimes you need to change the course. I’ve also learned that this is so much bigger than me. 

Charity Matters: How has this journey changed you?

Jackie Camacho Ruiz: I have realized that I have the power to create a life of significance. I have been amazed by the power that is within each one of us and how a mission that is bigger than you can activate getting people together aligned for the same purpose. To see that display of generosity, compassion, and alignment of something that we are all passionate about is magic. When you align with your heart there is no confusion and that is where the magic happens.

Charity Matters

 

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Family Promise

Every one of us has passed a homeless person on the street but not every one of us stops, especially when we are in a hurry. That is exactly what happened to Karen Olson in 1985 on her way to a meeting in New York City.  On an impulse Karen not only stopped but she bought the woman, named Millie a sandwich. Karen began speaking with Millie, who explained to her that homelessness brought about profound feelings of disconnection from society and a lack of self-worth.  That moment changed everything for Karen Olson and from that meeting, she began to look at a new way to try to help connect those in need to those who wanted to help. Little did she know that this encounter would become the birth of Family Promise.

Earlier this week I had a fantastic conversation with Claas Ehlers who is now the Executive Director of Family Promise, as Karen stepped down a few years ago after almost twenty-eight years at the helm. Claas not only has a personal connection to this mission but has been working at Family Promise since 2002. I can’t wait to share the rest of this story and enlightening conversation with you. It is remarkable what one sandwich did and continues to do for thousands of homeless families across our country.

Charity Matters:  Tell me a little about what happened to Karen after the sandwich and The beginning of Family Promise?

Claas Ehlers: So, in 1985 the number one reason the State of New Jersey was placing children in foster care was not because of abuse or neglect but because their mothers had become homeless. At that point, homelessness was a relatively new phenomenon and family homelessness was totally unheard of concept. In 1985, you thought it was an urban problem of single homeless people but not of families out in the suburbs. Karen had worked in the city with individual homeless people but when she discovered the statistic about children and families she got motivated to do something.

Karen decided to arrange a conference and was smart enough to recognize that the faith community would be engaged in this. There were over 80 congregations represented by over 200 people at that initial meeting, in late 1985. She simply asked the question, “What can we do about this problem of family homelessness?”

Congregations said we want to do something more meaningful than writing checks. The initial thought was to get a church or synagogue building and turn it into a shelter. Then these congregations realized that they had space and they had volunteers who already wanted to help. The YMCA offered space, Autoland gave them a discounted passenger van so they could offer transportation. So out of that meeting in an ad hoc way the program started. 

Charity Matters: Tell us a little about what Family Promise does?

Claas Ehlers: We are a national organization, somewhat like the headquarters of McDonald’s but we don’t actually make hamburgers here. What we do facilitate is to empower families towards success and we mobilize volunteers and we cross those over so that each one is stronger as a result of the other. When we look at empowering families, we are looking specifically at families that are experiencing homelessness, which is not a sharp line….there is a lot of blurring, people that are at risk of homelessness, people who are nearly homeless and people that are experiencing homelessness.

Overall what Family Promise does is provide more than just shelter for families but a holistic solution that includes the prevention of family homelessness and the stabilization of families at risk. What we do here is to try to maximize our affiliates so that they can serve as many families as possible and engage the community in ways that bring in many more resources than one might expect to address the issue.

Charity Matters: How did Family Promise Grow so quickly?

Claas Ehlers: After that first meeting it took about a year and a half before we were operational and in October 1986 we officially started serving families. Neighboring communities began to see what we were doing and the program took off organically and kept spreading to Philadelphia and Ohio.  In addition to shelter, meals, housing and job support our affiliates began developing programs for transitional housing, childcare, and homeless prevention. In 1988, Karen said,” we should make this a national organization.”  As a result, we renamed our national organization Family Promise. Karen had a vision from the beginning. We are so lucky to have incredible engagement with communities across the country who are innovative with how to solve their communities problems. 

Charity Matters: What are the biggest challenges in your work?

