Youth Leadership Programs


Episode 75: Calibrate

Life is full of serendipity if you pay attention. A few weeks back I went and visited my old grade school. When I was talking to the Principal, Joe, something came up about Charity Matters. Joe said, “You should talk to my wife. She has an amazing nonprofit.” And so I did and I can’t wait for you to meet the incredible Marcie Gilbert. Marcie is the co-founder of the nonprofit Calibrate.

The serendipity didn’t end there, Marcie’s beautiful work is very similiar to mine, working with youth leaders who in turn mentor other leaders. So join us today for an inspirational conversation to learn about Marcie’s incredible work with Calibrate. She is a ray of sunshine and will leave you feeling warm and inspired.


Here are a few highlights from our conversation:

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

Marcie Gilbert:  Calibrate’s mission is to transform the lives of young leaders from under resourced communities to make them feel valued and prepared to reinvest their time back into their community. We have three primary activities of focus. One of them is we want to provide the social emotional foundation for our youth in under-resourced communities to be able to thrive. We do that through a program we call Connections,that has been in Los Angeles schools since the mid 1980s.

Our second activity is we are interested in creating a virtuous cycle of generational health. We are training young adults from our communities. Typically, these are alumni of our Connections programs, to go back and reinvest in their communities.  Calibrate raises money in order to pay those young adults to go back and reinvest in their communities by leading the Connections programs. And then the third activity that we have is coalition building, because we know that to have impact, we need to all come together as a village.

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

Marcie Gilbert:  Both of my parents were intensively philanthropic, constantly volunteering on a weekly basis. My mom was always involved in so many different things. One of the things that I always thought was really cool is that she took children’s books, and she transcribed them into Braille. That was those of the days before the Braille typewriters. And so you had to actually literally pinprick each of the letters and I just remember her doing that. What might be a very tedious task, for pages and pages. And so it was everything. It’s part of my DNA. 

Charity Matters: Tell us how Calibrate started?

Marcie Gilbert:  There used to be a place called the Ojai Foundation that was a mecca for all kinds of philosophical and spiritual leaders in the 70s. There was a man named Jack Zimmerman, who created a program which was called Counsel. There was a school in Santa Monica that was started by a man named Paul Cummins called Crossroads.  Paul and Jack were friends.  Jack said, “Let’s bring this program to Crossroads.”Crossroads implemented this program.

In 1994, when I graduated college, I became connected with Paul and Crossroads.  I was trained to be able to deliver this program, which we call Connections.  The following year, Paul started a new school called New Roads. He recruited me as part of the founding team. Everybody was trained and this was the social emotional foundation for our school. I went to my professor and I said, “Can I make Connections my focus of my thesis?”  Over the course of the year I surveyed all these alumni, and everybody said that Connections was the foundation that allowed them to thrive.  95% of those students went on to have post secondary degrees as  compared to 17% of their local peers.

One of Paul’s missions was to bring private school education to communities that had not been exposed to those kinds of whole child’s social emotional enriched environments.  Charlotte Johnson, who was my principal and my mentor, is one of the co-founders of Calibrate. And she said, “You need a nonprofit.” and I said, “No, I don’t.”

We started programming in August 2019. We should have been shut down March 2020.  But instead it had the opposite effect to the pandemic because suddenly everybody became aware of the term social emotional learning. The reality is everybody became in touch with the need for connection.

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

Marcie Gilbert: The Anthonys, Murenas, Becky, Chris,  Alana or Tina,  I could name all 120 people who I work within our collective Calibrate cosmos. I work with the most extraordinary individuals and the moments that I get to go and visit our sites. A little fourth grade girl named Ari and her hugs and smiles. Her mom named Brittany who has the biggest heart of anybody I’ve ever met.  I think about volunteers, like Lynn, who basically retired and made Calibrate her job.

 I think about our community of alumni who just really get this and just really are the heart of Calibrate pumping all that understanding into the rest of the organization. Our board is miraculous, our community partners Mark and Trey, and our program partners. When I opened my eyes in the morning it’s that whole entire vibe of people that spread that feeling of good. 

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

Marcie Gilbert: The testimonials and the feedback from those who write to me to sit into Connections.  When I hear a teenager say literally this program kept me from committing suicide.  We know we have made a difference.

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

Marcie Gilbert: it’s the qualitative testimonials that are the most important. Last semester, we had students who were seniors at Cal Poly Pomona who partnered with us. They took a random sample of thirty-five 8th graders, who had received between eight to 10 connections over a five week period. What they did was honed into the qualitative data, where children were able to articulate specific, observable behaviors in other environments outside of connection.

For example,I’m no longer fighting with my mom to get my homework done. I am raising my hand in class. I’m not afraid to ask my teacher for help. So those kinds of things where they were able to show what we call an education, a generalization of behaviors, and 67% of those that random sample were able to say things like,” I feel more confident, I’m a better listener.”  

