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Gordie, a story worth retelling…again and again

Gordie's story

Next week we are heading to our youngest son’s parent weekend at his college in Texas.  He attends a big college football school where  weekends include tailgates, football games and the obligatory fraternity parties…..all of it fun and takes us back to our own college days. With so many students heading off to college or in their first month of school I was reminded that the 15th year anniversary of Gordie Bailey’s death is coming up.  While I do not typically repost, I have shared his story every year because the lesson is invaluable and sadly, needs to be told over and over to each new generation of college students.

So often we do not make discoveries or connections until it is too late.  We do not realize the value of a friend until they have moved away, we do not appreciate our child until they have left for college or we do not know the value of one’s life until it has passed.

Why is it that we wait to make these connections? Why is our hindsight is so crystal clear and our day-to-day vision so clouded? This story is perhaps no different, however, the beauty of it lies in the ability to take that clear vision and create something that matters.

This month thousands of college freshman have left home, including my own son, and many are beginning the process of Rush as they look to make new homes away from home in sororities and fraternities across the country. That is exactly what Gordie Bailey did in September 2004, as an 18-year-old freshman at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Gordie, a fun-loving freshman who had been the Co-captain of his varsity high school football team, a drama star, a guitar player and a walk on at Boulder’s lacrosse team was adored by all. He pledged Chi Psi and on the evening of September 16th, Gordie and twenty-six other pledge brothers dressed in coats and ties for “bid night”, were taken blindfolded to the Arapaho Roosevelt National Forest where they were “encouraged” to drink four “handles” of whiskey and six (1.5 liter) bottles of wine.

They were told, “no one is leaving here until these are gone.” When the group returned to the Fraternity house, Gordie was visibly intoxicated and did not drink anymore. He was placed on a couch to “sleep it off” at approximately 11pm. His brothers proceeded to write on his body in another fraternity ritual. Gordie was left to “sleep it off” for 10 hours before he was found dead the next morning, face down on the floor. No one had called for help, he was 18 years old.

The nonprofit Gordie Foundation was founded in Dallas in 2004 by Gordie’s parents as a dedication to his memory. The Gordie foundation creates and distributes educational programs and materials  to reduce hazardous drinking and hazing and promote peer intervention among young adults.  Their mission is committed to ensuring that Gordie’s story continues to impact students about the true risks of hazing and alcohol use.

There has been at least one university hazing death each year from 1969 to 2017 according to Franklin College journalism professor Hank Nuwer. Over 200 university deaths by hazing since 1839, with 40 deaths from 2007-2017 alone and alcohol poisoning is the biggest cause of death. As Gordie’s mother Leslie said, “Parents more than anything want their dead children to be remembered and for their lives to have mattered.”

In almost fifteen years, the Gordie Foundation which is now re-named Gordie.Org has made an enormous impact on hundreds of thousands of students across the country through its programs and educational efforts. If you have a college age student, think about asking them to take the pledge to save a life, possibly their own.

Why is it that we wait to make these connections? Why is our hindsight is so crystal clear and our day-to-day vision so clouded? Why is it that we do not know the value of one’s life until it has passed? Perhaps more than a decade later, our vision is becoming clearer and we realize just how much precious each life is……

Charity Matters.

 

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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

 

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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.

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Why’d you stop me? WYSM Foundation

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

Anthony D’Angelo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Charity Matters

 

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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Becoming a leader

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

Warren Bennis

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

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

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

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

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

charity matters

 

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

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

Kula Project

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Charity Matters: What are your biggest challenges?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Charity Matters: How has this journey changed you?

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

Charity Matters: What is your Wish for Kula Project?

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

 

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Shields for Families

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

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

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

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

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

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

Charity Matters: How did you start?

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

Charity Matters: What are your biggest challenges?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Charity Matters: Tell us a little about your impact?

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

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

Charity Matters: How has this journey changed you?

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

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

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

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

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

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The Fig Factor Foundation

 

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

Jackie Camacho-Ruiz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Charity Matters: What are your biggest challenges?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Charity Matters: How has this journey changed you?

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

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Opening Minds Through Art (OMA)

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

Dr. Seuss

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Charity Matters: What are your biggest challenges?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Charity Matters: Tell us about your impact at OMA?

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

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

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

Charity Matters: How has this journey changed you?

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

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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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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.

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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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.

 

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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Copyright © 2018 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.

Creating the Change

“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 nonprofit founder, Molly Yuska of Project Giving Kids. We met  when I interviewed her for Charity Matters.  Project​ ​Giving​ ​Kids​ ​(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, Molly saw clearly 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.​ ​

Molly is the ultimate connector as is Project Giving Kids. PGK  reaches out to nonprofit partners to find volunteer opportunities for a multitude of ages. This weekend was a full circle moment for me as Project Giving Kids came to LA for the first time for their Create​ ​the​ ​Change​ ​Day​ ​LA. The day was  hosted by Kidspace Children’s Museum, a place very near and dear to my heart and twenty years ago the main source of my volunteer work.  ​

However, this past Sunday, Kidspace 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 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, Do Good Bus, Food on Foot LA, Heal the Bay, Heaven on Earth Society, Grades of Green, Karma Rescue, LA Family Housing, North Hollywood Interfaith Food Pantry,PATH, School on Wheels, St. Vincent Meals on Wheels and Together We Rise.

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 pretty much said it all….

Charity Matters

 

 

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Copyright © 2018 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.