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Create the Change Day

“Sometimes when we are generous in small, barely detectable ways, it can change someone else’s life forever.”  Margaret Cho

Nothing makes me happier than planting the seeds of compassion in our children. A few years ago, that common thread connected me to the nonprofit founder, Molly Yuska of Project Giving Kids. We met when I interviewed her for Charity Matters in an attempt to learn more about Project Giving Kids (PGK). I quickly learned that PGK is a nonprofit organization that cultivates empathy in youth by connecting them to meaningful and age-appropriate community service activities.  Their mottos is, “connecting kids to causes.” 
Molly initially launched Project Giving Kids in Boston in November 2013 after realizing there was no source for families to find age-appropriate service projects for their children and families. With 1.7 million nonprofits in the United States, as a young mother herself, Molly clearly saw that there was a need to leverage technology by creating an online platform and mobile app, Youth Give, to make it easier for kids to be powerful agents of positive change in our world.

 Project Giving Kids reaches out to nonprofit partners to find volunteer opportunities for a multitude of ages. This past weekend was an amazing experience as Project Giving Kids came back to LA  for their second annual Create the Change Day LA. The day was hosted by The Today Show’s Natalie Morales and was all about teaching hundreds of children and their families the joys of serving others.

 Think of the day as a trade show for kids where they could shop causes and service projects that they were interested in and cared about. Whether it was decorating duffle bags for children in foster care so they were not moved from home to home with a trash bag or putting toiletry kits together for low-income families or making toys for shelter animals.

Each of these projects benefitted nonprofits such as; Access Books, Crayon Collection, Baby 2 Baby, St. Joseph Center, Reading Partners, The Jared Box Project, Karma Rescue, LA Family Housing, North Hollywood Interfaith Food Pantry, PATH, School on Wheels, St. Vincent Meals on Wheels and Together We Rise.

These incredible kids  packed over 325 toiletry kits for low-income, homeless, and elderly individuals, made 175 Veterans Day cards for local veterans and random acts of kindness notes for homeless neighbors to lift their spirits, asssembled 70 Jared Boxes full of cards, games and toys for pediatric patients at UCLA Mattel and Cedars Sinai, made 115 dog toys for shelter animals,packed 125 backpacks full of school supplies for homeless youth, made 100 keychains for families transitioning to permanent homes,decorated 80 bookmarks to benefit local students receiving reading help and made the beginnings of “welcome home kits” for 100 homeless individuals/families getting ready for a new home to name a few of the projects with the nonprofit partners there, which is why they are jumping for joy!

As Molly said,Project Giving Kids is thrilled to offer an afternoon of hands-on service to kids and families in the Greater LA area. Create the Change Day was the perfect way to introduce young children to the joy of service to others. At PGK, we strive to connect youth and families to the amazing nonprofits in their own backyards they often do not know about that would love to benefit from their passion and involvement. We do that through our website and mobile app where youth can find fun and age-appropriate service opportunities and through select events like Create the Change Day.”

I was lucky enough to man the PGK booth where children could make a holiday pledge of service either by drawing a picture or writing a pledge to create change and PGK will be sending them their postcards in early December to remind them of their idea.

 

If these cards were any indication of our future, I think the world is only going to get better and that the kids are ready to create some change for good. 

CHARITY MATTERS

 

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

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SPY Safe Place for Youth

“We must all work together to end youth homelessness in America.”

Jewel Kilcher

Charity Matters: Tell us a little about what A Safe Place For Youth (SPY) does?

Alison Hurst: Homelessness is our number one crisis in LA County. We created a one-stop-shop where young people who are experiencing homelessness or are at risk of homelessness come and access to a whole array of services to assist them while they are homeless and also assist them getting out of homelessness and into stability.

We provide all of the services one would need including; education, employment, health and wellness services, housing and case management services and of course a sprinkle of fun stuff because young people need fun stuff like our healing arts program which provides music, art,  poetry, meditation all ways to lure our young people into our services because young people need different things. All of this is topped off with really awesome food, access to showers and clothing. Today we have nine comprehensive programs that make up our continuum of care. All of our programs weave together to meet the different needs of the young people we are serving.

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

Alison Hurst: There wasn’t one moment but rather a series of moments. The initial moment was in 2008 when I would take my son to the skateboard park in Venice Beach and see all of theses disconnected kids at the beach, which were actually sleeping on the streets.  I’m from London, where we didn’t have a large population of homelessness, but when I came here to  Venice Beach and then Hollywood I realized that we had a massive problem with youth homelessness and we didn’t have many resources here on the Westside of Los Angeles. That was the initial spark.

When I met with other nonprofit organizations that were working with the homeless population, I realized that people just didn’t seem to know what to do with the unhoused youth.  One of the other initial sparks was when I realized that even the other social service providers didn’t know how to meet the needs of the young people and that they didn’t believe that they wanted the same kind of resources. Even the old Federal policies entitled “Runaway homeless youth” which placed blame on the youth. These youth didn’t run away, they were tossed out and thrown away, neglected and abused.

In learning all of this, I immediately began handing out food packs to these kids on Venice Beach with a bunch of volunteers and realized once I got engaged with the youth that there was literally nothing that separated these kids from the kids in my normal everyday life, other than the fact that they had nowhere to live. The system had colossally failed them over and over again. The epiphany was that I became super engaged in the cause and I thought I could impact that cause by handing out food and very quickly realized that was not enough and started to build the program.