We have a unique insight because we sit in these Connections to circles, which are living storytelling circles. And so we get those opportunities to hear the things like the suicidal ideation or the decision to go back to college. You know, we had a bunch of kids graduate high school and they were going to be first generation kids to go to the east coast to different colleges.  I was panicked to create a Connections program for them virtually. The rate of attrition can be very high for them to stay in college and finish.

The students told me, ” We don’t really need this because actually, we’re doing it on our own. We take the train, and we meet each other at least two times a month. And when we sit together we’re checking in, and we’re asking each other and we’re soliciting in each other equal chances to tell each other stories. It’s not a formal Connection, but we’re using tools from Connections, to keep ourselves to connect it to keep ourselves supporting one another.” Those kinds of comments are gold.

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

Marcie Gilbert:  The reason why is if we’re really creating an organization that’s of the people for the people, and we’re really fulfilling our mission of elevating these young leaders from our communities to come in and take over.  I just really want our young adults to be able to have their own dreaming, and not be just mired. I know that the community of alumni want a school again.

Charity Matters: How has this journey changed you?

Marcie Gilbert:   I have stretched and grown. I had to learn how to not take things personally. Not to trip,  not to overthink, to set boundaries on self care. That weight of the world feeling that you described earlier. When I was a little girl, when I would get anxious my sister would say to me, “What’s the worst thing that could happen?” What’s astounding to realize is that’s not true with Calibrate.

God forbid, we didn’t have a penny in the bank, we’re not going to stop. This is a community of people who believe so deeply in the programs and the mission that it will just keep marching forward until we get the next infusion of cash. Right? So you just know it’s going to be okay.

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

Marcie Gilbert: I feel like what I have learned along the way is about leadership.  I’m the person that so many people are looking t0o. And as I said to you before we started this podcast, I am an introvert. So it’s doing a great job of hiding. Something I’ve learned is that you can actually lead from behind.  What I have to lean on is the organizational culture that we’re creating. Because it is one of shared leadership.

We are the circle, we want to be the principles and values that we espouse in connections that we’re all holding this up, we all have equal voice. I have a lot of amazing people who can independently and successfully go and take a ball of something and run with it. So really,  what I’m doing is steering the ship and  keeping us tacking north.




Copyright © 2024 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.

Season Six Premiere: Riley’s Way

Welcome to the Season Six premiere of the Charity Matters Podcast. I am thrilled that Season Six is here and with it comes an entire new group of modern day heroes that we can not wait to introduce you to. Today’s guest is not your average nonprofit founder, not that anyone who sets out to make the world better is average…It is unusual for most of our guests to have a full time day job in addition to a nonprofit. When you hear his remarkable story you will understand.

Please join us for an inspirational conversation from our guest Ian Sandler. Learn as Ian shares the heartbreaking story behind the creation of Riley’s Way and the beautiful lasting legacy he has created to honor his beloved daughter.


Here are a few highlights from our conversation:


Charity Matters: Tell us a little about what Riley’s Way does?

Ian Sandler: Riley’s Way is a national nonprofit that invests in supporting the next generation of confident leaders. We provide young people with leadership training, coaching, funding and the community that they need to thrive, to develop into kind leaders and to make a difference in the world. So we work with emerging leaders, ages 13 to 22, who’ve started Social Impact organizations in areas like food insecurity, homelessness, equity, and education and environmental justice all through the lens of kindness, empathy, and human connection. And to date, we’ve supported more than 3000 young people across the country with over $2 million in grants and programs.

Charity Matters: What was the moment you knew you needed to act and start Riley’s Way?

Ian Sandler: Riley Hannah Sandler was our first child or our eldest daughter.  She was a magical young girl who loved more than anything to connect her friends. Riley would get excited when we would go out for dinner because that meant a babysitter and a chance to make a new friend.  She would talk about her friends accomplishments, you know, my friend got second place in a swim meet or got a lead role in the play as if it was her own accomplishment. She was so happy and so proud.

We found ourselves in a horrible situation where Riley had gone off for her first year of sleep-away camp.  She was having the summer of her life.  We ended up getting a phone call in the middle of the night, the night before she was supposed to come back from camp. And you just can’t make this stuff up, got a phone call, saying you need to get to the hospital. We took a four hour Uber and by the time I’d gotten to the hospital, Riley was gone.

It was just a case of her being too far from a hospital when she had gotten sick, and her throat had closed on her. We found ourselves in this just unfathomable situation. We just weren’t prepared to let this little girl who was gonna have a huge impact on the world…. we weren’t in a position to say we’re gonna say goodbye and we’re gonna let her light go out. And so we started Riley’s Way that day. So on August 18th, nine years ago, we actually started Riley’s Way in the hospital that day.

Charity Matters: Did you grow up in A family that modeled charity or volunteered?