Claas Ehlers: One big challenge is that people do not understand family homelessness. People view homelessness as chronic singles homelessness and the bigger issue is housing and stability. Another challenge is to ensure that we have resources to meet our mission and overall awareness of our work. We recently had a piece on the Today Show that did a wonderful job telling the story of our work in a very compelling way. (click above to watch)

The terrain is changing too with artificial intelligence and how is that going to affect jobs and homelessness?  We are thinking about these things. We do have a goal to increase the number of people we serve but at the same time, we think about how are we going to push the bell curve to the right. We are always trying to find out ways to help our affiliates do their jobs better.

Charity Matters: What fuels you to keep doing this work?

Claas Ehlers: Certainly there are always lots of challenges and obstacles but I wake up every morning feeling like I am the luckiest person in the world. I have the most amazing team, they are mission-driven, talented, and work well together. I go out into the field and I work with a group of volunteers who are so committed to having an impact on homelessness in their community and that is just SO inspiring.

The other side of that is the alumni of our program, the people who serve on our guest advisory council. I work with these people who have faced adversity they have been homeless and come through our program and are now committed to helping others be successful by paying it forward. They are working, have families and are dedicating all their time and energy to help others in any way they can. I have my own personal stories and have been in Foster Care but that is nothing compared to what a lot of these stories are. These are people that say that this community supported me and now I am going to give back.

When I see the children who leave our programs and see the future they have that they didn’t have before that keeps me going.

Charity Matters: When do you know you have made a difference?

Claas Ehlers: It is a tough question for me to answer because I am self-critical. I always see what I haven’t done. There are so many moments. Recently, when the Today Show piece came out, I emailed it to a number of our partners to share. The responses I received from current partners and potential partners saying, ” I am just so proud that our firm partners with Family Promise.” Those moments remind me of the work we are doing.

This morning, I was talking about the weekend with our relatively new Chief Operating Officer, she told me that she took her children to volunteer for Family Promise. She told me she couldn’t believe that her 14-year-old son was so compassionate working with a 4-year-old at one of their shelters. There are so many moments that show me the impact. Every statistic is a human, a person whose life we touched. There is magic everywhere. There is just magic.

Charity Matters: Tell us what success you have had? What has your impact at Family Promise been?

Claas Ehlers: We always really try to look at how we are successful and how that can drive innovation. First of all, we serve over 90,000 people a year in all different ways and 60% of those people are children. What is really important is that we have our core Shelter Program that is about 18% of the people that we serve. In that program, 88% of those people move into long term housing (traditional, permanent, or shared) after 57 days. We are not about getting people into housing, we are about getting them into housing they can sustain. That is critical that we get them into sustainable housing.

We have 200 affiliates (chapters around the country) that have over 1,700 distinct programs that address some element of prevention, shelter or stabilization that are run by 200,000 volunteers. We are launching a new program at our National Convention this week that trains volunteers to understand the grief and trauma that happens when you lose your home.

Charity Matters: How has this journey changed you?

Claas Ehlers: I always had a connection with helping children who were under-resourced. My children have been raised with this work. Now that they are grown, I get to watch their service. All of my three children serve and this work has helped define our values. We have always prioritized helping those that are not as fortunate as we are. If we can all just incrementally be better people each day then that is what really matters.

Charity Matters: What life lessons have you learned from this experience?

Claas Ehlers: What I have learned is that things are rivers and you have to understand that things are rivers. And that when you are at the river the water at the river is the way it is now but might not be the way it is next time. The water that you see at the river today will be entirely different than the water you see next month. It is higher or lower or not as clean. You have to realize that everything is fluid and that things are never the same at any one time. That every time something changes it is a new opportunity.

CHARITY MATTERS

 

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Opening Minds Through Art (OMA)

“Sometimes you will never know the value of a moment until it becomes a memory.”

Dr. Seuss

Almost a decade ago I made the most amazing friend through a wonderful happenstance. I was filming a fundraising video for my  alma mater and the filmmaker, Noah Applebaum, was so talented, compassionate and smart that I asked him to help me with another nonprofit project, and then another and then another. Through the years Noah’s heart has shown through in a multitude of nonprofit videos we have worked on together and our friendship has been a wonderful gift. Last week Noah told me about this incredible documentary film that he is now fundraising to make for an Alzheimer’s program called OMA, which stands for Opening Minds Through Art.