In the last eight years, we have become the leading provider for homeless youth on the westside. We now have a staff of 59 and eight years ago we had zero staff and a handful of volunteers and today we have hundreds of volunteers. While our growth is great the fact remains that more young people are falling into homeless than any other demographic and by young we mean ages 12-24. When we started SPY it was literally to meet the needs of hunger and then as our expertise grew so much of this became around policy change. We have worked with local businesses, government, individuals and the community to help us to be a part of the solution.

Charity Matters: What are your biggest challenges?

Alison Hurst: The biggest challenge we currently have is fighting the housing project that we are trying to expand. While having almost 60,000 folks residing on our streets has increased so has the neighborhood opposition to siting any kind of housing program.  Through Measure H and HHH, there are resources provided to build more crisis and critical need housing. The opposition from the community is being slowed down by neighbors’ opposition to all of these projects.

Having access to general housing funding is top of mind always but getting neighborhood buy-in on the two very large projects we are involved in, one is a 54-bed shelter for youth homeless shelter. We have never had a youth shelter ever which will transform the landscape and we continue to face enormous opposition. The second project is a 40 unit development that we will be operating. We have one hundred youth a day currently walking through our doors and we haven’t had any opposition but with these projects, we have had a lot. There is a lot of NIMBY or not in my back yard.

There is a lot of fear and shame. the shamefulness of what we have when there is so much unbelievable wealth all around us. So the shame that comes with recognizing the levels of poverty and drivers of homelessness. Rather than letting that shame motivate you to do something, it becomes a fear of others. I think it is much easier to write people off if we think that they are different from us. The truth is there is very little that separates us and once you come face to face with homelessness you can not deny the commonality between us.

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

Alison Hurst: The young people we serve. I regularly feel that I am pushing a boulder uphill. As you grow your budget gets squeezed and there isn’t always funding. What drives me is that I have to stay connected with the young people we serve. Every member of our team, myself included, spends a portion of their time in direct service with the kids to stay connected to the work. I have to be apart of the work so I don’t make decisions that are not based on reality. 

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

Alison Hurst: When we moved into housing. We had one housing program that we launched last year. We were literally placing young people in the spare bedrooms of community members and we were the first agency in LA to do that. In February of this year, we launched into a transitional housing program and to me, that felt monumental. For years we didn’t have anywhere for these kids to go and nothing to offer but love and connections to resources but now for the first time we at least have 20 young people safely off the streets. We are getting ready to launch a third program for young pregnant homeless youth and families.

Charity Matters: Tell us a little about what success you have had and the impact you have made with SPY?

Alison Hurst: I think there is a combination of things that make us feel that we have had success. From the number of young people, we have moved safely off the streets, which was 127 last fiscal year and I think the number of young people that we have connected to education and employment. Because the two things are absolutely dependent on each other. Over one hundred youth that were connected to education and employment and the additional 127 who are off the street.  At the same time we served 1,400 youth and we still have a long way to go. The annualized national number of youth homelessness is around 10,00 young people between the ages of 12 and 25. 

Charity Matters: If you could dream any dream for SPY what would that be?

Alison Hurst: I would dream that we would continue to grow our housing resources and add an additional transitional housing program, that we would execute on our Venice Beach bridge housing project. That we can continue to be the first in the class agency that provides a hopeful, safe space for young people to access services and wonderful place that provides employment opportunities for people who want to be a part of the solution as well as a wonderful place to work.

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

Alison Hurst: The learning curve was SO steep and SO challenging, it feels like being in a Master’s program for the past eight years.  I left school at 15 and have never been back. I don’t have a Ph.D. or a fancy degree and never in a million years did I think that I would be here. I learned early to always hire people smarter than you. More than that SPY is all based on relationships, connection, community, and our youth members. Everything we do is about creating connections and community for everyone involved. We would be nothing without all of our community partners. Power in the change happens when you bring everyone to the table.

Charity Matters: How has this journey changed you?

Alison Hurst: I think this journey has impacted me the most in my level of listening and understanding around poverty. I am a much more serious person than I was before because a huge weight has been put on me.  I am a much more focused person than I ever was which motivates me. This work never ends it is 24/7 but I am fearless, absolutely fearless and I never stop. SPY is all about light and love and I am not afraid to use the word love, it is the underpinning of everything we do.

Charity Matters

 

If you are so inspired feel free to pass this along. Who doesn’t love to hear about all the good in the world?  You will make someone’s day!

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 Birthday Party Project

 

photo via: today.com

We all strive to use our gifts for the greatest good and purpose. We spend a lifetime honing our crafts and talents and usually putting those skills into our careers. For many of the nonprofit founders I have interviewed there is a moment when they realize that their skills and gifts can be used for a bigger purpose, one beyond their job. That is exactly the story of Paige Chenault the Founder of The Birthday Party Project. Paige spent her career as a high end party planner, organizing extravagant weddings and events to create lasting memories for her clients. Last week, I had the opportunity to meet Paige and attend a fantastic party to help support her beautiful mission of bringing joy to children living with homelessness.

Charity Matters: Tell us a little about what the Birthday Party Project Does?

Paige Chenault: The Birthday Party Project is a nonprofit that throws birthday parties for children who are experiencing homelessness. The Birthday Party Project partners with homeless and transitional living facilities and we host birthday parties for the kids that are staying there.

Charity Matters: What was the moment you knew you needed to act and start  The Birthday Party Project?

Paige Chenault:I was on an airplane reading a magazine article about kid’s birthday parties and for almost a decade I had been in the party planning business, so I was getting excited about my  daughter’s upcoming birthday and the party I was going to throw her. As I flipped through the magazine and saw images of these picture perfect parties thinking that I could totally do this for my daughter Lizzie.

