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.
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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