Noah’s late grandfather had gone through the program and Noah wanted me to meet the nonprofit’s founder, Dr. Elizabeth Lokon.  We had an incredible conversation and it became abundantly clear why Noah wants the world to know about this remarkable woman and her journey to give the elderly an opportunity to express themselves through art once dementia has left them without a voice. If anyone can tell their story it is Noah. Talking to Dr. Lokon was beyond inspirational and a privilege.

Opening Minds through Art (OMA) from NoahApplebaum.com on Vimeo.

Charity Matters: Tell us a little about what OMA does?

Dr. Lokon:  Opening Minds Through Art (OMA) is an intergenerational art making program for people with Alzheimers disease. The program provides opportunities for creative self expression for people with dementia.

Charity Matters: What was the moment you knew you needed to start OMA?

Dr. Lokon: I had my Master’s Degree in Fine Art and got my PhD in 1997. I had been teaching teachers in Japan from 2000 to 2006 and I had a student club called MICA where we did service for a number of causes. We cleaned beaches, bought toys and were very involved with an organization that prevented sex trafficking of Cambodian children through education. When my husband retired he said to me, “What do you want to do now? Our kids are grown.”  I knew that I wanted to go back to school to make a difference and that my primary goal was to live a life of service.

In education I learned about the first half of life but I knew nothing about the second half, so I decided to study Gerontology. When I came back to the U.S., I moved into a nursing home to learn a new culture, it was like a whole new world and I approached it like an anthropologist. Then I saw people with dementia. They were kept clean, safe and ignored. They were zombies.

 As an educator I knew this was not fair. Children have programs and advocates but with older people there is no one to speak for them. Even with dementia people can have joy. So, I went back to school and worked with a theater program that was for people with dementia. The program used photos to trigger memories to tell imaginary stories. So, in 2007 I asked if I could intern and I moved into a nursing home.

I quickly realized that art was a way of connecting with the patients, like the theater program. Verbal skills may have been impaired but people with dementia could flourish if there wasn’t any language, they could paint. In 2007, I had the idea for OMA.

Charity Matters: Did you grow up in a philanthropic Family?

Dr. Lokon: No! I did not. I am Chinese but grew up in Jakarta, Indonesia. When I grew up there was a large gap between the wealthy and the poor. I had to walk through the slums to get to school and I remember on my way home from school as an 8 year old bringing younger children home from the slums just to be bathed.

Charity Matters: What are your biggest challenges?

Dr. Lokon: Funding. While we are funded under the Scripps Gerontology Center, an Ohio Center of Excellence at Miami University.Scripps Gerontology Center, an Ohio Center of Excellence at Miami University for operations, the biggest challenge is trying to plan our work and the expansion of our work with extreme financial variability . The other challenge is that I know that our program works and we want to expand our work to other medical schools. We want them to be able to have OMA training. I want to give schools the opportunity to train students to be better health care providers. We need to create awareness to fund this work and it takes a lot of time and effort to make this happen.

Charity Matters: What fuels you to keep doing this work?

Dr. Lokon: I continue to go to a site each week and I see the magic happen and it keeps me grounded and going.

Charity Matters: When do you know that you have made a difference?

Dr. Lokon: Students realize that it is a privilege to be with someone vulnerable with dementia. Students change and see a shift in themselves. The students begin to see themselves differently and value themselves. I know I have made a difference when I see a student put their arms around their partner with dementia and I see the connection between the two. From a distance you cannot tell that that there is dementia because the old and young person look “normal” and that is the power of human connection.

The patient feels normal and in return the student knows they have made a difference. This is something special. The students write in their journals about their experiences and you know you have made a difference.

Charity Matters: Tell us about your impact at OMA?