Then I put that magazine down and picked up a Time Magazine with an article about children living in Haiti and the extreme discrepancy between the party that I had envisioned for my daughter and what I saw this child in the article living in every single day. That was the moment that it hit me that I could do more with the gifts and talents I have been given. There were children that were out there that would never know the power of a celebration of people coming together. In that moment I knew that I was the one to do something for these children.

I do believe that we are called into service and absolutely do feel that I was called to this. 

Charity Matters: What are your biggest challenges?

Paige Chenault: Some of the biggest challenges that we face has everything  to do with the amount of interest we have for people to get involved with our mission and the kids that we are serving and celebrating. Knowing that so many people realize that these children are human beings going through things that are incredibly difficult and traumatic. These are families that are truly experiencing crisis and whether they are in sex trafficking rehabilitation programs or if they are chronically homeless or in a domestic violence agency trying to get help and to stay alive. These families are facing things that we don’t have to face.

In knowing that there are measures in place that allow children and families to feel safe and because of that we have worked really hard on the way we celebrate with kids. Treating people with dignity is our ultimate goal and we have worked very hard with our birthday enthusiasts which is what we call our volunteers to do this. There is a tremendous opportunity for people to get involved with our organization. Yet, we still can’t seem to catch up with the excitement around our mission.   We have scaled incredibly fast in these past eight years and to celebrate in fifteen cities is incredible for us. What we do know is that we do things well and unless we can do them in honoring our agencies and shelters and continue to keep up with the excitement and enthusiasm can be a challenge for us sometimes.

I think as founders I think it is really important that we stay true to our core values and that we let those be our guide post. I can see where it could be very easy if someone wanted us to do this and that moment that we begin to do things that don’t align with our values that is the moment when there are tension points. We have worked very hard to honor our core values, be good stewards of the dollars we have been given and that we are serving our kids and families well. These are hard lessons to learn as a young entrepreneur.

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

Paige Chenault: Our core team of volunteers, our party coordinators, these are volunteers who host parties on our behalf all around the country. For me, those are the people that fuel me the most because when I am so tired and can’t take one more call or email or whatever it is…I have the opportunity to look online and see what they are tackling for us on our behalf and it is so powerful to see the way that they are giving of their time and resources to serve our mission. We are extraordinary in that way because we have 150 party coordinators around the country who show up on our behalf. Some of these people have been doing this work for almost eight years with us.

Our retention rate is really high and we have worked really hard to care for those people because these are the folks on our team who are doing the work. I have a team in Dallas and we call ourselves the support team because we need to support our volunteers/party coordinators.

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

Paige Chenault:I get really energized when my team comes up with great ideas solve a problem, when we get it right and everything goes really well or when I get emails saying that this was the best experience I have ever had volunteering. Those are the moments for me that I am most proud of the work that we do.

 We do have stories of impact and the ways in which our kids are impacted. I would say those moments are extraordinary and incredibly special.  We have immediate impact with our work but the ripple effect takes ages to come back. Recently, I had the opportunity to truly run into someone who she said to me, “Do you know you celebrated my 14th birthday with me when I was living at a shelter?” I had never met her before and I was at a speaking engagement and she came up to me and she was now the youngest intern ever at this company and for me it was incredibly special and this was my moment. It was everything for me.

 For me that was a four year gap before we saw her again and she still spoke so fondly of her party in such detail and to me that speaks volumes to level of work that we are doing making lasting moments that help me over come those hard days of the grass roots building of this organization. We are leaving lasting effects on the children that we are serving and that is what matters. These moments are the greatest gift that have been given.

Charity Matters: Tell us a little about some of the successes you have had?

Paige Chenault: We have celebrated 10,000 children’s birthdays in eight years and we have done that alongside 50,000 children. So we have celebrated 10,000 birthdays with 50,000 children there with us celebrating. We have done that with the help of 38,000 volunteers which we call our birthday enthusiasts, which is extraordinary to me. That is a lot of kids reached, a lot of birthday cakes.

We have done that with our agency partners or transitional living facilities or homeless shelters. The Ronald McDonald House is a prime example of a transitional living facility. Covenant House is a teen living facility and there we celebrate children 17-23 and often these kids revert back to their childhood because they never celebrated a birthday before. We partner with domestic violence agencies, sex trafficking rehabilitation programs and then we have homeless shelters and emergency shelters which are typically 24 hour facilities .

Charity Matters: If you could dream any dream for your organization, what would that be?

Paige Chenault: I think there is an opportunity to go big and give people an opportunity to have experiences that they would never otherwise have the opportunity to be a part of. Yes, I want every child in America to feel celebrated and yes I would love to take The Birthday Party Project internationally but in addition to that there is always room for us to do more for others. I want to partner with people who dream really big. Allowing kids to experience Disneyland, or a movie lot or having a larger than life birthday party in the middle of a field. I just want them to see how creativity can bring people alive. 

 

Charity Matters: How has this journey changed you?

Paige Chenault: I think I am more sure of who I am as a wife and a mother and a leader. I have always been empathetic, compassionate and a giver and I have always expended most of myself for others. I now realize that I don’t have to do it all or be the hero of the story. So for me, the narrative that has switched since this endeavor. It doesn’t have to be about me but it really can be about more and everyone together and thank goodness for that because there are plenty of others who can share in the joy of this. It is like taking off the cape and the in charge mentality and saying people there is plenty to go around.

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

Paige Chenault:I think for me the biggest lesson for me is that we gain people’s trust when we operate from a place of authenticity and vulnerability. If I were to continue along this journey with all the answers or needed to be the person with the first and last word, we would have crumbled by now. I think for me it was incredibly important as we brought people into the fold that I was incredibly honest from the beginning that there was a lot that I didn’t know but that I knew we needed to it.

By sharing just who I was and what my strengths and weaknesses were and by being able to share that with the people around us we created a movement. People realized that I didn’t have all the answers but maybe they had a piece of the puzzle and by allowing them to do what they do best and to get out of the way, we were able to build this incredible community of these magic makers that I trust and that trust us.

That has probably been the biggest take away from this experience. When we get out of our own way and rely on the expertise of others that is where community is built and that trust exists in those moments and when you are able to do more. I believe strongly in the power of people but allowing others to find out what they are capable of is even more rewarding.

Charity Matters

 

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.

Kidspace Children’s Museum

 

“We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.”

George Bernard Shaw

It is amazing how life always has a way of coming full circle. Over twenty years ago, I was a young mother who was looking to get involved with an organization that would not only connect me to other young moms but also one that my young toddler sons could be a part of.  Lucky for me a hand full of Pasadena women has realized the importance of play and had created a small and innovative children’s museum called Kidspace.

Kidspace quickly became part of my children’s lives and mine. Over the years I volunteered, chaired events, benefits and then lobbied the city to help build the new museum for our community. Who knew that a few women’s idea to provide children an innovative and safe place to play would turn into a nationally recognized premiere Children’s museum? As Kidspace gets ready to celebrate its 40th anniversary, I was thrilled when the museum reached out and asked me to be a part of their celebration and to interview one of the museum’s founders, Cathie Partridge.

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

Cathie Partridge: When we first started out, there was nothing for children in Pasadena. So I thought why don’t we start a children’s museum? We set out to create an exploratory experiential fun place for children to play.  It was more than that because we wanted our kids to be able to choose their activity. We didn’t want an academic learning center but an informal place for children to learn. Children need play to develop emotionally and to grow.  

Charity Matters: What was the moment that you knew you needed to act to make this idea of Kidspace happen?

Cathie Partridge: I had been teaching school and had worked at the old Pasadena Art Museum with children. I was a  member of the Junior League and we had a committee thats job was to dream up ideas for things that we needed in Pasadena. The idea of the children’s museum was chosen from a list of things and I was in charge of this project.

Because I had a back round in education and art, we hired six artist to create some interactive displays for children. We created a show called Making Senses  at Cal Tech and Midred Goldberg, who was the wife of the President of Cal Tech, had started the Princeton Junior Museum at Princeton University. She was very pro children’s museum and there were very few children’s museums in the country at that time. Boston had one but there really wasn’t a prototype at the time.

We really didn’t know if anyone was going to come. Our project was a test to see if this is something that should continue and in the first three weeks we had something like 10,000 children come through this basement at CalTech. We knew then that we had something worth going forward with.

Charity Matters: What happened that first day?

Cathie Partridge: It was 1978 and a lot of kids showed up. That first moment they screamed and we knew had something. They just didn’t want to leave. So we knew there was something magical and unique.

Charity Matters: What were your biggest challenges?

Cathie Partridge: The biggest challenge early on was money and to find a location. We needed someone to give us a location. We went from CalTech to the Rosemont Pavillon for six months, where the Rose Parade Floats are built and from there into McKinley School. I loved the concept that the Exploratorium used that hired one artist to create one exhibit and then they kept adding exhibits and I thought we could do that. and eventually we would have a museum. These kids gave us honest feedback. The concept of what the kids did then is still relevant. There was a maze and a glow in the dark treatment, a half of a fire truck and the kids loved it.

At Kidspace there has always been something for everybody. The other challenge has always been measuring how fast to grow? To balance the facility with the budget and the growing number of children. Good challenges to have.

Charity Matters: In those early days when you were a young mom and you had little ones and were trying to get this going, what fueled you to keep going?

Cathie Partridge: We were lucky that we had a team of people from the Junior League and lots of volunteers. We had a great board that really guided us i the beginning. We had definite highs and lows. I never gave up and I am always learning, the staff just gets better and better.

Charity Matters: When did you realize that you had made a difference?

Cathie Partridge: I don’t know if there was one single moment. What I do know that my children’s friends bring their children and while I’m not a grandparent the fun of it is seeing the next generations come through and seeing it continue. The first year we served 10,000 and this year we are close to 400,000. We have served over five million guests since that first day! I always said it was better to have the grass roots. It has been a gathering of the masses to make this happen.  

Charity Matters: What do you think you have learned from this journey?

Cathie Partridge: I think I have learned to hang in there. I have learned courage and risk taking. I have been involved with many other organizations and I think the courage to think outside of yourself and what you think you can do for the community is what I learned from Kidspace.

I went to the Lilly Foundation years ago and they said that ninety percent of volunteers come from families that volunteered. I come from a long line of women who have done this work. My grandmother started Save the Bay in San Francisco and she would call me regularly and ask me what am I doing to help society? I think I watched both my mother and grandmother  doing this work and that it was modeled for me. For me seeing my own children give back is the greatest legacy.

Charity Matters: When you think about Kidspace celebrating their 40th year which is a huge ACCOMPLISHMENT for any nonprofit, what are you most proud of?

Cathie Partridge: I think I am the most proud of the community we have built. The volunteers, the staff and creating this property into a joyous and fantastic place. We started with a group of seven women called the circle of friends and today we have over a hundred plus women coming together for Kidspace. I’m very proud of the thousands of people that have volunteered and helped to make Kidspace what it is today. Passing this onto the next generation is a great legacy.