Dr. Lokon: We began the program in 2009 and since that time we have  trained over 2,00o students  from Miami Ohio alone. We have 150 locations in the United States and Canada that are using our program and are serving eight retirement programs locally. We are currently working with ten universities and their medical/nursing schools to ensure that their students know how to treat those with dementia and communicate with them. When I think of the ripple effect of just the 2,ooo plus students  who become kinder to people with dementia. People who no longer dismiss the elderly, students who are more respectful. I think the measure of success is a cultural change within the aging world, one student at a time. 

Charity Matters: What life lessons have you learned from this experience?

Dr. Lokon: I have learned there is value to everyone in any stage of life regardless of age, condition or disability. There is a reward in seeing that value and in making a human connection. I have learned the importance of social connection and seeing everyone as worthy of your time, attention and love. In the end, it is just what it means to be human.

Charity Matters: How has this journey changed you?

Dr. Lokon: This journey has changed me by making me more aware of the deeper purpose of what it means to be together. What it means to connect and how much is really happening in that connection. We are so busy meditating and going to yoga that we are depriving ourselves of the very substance that makes us whole.

Charity Matters

 

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The struggle is real…

 

This isn’t my usual post. I am even hesitating as I write this. To be honest I am really struggling with this and don’t know what to do? As most of you know I live in Los Angeles. We happen to have the largest homeless population in the country, with an estimated 58,000 people living on the streets. Many say that the number is much higher. I have spent time on Skid Row, I have fed the homeless and interviewed a number of people who run shelters and nonprofits that support homelessness.  I have a confession to make; not even my teenage sons can make me feel as many human emotions in a flash as someone that is homeless.

When I walk by and see someone who is barefoot, cold, suffering and hungry my immediate reaction is empathy, sadness, then guilt at why do I have so much when someone has so little? Anger, helplessness and most of all frustrated. I have been advised by the Executive Directors of many of these nonprofits that the best way to help the homeless is to help the organizations that support homelessness and not to give money or food…both of which I used to do.

I went to the bank yesterday, where we have a regular homeless man who hangs out by the ATM. I walked by him on my way to the ATM and he says, “Oh good, here is someone who can help.” I smiled and said hello, went to the ATM, looked at him again and told him to have a nice day. His reply, “Look Mrs. big shot can’t share.” I got into my car and started to cry. Tears of frustration, tears of sadness, anger and a host of emotions surged through me. I thought about rolling down the window and giving him money and or an earful about how I serve but what good would that have done? Nothing,  but this encounter really made me think.

 

I drove away feeling dejected and helpless. I really have no answers just a million questions. How do we as a society address mental illness and help those suffering that can not help themselves? How do we get those suffering from addiction to the places that can treat them? How do we support families or individuals who live paycheck to paycheck that had one bad moment that spiraled into homelessness?

I honestly do not have the answers but watching people suffer is difficult. I want to help. I want to make a difference but the struggle with all these feelings is real. This is honest, not so politically correct but how I feel. Am I the only one? Do you feel the same way? Maybe I am the only one crazy enough to say it out loud and in writing…

 

I write this from the comfort of my warm home. I have never been hungry or without a pillow, a warm and safe placed to lay my head at night. I have never been without love, family or a job. I am blessed, aware of how fortunate and full of gratitude. I also know that we must do better for those who so desperately need our help. But how? Again, no answers but so many questions. I would love to hear how you feel?

Charity Matters.

 

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Infinite Hero Foundation

Mike in front row without shirt

What started as a phone call from my sister last week in hopes of helping a friend turned into an amazing journey. She called to tell me about a friend and Vietnam Veteran named Mike Stirling who is currently undergoing cancer treatment, from an agent orange related cancer. She went onto say that she and my brother-in-law knew Mike and his family and had watched him lovingly restore a M37 truck just like the one he had in Vietnam. Now that Mike’s not well he wanted his beloved truck to go to serve others. My sister and brother-in-law purchased the truck from Mike and are now auctioning this special truck off next weekend for a nonprofit called Infinite Hero Foundation that supports Veterans in amazing ways.

Naturally, I needed to know more about this nonprofit and that lead me to an incredible conversation with Infinite Hero’s founder, Colin Baden. In addition to being a nonprofit founder, he is also the former CEO and President of Oakley but even more impressive is what a remarkable human he is.