Charity Matters: If you had one wish for Kidspace what would that be?

Cathie Partridge: I would like to see us grow internationally where we are sharing exhibits with others from around the world and continue to serve more children. There is always more to do. I am so proud of Kidspace, the staff and the volunteers, I am just a tiny part of this.

Charity Matters

 

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.

One For All

“Believe with all your heart that how you live your life makes a difference.”

Colin Brown

I have always believed in angels among us and the conversation I had earlier this week with nonprofit founder, Mari Rodriguez was proof to me that angels are here on earth. My dear friends have been involved with supporting Mari and her work to provide the most underserved children and families in her neighborhood of Inglewood. Mari came to the United States at age 19 and taught herself English. She became a citizen and a nurse. She raised a family and people in the neighborhood were coming to her for help with their children. First, it was a few and then a few more and then a hundred and now hundreds. Mari, is living proof that one person can change the world and one of the most amazing humans I have had the priveledge of talking too.

Charity Matters: Tell us a little about what One For All does?

Mari Rodriguez: One For All encourages students to stay in school, graduate from high school and we give these students and families the supplies and guidance they need to accomplish that.  Our mission is to help build the character of our children through social programs that emphasize the importance of personal growth as well as develop the community as a whole.

We do back to school backpacks and supply drives, toy drives for winter, we have students bring their report cards and if they are getting a 3.0 GPA or higher they are rewarded for good grades and if not we get them tutoring, we do prom dress giveaways and whatever students need, sometimes its as basic as a pair of shoes for school, we find it and help. The biggest thing we do is give $500 scholarships for those students with good grades who are going to college.

We currently serve over 500 students a year between the ages of 5 and 18.

Charity Matters: What was the moment you knew you needed to act and start One For All?

Mari Rodriguez: I lived in Inglewood and saw that the children in my neighborhood didn’t have guidance. So, in 2001 I talked to the pastor at our church on the corner and asked if we could use the church parking lot to help children and families. Then we started an event on our street to gather everyone together but our neighbors were so impacted and the neighborhood couldn’t accommodate everyone. I wasn’t sure what to do because I was still working full time as a nurse during the day and raising my children and helping all the neighborhood children at night and after work.

In 2007, I had a patient that kept telling me I needed my 501c3 and I had no idea what these numbers meant or what that was. While I was working in the doctor’s office a patient asked me about what I do in my free time and I told him. He said I needed my 501c3 and his wife would help me. She did and in 2007  One For All became an official nonprofit organization. 

Charity Matters: What are your biggest challenges?

Mari Rodriguez: Donors. The hardest part is raising funds.

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

Mari Rodriguez: (Tears) The love of people. The love of people fuels me. Sometimes I want to quit and think I cannot go on and then people hug me and thank me for helping them. When families need me. This is my purpose in life to help others.

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

Mari Rodriguez: I think of all the people whose lives I have touched. From a five year old girl who died of cancer and whose funeral I did because her mother just couldn’t, to the young boys who were becoming gang members and we were able to get them to change direction, to the young man who was gay and thinking about suicide for fear his parents wouldn’t accept him.   I got involved and this boy is now a wonderful and happy young man in college with his family’s support.

When I close my eyes I see myself on a journey helping, going forward, helping, helping and not looking back just keep going and helping. I see the hugs, the smiles of all these people and that is my reward. I love this country with all my heart. I came to this country at 19 with nothing but dreams. I dreamed I was going to do something big.

I taught myself English and with the help of two angels went to nursing school. It was such hard work and my life has been so good. I have to give everything I have received. I am so grateful.

Charity Matters: Tell us what success you have had?

Mari Rodriguez:We started with 25 kids in 2001 from my home. Then we had 100 and then 200 kids and we would close down our street to do our events. Our neighbors asked us to take our events off of our street and we moved our programs to the church in Inglewood. Today we help more than 500 children and families. This year we will distribute over thirty $500 scholarships for our students who are going to college.

Charity Matters: If you could dream any dream for One For All, what would that be?

Mari Rodriguez: The dream I have is to find more supporters. We need more school supplies. I dream of finding someone who can donate backpacks. To me, the most important thing is to keep giving more scholarships to motivate these kids to stay in school and to help us really help them.

Charity Matters: How has this journey changed you?

Mari Rodriguez: It hasn’t changed me, I continue being humble and treat everyone equally. I really do not like to talk about me. I would rather just help others. 

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

Mari Rodriguez: I have learned that anybody can help somebody. Nothing is too little to help another. Each individual can help somebody. If you can not give money you can give love or conversation to someone who is lonely. Anybody can make a difference in the world. To start a nonprofit with an intention to help others is enough. I am just happy to help these families.

 

Charity Matters.

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.

Once Upon a Room

Like all good fairy tales, it begins with once upon a time…there was a beautiful woman named Jennifer Hull and her heart was so huge that she not only adopted one child but created a non-profit to help hundreds more sick children at children’s hospitals around Los Angeles. Jennifer and I have known each other for a while and a few years back I interviewed her about their incredible cause called Once Upon a Room. A non-profit organization that decorates rooms for children who have long stays in the hospital.

Since that time, Jenny’s daughter Josie, Josie’s best friend Sienna, my son and host of amazing high school students have brightened hundreds of children’s hospital rooms with their work. Now that my son is heading to college in Texas he and his buddies are bringing Once Upon a Room to their local Children’s hospital. This week I thought I would share the magical fairy tale once again…because like all good fairy tales we want to read them over and over.