Charity Matters: Tell us what Infinite Hero Does?

Colin Baden: Infinite Hero’s mission is to connect our military, veterans and military family members with innovative and effective treatment programs for service related injuries. Our focus is to help our Veterans where the VA leaves off, we support Veterans and organizations that help our Veterans with physical rehabilitation, leadership development, brain health, family support and suicide prevention.

Charity Matters: What was the moment that you knew you needed to start Infinite Hero?

Colin Baden: Oakley has a long history of working with the military in our core eyewear business, so through that work we got to know a lot of people within the military, predominately special forces. When we had been at war for as long as we had, we started to see some of the people we had worked with pretty closely return from war pretty messed up and some not coming back at all. It wore on us.

One day we lost an entire Seal team when their helicopter was shot done and I was really upset. I was 52 at the time and what I tried to do initially was to enroll in the military and I thought if I could just take the place of someone else. I quickly realized that you can’t join the military if you are over 45. Since, I couldn’t join I called our military liaison at Oakley, Eric,  and said we need to do something bigger for our Veterans and that was in 2012. From that we began Infinite Hero.

Charity Matters: What makes Infinite Hero different from some of the other military nonprofit organizations?

Colin Baden: When we started it everyone at Oakley was super passionate about it so we had instant volunteers and help. We had no trouble getting support and because of our connections with the military we able to pull together an incredible board and get to the people we wanted to serve. We kept our mission simple and framed it within the culture of Oakley. Oakley has been successful because of its ability to innovate so we wanted to replicate that for Infinite Hero.

It felt to us that the VA model wasn’t diverse enough to solve the complexity and challenges to solve the problems. So we took the simple approach that if we could find innovative ways to help our Veterans we could probably make an impact unlike any other group. Over the course of the last five years we have found some exciting ways to have real impact.

Charity Matters: What are some of your biggest challenges?

Colin Baden:  You would not think that giving the money away is truly our biggest challenge but it is. Identifying a cause that aligns with our mission and being able to use that innovative filter  isn’t easy. We receive over 200 grant applications each year and we struggle to get it down to a handful of organizations that are going to have a real impact. We take the fact that we are stewards of this money very seriously and want to make sure that we are investing it where our Veterans will best be served and have the greatest impact.

Charity Matters: What fuels you to keep doing this work?

Colin Baden: I think its because so many people have been a part of this conflict for such a long time and the challenges they face are really profound and not going away. Some are very hard to grapple with, when you see someone with their limbs amputated from an IED or suicide prevention. When the suicide rate amongst veterans is 30 a day and how you grapple with all of this is not a simple thing. There are not enough VAs to be there to adapt and deal with so many of these challenges, so we need the diversity of all of these foundations to make a difference. We are just one piece of this work.

Charity Matters: When do you know you have made a difference?

Colin Baden:There are moments when an investment has paid off, when Gary Linfoot gets to walk his daughter down the aisle for her wedding and we had a hand in that or someone going through one of our leadership development programs and is passionate about his new life as a result of our work. All of these moments make me feel really good about the little work we have done.

Charity Matters: Tell us a little about your success and impact?

Colin Baden: We manage to raise about a million dollars a year. We aspire to always have a bigger impact and we do everything we can to make sure all of these funds go directly to the cause. What has been so nice about Oakley being a part of this is that we have already had so many skilled people that we didn’t need to pay who could help us make this work.

Investing in innovation in this space has been interesting. We signed up to take on really huge challenges of problems that are not simple for our Veterans. For example we found a treatment center that does amazing brain work with depression and we have been paying for a number of our veterans to go through this treatment and it has been eighty to ninety percent effective. When you think of suicide being one of the biggest challenges our Veterans face and we are really excited about what this can do for so many.

Charity Matters: What life lessons have you learned from this experience?