Charity Matters:  Give us a little back round on you and Josie?

Jennifer Hull: A little history about Josie and I…I am the very proud, adoptive mother of Josie. Josie and her sister, Teresa, were born in Guatemala and were conjoined at the head. They came to the US at 9 months old. At 1 year old they underwent surgery done by a 50 person medical team to separate them. After 23 hours in the operating room, our two beautiful girls were rolled out in 2 separate beds.

We were granted a miracle that day and have spent every day since trying to do everything in our power to better the girls’ lives and those around us. As one can imagine our medical journey did not end at separation surgery. There have been countless hospital stays with over 30 surgeries combined and hours upon hours of physical therapy. 

We know from first-hand experience when you are in an environment that makes you happy and calm healing is easier to achieve. It was important to Josie and me to help others in medical situations feel better. The main portion of our program is to decorate hospital rooms for pediatric patients going through active medical treatment.

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

Jennifer Hull:  Once Upon a Room has a tag line…Every child has a story. My sweet daughter, Josie spends so much time in the hospital. Every time we are inpatient, I noticed her spirits were lifted when we would bring in items that were ours and set up a mini “house” like atmosphere. We have had the pleasure of meeting other patients and families over the years and when we would visit them we would bring something to brighten their room we could see the joyous effect it had.

We wanted to expand our reach and really transform the hospital setting into a personalized, happy environment. Josie and I got excited about the possibility of spreading joy to others in the hospital. We knew we needed to do this. We wanted to serve others and this was such a perfect fit for us.

Sienna, Josie and Ford

Charity Matters: Who along the way has helped you make this journey happen?

Jennifer Hull: Siena Dancsecs is a huge contributor to our success and is one of Josie’s best friends and has been through so many ups and downs with Josie medically. Siena’s passion to help others started to light on fire. At 11 years old she called to tell me that the organization should be named Once Upon a Room. She said that our mission should be to serve pediatric patients in and out of the hospital that was inactive medical treatment. 

Siena says, “Through my friendship with Josie I wanted to do more. We do what we do because we can see the long-term impact it makes. I remember getting asked to go to the hospital for the first time. I honestly had no idea what to expect, what I would see or what I would hear. Normally when I think about a hospital I think about all of the needles, medicine and doctors. We get to see a different side of it. When we walk into those rooms we get to brighten this patient’s room with what they like. It becomes all about them in a different way. It’s not all about their disease or injury; it’s about them as a person. That’s what makes it so special. Getting to make these patient’s days just a little bit brighter. And truly it affects not only their environment but also everyone around them. It brings this glow to their surroundings, helping them start fighting a little harder.”

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

Jennifer Hull: This is an easy question…making other people happy!! As Josie says, “We do this to make other kids happy. I know how hard it is to be in the hospital so I want to help them too.”

We can’t change the medical outcome but we can change how they feel when they are going through this journey. You can’t believe how rewarding it feels to know that you put your heart and soul into doing something for someone else that hopefully makes a difference in his or her life. Every room we do we put ourselves into their shoes for a moment. We do our best to anticipate what they would want or what would bring joy to them.

When we get the theme of the room we try to do the best we can to make it perfect for them. You would think after doing over 500 plus rooms it would be redundant but instead, we try to make each room better and more personalized. Making someone else happy fuels us. Hopefully, that person is the patient, but also the family. Being in the hospital is so stressful for the whole family.

We are one of the few people who walk into the room and can concentrate on the person, not the medical diagnosis. We get to recognize them and their interests. The family gets to be reminded of the person, not the condition.

The other part that fuels us is the excitement that it brings to the medical staff. You almost see them invigorated. It is so much fun to watch them and their reactions when they are watching a room reveal for one of their patients that they clearly have compassion for. It is a gift to us to make others feel special.

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

Jennifer Hull: There is an interesting thing that happens in our group. It isn’t only the patients and families that we affect. Many times it is the volunteers or vendors that we see affected by our work. It is so much fun to go into Target and the cashiers are all excited to see what rooms we are shopping for. It is so rewarding to see the change in our volunteers when they come to help. 

Witnessing the love and compassion that kids and teens give to patients is one of the best gifts in my life.  We don’t give them enough freedom or opportunities to give to others in a meaningful way. Giving them a positive experience serving others at a young age while hopefully help them remember that feeling when they are adults and they will find a cause that they can make an impact giving to as adults.

Charity Matters: Last question before we end this fairy tale, tell us what success you have had?

Jennifer Hull: Our success isn’t measurable. Success for us is determined by the about of love and compassion we are able to spread to our patients, families, staff, volunteers, and vendors. It is the ability to spread hope and happiness. Our success is based on helping and serving others.

Now that is happily ever after….if ever I have heard one.

 

Charity Matters.

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.

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.

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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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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.

Book of Joy

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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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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Uprising Yoga

 

While I am still compiling my final New Years resolutions one of them is definitely to do more yoga. In a recent yoga class I was talking to my instructor about her work volunteering in juvenile hall teaching trauma informed yoga with an organization called Uprising Yoga. My yoga teacher and friend introduced me to the amazing and beyond uplifting founder, Jill Ippolito Weiss. Jill has taken her gifts to bring yoga to both underserved communities and to the incarcerated kids at juvenile hall.

I came away from our conversation inspired, invigorated and moved.

Charity Matters: Tell us a little about what Uprising Yoga Does?

Jill Ippolito Weiss: The mission of Uprising Yoga is to bring trauma informed yoga to the incarcerated and to underserved communities. Trauma informed yoga helps people understand the impact of trauma on your entire mind and body, it helps understand the imprint left on the brain.

We have now had such growth that we are training the trainers to bring our program to social workers, probation staff and more teacher awareness. We are building sustainable business models where others can take our curriculum into their communities and use to provide trauma informed yoga.

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

Jill Ippolito Weiss: In the summer of 2010, I was dating a man named Nick, now my husband and he came home from work and was shaking and upset. I asked what was wrong and he explained that he had just toured a youth prison camp. He described what he saw and I asked him, “Can I teach yoga there?” 

I was working at a yoga college with my friend Mary and she was trying to put a group of instructors together to teach in juvenile hall already. Between the two of us we tried to find a way to actually get into juvenile hall. Getting clearance to work in prisons is a big deal. For months we tried to offer our services and got nowhere. Then in 2011, Nick and I were at a Christmas party and I was talking to a man who worked in the prison system and told him what I wanted to do. He and his colleagues all reached out and said, “When do you want to start?” So Mary, Nick and I began teaching trauma informed yoga on Tuesday nights to juvenile hall’s most vulnerable kids, the foster care sexually trafficked minors. 

Slowly, the classes began to grow and grow. We received a grant to determine how yoga was helping these kids. A friend said, “Have you thought about starting a nonprofit?”  So in 2012 we started officially. We were having a fund raiser and I called my mom to ask if she would donate. She asked what for and I told her to help the kids in juvenile hall. My mom said,” Jill, I picked you up there when you were a kid.” I was speechless because I honestly did not remember that I had been in the juvenile hall that I was now teaching in. Because I didn’t remember I began to study trauma and how it affects your brain and how we heal from trauma. That is how I connected trauma and yoga. 

I knew that I had gotten into trouble and I knew that recovery and yoga had saved my life. I hadn’t really been able to figure out why I was drawn to incarcerated youth until that moment. What pulled at my heart is that my mom came for me and no one is coming for these kids.

Charity Matters: What are your biggest challenges?

Jill Ippolito Weiss: I had no idea when I started how this was going to grow and expand. Our biggest challenge is that there is not enough man power and so much need that we simply can not meet.

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

Jill Ippolito Weiss: Connection and the stories I hear about what we do works. The thank you notes that I receive from students that say, “Thank you for letting my body detox.” It makes me high on the universe . My work matters. The ultimate gift is hearing that how you changed someone’s life for the better.

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

Jill Ippolito Weiss: There are so many ways but when we receive a letter, an email or a picture from juvenile hall saying, “Thank you for caring about us.” I know we are teaching life skills and that what we teach lasts a lifetime. I was recently asked to participate in a book about best practices for yoga in the criminal justice system. When people recognize me for my work that is touching.

We recently had a hostage/shooter situation at our local Trader Joes a block from our home.  The day after the situation I called volunteered my services to teach trauma informed yoga to the hostages.  I felt so helpless and thought what can one person do to offer their gifts and talents?  There was so much pain and trauma in my own neighborhood. So now we come together once a week and the trauma informed yoga has brought us all together. The yoga is healing these victims of violence and has given me an opportunity to use my gifts to let others know I care. These hostages have told me how this class has healed them.

Charity Matters: Tell us a little about your impact? The successes you have had?

Jill Ippolito Weiss: Our impact is on many levels. It can be as small as what we do for one person with our one on one work or large when we do large events. We know that violence goes down significantly after we work in the prisons. Today is our work is recognized nationally and internationally. Our Uprising Yoga curriculum is spreading across the country because it works and people are replicating our model. That is when you know your work has impact.

Charity Matters: What life lessons have you learned since beginning Uprising Yoga and how has this experience changed you?

Jill Ippolito Weiss: I have learned that people are good and want to keep doing good.  Once the nonprofit got started, people who cared came out of the woodwork to volunteer, to help, to donate and that literally shifted my entire perception of humanity. I didn’t know people had SO much good in them. I continue to believe that.

This experience made me go from suspicion and confusion into understanding why I went through my pain and how my healing process became available to others. I understood what my own healing journey meant. The yoga just didn’t heal me but it also healed everyone around me. My husband Nick has been a part of this entire journey and I feel that our love is shared out into a community.

Charity Matters

 

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It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood

“There are those who see the need and respond, I consider those people my heroes.”

Fred Rogers

 

As the New Year kicks into gear I have been thinking about what is important and what to focus on this year. There is so much negativity in our world or at least in the world presented to us in the media. How does one small voice overcome such noise? In the midst of my pondering, I unexpectedly watched the documentary film, Won’t you be my neighbor? There right in front of me was the answer coming from Mr. Rogers.

 

A quiet and gentle man who had the idea to give children something meaningful in the midst of the turmoil of the late 1960s.  Fred Roger’s mission was to build a community or neighborhood on the basic principles of loving your neighbor and yourself. He said,” Love is at the root of everything.” His life’s work was to make good and he believed that the power of television could build a real community where he could inspire the best in children to do just that.

When I think about New Years and what to focus on in 2019, Mr. Roger’s life and work seemed to capture the true essence of what really matters. There were so many beautiful messages in this film that it is impossible to share them all. Here are a few of my favorite takeaways and something to think to about as you begin looking at what matters in your year ahead.

 

“Although children’s “outsides” may have changed a lot, their inner needs have remained very much the same. Society seems to be pushing children to grow faster, but their developmental tasks have remained constant.”

 

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”

 

It’s not so much what we have in this life that matters. It’s what we do with what we have.”

 

What can change the world?  When someone gets the idea that love can abound and be shared.” 