Colin Baden:What has always struck me about the military and their families is their humility and the realization that they really struggle asking for help. I will give you an amazing story as an example and try not to cry telling it. When we launched Infinite Hero we went to Walter Reed Military Hospital. When you are blown up in Afghanistan you are bandaged together enough to get to Walter Reed. When you show up there you are a bandaged ball. The minimum stay at Walter Reed is one year to give you an idea of the severity of these injuries. On average soldiers have an operation every other day.

I walked into a room at Walter Reed and there is a guy who has lost both his arms and legs to an IED laying there. I had a great conversation with this guy who was a beautiful human being and he tells us how happy he is to see us because he wants to thank us for all we have done for him. You have lost your arms and legs and are thanking us? Are you out of your mind? The soldier said, “No, no, no you don’t understand. I am going through training so I will be fitted with artificial legs and will be able to walk around. More than that, I am getting fitted with artificial arms so I can pick my baby girl up. If it wasn’t for you guys I wouldn’t be able to do that. That is why it is so important that I thank you.”

That kind of humility taught me all I needed to know about Veterans. They are not the ones to help themselves. It dawned on me that if you have any ego on the battlefield, people will die. I have learned humility from these soldiers and I just admire them for that so much. I have made that my personal mantra to never let my ego take over and to have humility.

Charity Matters: How has this journey changed you?

Colin Baden: This work is so rewarding and more people should do this. We have had such huge returns emotionally from all of this work. I just wake up every morning and think how am I going to out nice humanity. 

 

Charity Matters

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Help Us Adopt

All that we love deeply becomes a part of us.”

Helen Keller

photo credit: Classic Kids

Charity Matters:  Tell us a little about what Help Us Adopt does?

Becky Fawcett: Help Us Adopt began in 2007 at our kitchen table and an idea to help build families through adoption. Our platform was families combined with a commitment to equality, something everyone could believe in. The brutal reality is that over 100 million children in the world need homes and adoption is the answer. We didn’t want to tell those children that people can’t afford to adopt, we wanted to be the ones who make their adoptions a reality. We do that by raising funds to provide grants to people who need financial support to begin their families.

photo credit: Classic Kids

Charity Matters: What was the moment you knew you needed to act and start  Help Us Adopt?

Becky Fawcett: I was raised that we were fortunate, there will always be people with more and always with less but more importantly, be grateful for what you have. When my husband Kipp and I realized that Invetro Fertilization (IVF) wasn’t going to work and adoption was going to cost $40,000 I thought, what would happen if we didn’t have this money? I knew how much motherhood meant to me and that I could just barely afford this, but where would I have gone if I didn’t have the resources?  So, I began to look for organizations that helped families to fund adoptions and couldn’t find one that didn’t dictate how someone adopts.

I never intended to start this. My original intention was to give my marketing and pr skills as a volunteer to an existing grant organization. The more I looked I realized that the only existing organizations were limited in their thinking, giving small amounts of money to help fund adoptions, charging expensive application fees and were really patching the problem. These organizations were dictating how someone adopts. I thought who am I to tell families that they have to fit the traditional mold to adopt?  Everyone grows up dreaming of a family. We knew we wanted to support all who had a dream of having a family.

That is why I started this because it just didn’t exist.  So in 2007, I set out to tell this story that I knew I had to tell. Raising the initial funds was easy, until the recession….

Charity Matters: What are your biggest challenges?

Becky Fawcett: Our biggest challenge is raising money. Finding big angel donors is a lot of hustle for the million plus dollars we raise a year. Finding those donors who are investment donors. The other challenge is that there is still a stigma about adoption and a lot of misinformation about adoption out there and what makes a family.  It is frustrating the language used around adoption. 

Charity Matters: What fuels you to keep doing this work?

Becky Fawcett: So many things, number one thing is that a lot of people thought we would fail and we have succeeded. Strangers have come to us and want to get involved, which is huge. We are doing groundbreaking work not just for adoption but for family equality. I love leading the charge here and I have become very comfortable with the uncomfortable.

I love building things and I believe Help Us Adopt can be even bigger. The last and most important thing is that helping people is infectious! 

Charity Matters: When do you know you have made a difference?

Becky Fawcett: The minute we read an application from a family I know we are going to make a difference. When we award  a grant we know we have moved the needle. We relieve families from debt in some cases, in some situations our funding helps to speed up the process of adopting their child. I know we help people the minute that grant is awarded. When the child gets home that is when the story starts getting told.

We can watch our work grow up before our eyes and that makes me SO excited! When we watch these children grow up and get Christmas and birthday cards of these beautiful families. Adoption is my world, this is my children’s lives and I need to make it better for everyone. For my children, for their birth mothers and all birth mothers who make the most difficult decisions in the face of adversity that none of us will ever understand. I am advocate for them and their rights as well and I never expected to be here.

Charity Matters: Tell us what success you have had? What has your impact been?

Becky Fawcett: Help Us Adopt is now in our 12th year and are awarding on average a family a week a grant. When we started Help Us Adopt we only had $100,000 to award. Now, we have four grant cycles at $150,000 each year and our average grants are about nine thousand dollars. This puts us at helping a family a week for 2019.

A lot of blood sweat and tears have gone into this.  It is hard work but a steady progressive upward climb. Everything we do is slightly different and we run our nonprofit like a business. Our issue is a unique and such an untold story. People think it is easy to adopt and that it should be free. When we start to tell people the challenges in adoption and about the children that need homes, people say, “I had no idea what can I do? ”  Every single donor big or small makes a big difference by helping the life of a child. We put kids in homes and build families and everyone can relate to building a family.

Charity Matters: What life lessons have you learned from this experience?

Becky Fawcett: I know that every job I have ever had lead me to this. I have learned to always ask, the worst thing that can happen is that someone can say no. People are waiting to be asked. Tell people you need help they want to help.

Charity Matters: How has this journey changed you?

Becky Fawcett: I don’t even know how to put that into wordsI know I am not the person I was fourteen years ago. I am such a better version of myself in so many ways. The biggest change has been my level of compassion. I think I am much more aware now that you really never know what someone is dealing with. I didn’t tell people what I was going through when I struggled to have children. I’ve learned I have had to trust strangers, my children’s birth mothers and so many others along the way.  I know I’m far from perfect but I do know the instant love I had with my children has changed my life forever.

 

Charity Matters

 

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Changing children’s lives:Centinela Youth Services

“I have always found that mercy bears richer fruits than strict justice.” 

Abraham Lincoln

Office Benny Abucejo and Executive Director Jessica Ellis

In my crazy life one thing always seems to lead to another. This past Christmas I met the amazing Jessica Ellis at a holiday work party. Jessica is the Executive Director for an incredible nonprofit called Centinela Youth Services. Their mission is to reduce the number of youth attached to the criminal justice system. After last week’s conversation with the remarkable Jill Weiss from UpRising Yoga, I thought the time to circle back with Jessica was now. There is so much work happening in the juvenile justice system and I wanted to know more.

It truly never ceases to amaze me how a  simple idea can impact generations of lives in such a positive way. That is exactly what happened in the 1970s when a few Inglewood police officers recognized that kids who were doing stupid things didn’t really need jail, they needed guidance. More than that, these juveniles’ needed to own their mistakes and face (literally eye to eye) the person that they had harmed.

Charity Matters:  Tell us a little about what Centinela Youth Services (CYS) does?

Jessica Ellis: Centinela Youth Services, or CYS as we call it, mission is to reduce the number of vulnerable high needs youth attached to the juvenile justice system in partnership with the Los Angels Police Department, seven other police departments, Inglewood and Compton School Districts, the Public Defender and the District Attorney. We work to keep kids out of the justice system and service the victims of crimes in the process in order to create a more human approach to healing.

When our kids and the victims of crime meet face to face they are put together with two trained community volunteers. We are healing the child and the victim and the community. Our volunteers are the true champions. The magic is bringing two people together towards resolution.

Charity Matters: Give us a little history of CYS?

Jessica Ellis: Between 1973 and 1975 there were a number of police officers in Inglewood, CA who thought that there were kids who really needed to be helped rather than arrested. A couple guys on the police force on their own started to connect these kids to after school programs or counseling rather than to jail. It ended up demonstrating that there was a need for this. It became more than they could do on top of their day job so the city of Inglewood along with five local cities ended up coming together to charter our nonprofit to divert students from arrest to counseling.