 

Charity Matters

 

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Many Hopes

 

” If you lose hope, somehow you lose the vitality that keeps life moving, you lose that courage to be, that quality that helps you go on in spite of it all. And so today I still have a dream.”

Martin Luther King, Jr.

There are stories and then there is this story, one of the most remarkable journeys I have encountered in my nonprofit adventures. A beautiful tale of survival, love, goodness, and hope. The setting is Kenya, where there are 2.6 million homeless children and sixty percent of the country survives on less than a dollar a day. Like any great tale, there is a heroine, her name is Gift. The story opens when Gift’s mother died of AIDS. Gift was six years old and was carrying her six-month-old baby brother on her back to find food and medical help for him. A group of street children told Gift that the baby she was carrying was dead. These street children took Gift to meet their friend Anthony.

Anthony Mulongo

Anthony Mulango was a prominent journalist in Kenya and from a well to do family. He was doing a report on the street children in Mombasa and had befriended many of them when young Gift appeared. Anthony brought Gift into his home, hired a woman to take care of her, sent her to school and essentially raised Gift as his daughter.

The story takes a twist in 2007 when Irish journalist Thomas Keown was traveling to Kenya and met Gift and Anthony. He came back to the United States where he had a newspaper column published in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. Thomas wrote a column about sacrifice and mentioned Anthony and Gift. The article’s response came with letters and checks which became the start of Many Hopes. I spoke with Thomas this week and I came away from our conversation in awe of what love, dedication, and vision combined can achieve. Here is our conversation:

Gift

Charity Matters: Tell us a little about what Many Hopes Does?

Thomas Keown: We rescue, educate and advocate for children. Fundamentally we believe that children who suffer injustice are the most powerful agents of change. We want children to defeat the causes of injustice that they survived. We work for Gift, she is the true founder of Many Hopes. Many Hopes is more than a school it is a long term strategic solution to the corruption and poverty that exploits the most vulnerable children. When the poorest children are educated alongside children with means they help one another to have confidence and to build a network that will make them free to make their own choices and not need charity.

Growing up in Belfast during a time of turmoil. I learned early and was privileged to witness that lessons that seemingly unsolvable problems can and do have solutions if the right ingredients come to bare. If you can transform a generation, you can transform anything.

Charity Matters: What was the moment you knew that you needed to start Many Hopes?

Thomas Keown: When I met Anthony I was struck by his life of sacrifice and I wondered what I would have done at 28 if I had seen Gift? I wasn’t sure if I would have been able to make the sacrifice that Anthony made. Would I have taken Gift into my home and arranged for the burial of her brother?

I had seen poverty in my travels before going to Kenya in 2007. I came home from my trip and wrote my weekly newspaper column and talked about what people need to do to have a useful and purposeful life. I mentioned Anthony and Gift in the last two paragraphs of the column, as an example of people doing that. I asked people to consider to use their lives and resources for good. I had never thought about a nonprofit organization.

The power of the story kicked in and the reality is that every human being wants to be impactful.  I had never seen letters before like we did from this article. An editor in New York began to forward all the emails she received and reached out to me. People wanted to do good, to meet me and to help Anthony. In the beginning, we were just trying to help Anthony and raise some money. I knew he was very smart and that I had access to resources living in the States so I volunteered to try to raise funds and became part-time and six years ago came on full time for Many Hopes.

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

Thomas Keown: Most fundamentally I’m a  a Christian, this is what I am on earth to do. My driving motivation is my faith. Growing up in Northern Ireland during a violent time I have always been driven by work that supports justice. I believe the work that we are doing is transformational. I see results in the lives of individual children. I am fueled to keep doing this work when I see students who should be dead are now in college instead. When you get tired you just need to look at the individual milestones.

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

Thomas Keown: To be honest, sometimes I don’t know we have made a difference. You don’t always know the love and education that a six year old child receives will do to them, you do know it will do something. We see girls are afraid who become trusting. We see children find faith. We see the worst of what humans can do to one another and the best. Then you see one of our first students like Brenda. Brenda told us from the time she was little that she wanted to be an attorney. She said, ” I hope I can become an attorney to defend someone’s rights because someone defended my rights.” Seeing Brenda graduate with her law degree and then to use her degree to advocate for other children, like herself, that is when I see the work we have done.

I also see the people who support our work. The favorite part of my job is inviting people to partner with us and to feed their souls.I get to help people discover or rediscover the joy of generosity and the pleasure of changing other peoples lives. We get to change these donors lives and our children in Kenya’s lives as well.

Charity Matters: Tell us what successes you have had?

Thomas Keown:We have built girls’ homes, built a school for 900 boys and girls where students of priveledge and poor students are educated together. We are reservoir of aspiration that is narrow but deep. We are not trying to educate millions of people. Rather we are  focusing on love and education on these few, we are creating leaders and influencers who will create great change.

Charity Matters: how has this experience changed you?

Thomas Keown: I have learned to overcomeI am much more committed and persistent than I used to be. I know that I am doing the thing that I am supposed to be doing. I am more optimistic than ever having seen donors and children’s lives changed. I have no unmet needs.

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

Thomas Keown: Life lessons, I’ve learned so many in the past eleven years. I have learned self care and to rest. This work is so important that often we keep pushing on overdrive but I have learned to rest. I have learned that I don’t need to worry about rejection or failure but to simply overcome. 

I used to need tangible success but have learned that you don’t know the immeasurable lasting impact you have on someone’s life until years later. We don’t always know who we will carry so when in doubt be kind.

Charity Matters

 

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