Charity Matters: What are your biggest challenges?

Jessica Ellis: The interesting thing for us right now is that there is a very unique window of opportunity that has been going on the past couple years for our kind of work in restorative justice. We have been doing diversion (from juvenile hall) since the 1970s and restorative justice since the early 90s and now it is sort of the new hip thing and all of the sudden there is political will for this work and a quite a bit of it.

We have been doing this work in actively transforming the juvenile justice system and our model has influenced others to replicate our program across the state and country. We started the first diversion program in LA County, so when a child is picked up the arrest is not recorded on their record if they complete the diversion program successfully that they have been assigned. While the replication is hugely exciting, we get pulled in as the experts to help replicate our work for this juvenile justice transformation. We don’t necessarily get funded to be the experts. So the challenge is to meet our core capacity  and help to  expand and replicate work. 

Charity Matters: What fuels you to keep doing this work?

Jessica Ellis: What I love most is that we transcend all criminal justice systems. We bring people face to face to resolve conflicts. We bring the child face to face with the victim of the crime and this two sided approach brings us back to our humanity. It is so much more rewarding. A lot of us have been impacted by both  sides of the justice system, I have close family members who have spent time in prison and I have a family members who was murdered. People that I love have hurt other people. We need to recognize both of those sides and that we can repair humanity, move forward, make people whole and not just give up and throw away people, especially kids.

Charity Matters: When do you know you have made a difference?

Jessica Ellis: I know that we have made a difference when a child connects with the person that they have harmed.  A fifteen-year old boy vandalized a school really badly with graffiti everywhere. He really did a huge amount of damage. The principal was so angry he didn’t want to meet with him. The principal sat in the room with the images of the damage on his laptop fueling his anger. The boy walked into the room and the principal would not look up at him. 

When the mediator asked the boy why he wrote bad things about his school and his teachers. The boy didn’t answer. The boy’s mother said to her son, “Tell the principal about what your teachers did.” The young boy tells his principal that when his father went to jail, his teachers were kind and that they bought him clothes and food. The principal now looked at this boy now with humanity. He said, “Your dad went to jail?” The boy replied, “Yes, and I was angry.” The two began talking about art because some of the “damage” was very artistic. The principal loved art as well. He ultimately mentored the boy and enrolled him in a special art program and had him draw a mural at the school

Resolution like this happens everyday. This is very typical of our work. One third of kids are dealing with some sort of mental illness in their homes, one third deal with trauma…we see so many kids do dumb things on the heals of a parent’s death. Kids act out so often due to trauma . Our system is set up to feed that anger and bipolarity, the prison system does not get to the underlying issues where we do. 

Charity Matters: Tell us what success you have had? What has your impact been? Number  of people impacted, funds raised?

Jessica Ellis: Our greatest impact is that we have created a space where kindness and compassion can grow for over 1,000 children a year. We believe that our kids deserve quality. Our crime victims have a 98% satisfaction rate with our work, the kids rate our program fair and equitable 96% of the time.  Our recidivism rate (or the rate with which students are rearrested) is significantly reduced. If you lock kids up they have a higher chance of going back to jail by two-thirds. If you don’t lock them up but put them on probation there is a 23% to 33% of recidivism. Our kids a have less than 8%rate.

Charity Matters: What life lessons have you learned from this experience?

Jessica Ellis: It is so easy as humans to want to fix or to blame and to not look at ourselves. If we are helping other people resolving conflicts at work, how can we do this in our own families and lives? Looking at our own lives reminds us how hard this work is and how important.

Charity Matters: How has this journey changed you?

Jessica Ellis: Our work is having such a huge impact here in California. Nationally there is so much discord. All politics aside, the amount of change we are making here in California that moves the criminal justice system to be better for kids, just gives me so much hope. We are seeing law enforcement, District Attorneys, community advocates, criminal justice reformers all coming together to make this change. 

Having hope is a good thing to have.

Charity Matters.

 

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