Ian Sandler:  My late father was from South Africa. He came over here to get a PhD in Nuclear Physics, and came over with nothing. He started companies his whole life and was very, very involved in philanthropy from an early time in this country.My father was one of the people who created the Birthright program.  I actually think the numbers like 800,000 people have actually participated in The BirthRight program.

I lost my dad when he was 64, to stomach cancer. Before this whole notion of kind leadership, my dad was the guy  we couldn’t get home for dinner because he was stopping and talking to everybody at this company about what’s going on with them. He always taught me you can learn something from someone else. What I was able to take from seeing the impact he had between his philanthropic work and entrepreneurial work,  it really taught me the impact you can have, if you just kind of go at something, and you don’t stop.

And so the really amazing thing about Riley’s Way is we started it nine years ago, we didn’t know what we’re gonna do. We had just got a great group of people who loved Riley and my family. And we kept going at it. For us as a family,  it’s just our way to show our daughter how much we love her. 

Charity Matters: What are your biggest challenges?

Ian Sandler: I’m lucky that my career has always been as a business builder. I’ve been a chief operating officer for technology at Morgan Stanley, and then at the Carlyle Group. So what I’m good at is finding people who are really good at things and putting them together. What I truly love doing is building and scaling. We just found great people, each individual is more spectacular than the next. We have now nine full time staff which would have given me a heart attack in 2016 or 2017 when we were starting.

Riley’s Way is a youth led organization. What that means is we have our teams on our board, they do the bulk of our interviewing when we hire people, they do the bulk of our judging and so the very work we do on a day to day basis. And what we found is if you just give our youth teams this opportunity to work with one another, give them scaffolding and support, and let them figure things out.

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

Ian Sandler: When you ask what fuels me, it’s a combination of things, right? It’s being a dad and Ruby knows so much more about her sister Riley than she ever would because of this work, so that’s super meaningful to us. Then you get exposed to these incredible teams, and you see what they’re doing. And you’re able to see the beauty of the work we do in nonprofit land.

When one of our team’s programs is successful, that is joy. And that is our overarching goal, taking the world out 30 or 40 years, and just instilling kind leaders everywhere. So  that’s it. It’s fuel from all this time with these incredible change makers and seeing the way they’re going to go out into the world and look at everything in a different way than they perhaps otherwise would. It just instills in this theory of change, which is Riley’s vision of  having kind friends everywhere. So that’s what we’re shooting for. And we’re gonna keep going.

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

Ian Sandler:  We have served 3000 students in terms of our programming and given out more than $2 million in grants and programs and that’s that’s really powerful. And yet it’s a lot of  very individual stories. 

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

Ian Sandler:  I want Riley’s Way to be synonymous with the most impactful philanthropic organizations on the planet.  We already think we’ve got it right with these next generation of kind leaders. We think we have the next fortune 500 CEOs, the next the senators, the next teachers, the next doctors, we need these folks everywhere. You need this approach to kind leadership so that you can really counterbalance this incredibly divisive landscape.  We need to get back to this notion of community that we look out for one another, we look out for our planet and we really have to think about this in a much different way. 

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

Ian Sandler: I lost my dad and I was like well, this is gonna be my life’s challenge, and I’m gonna rise above it. Then losing Riley. And I was like I don’t know how I’m supposed to do all of this. And yet the paradox in everything is, I feel like I’m able to just recognize what really does matter.  Being surrounded by people you love and making an impact in people’s lives. 

What I’m able to realize nine years into this is just what matters in life. All these things that I used to think were worries, were not. Don’t overthink it, because life’s gonna throw so much stuff at you. And by the way, that really starts with yourself. You can’t be good to your family, to your friends, to your colleagues,  if you’re not in a good place.  You have to figure out what that recipe is so that you can then go out and shine for others.  I definitely try to do one thing every day that is just purely joyful for me. And I kind of just float through life as a result of all this. So much of it is just the love and the joy we get from this work and community.  And knowing that you’re working for a purpose…I really do feel like I’ve found my life’s purpose.




Copyright © 2023 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.

Time for Camp!


I am back from a much-needed vacation and re-energized for the busy summer ahead. As most of you know by now, I took a new position last November running non-profit that provides a Summer Leadership Conference for middle school students, called TACSC. Today, I feel like a nervous camper because it’s my first day of Summer Camp or Summer Conference, as we call it.

All year, we have worked, planned, fundraised and organized for this moment. It is exciting, terrifying and fun all at once. Just like the 200 students who will show up today, spending their first week away from home, in a college dorm…I can empathize with their nerves because its my first time too!

This moment is the reason I took this job. No, not to relive my childhood and run off to camp but because of what we do and have been doing for 32 years. That is teaching our students how to lead and inspire others. Planting the seed of compassion by teaching service, having our students learn how to use their voice and stand up for what they believe in and how to lead from behind and by example.

Oh don’t get me wrong, this is still camp….with talent shows, line dances, movie nights, games and all the fun that comes with camp. This is camp with a difference and a purpose.

Last night as I packed up my own 7th grader to attend our program, I realized that he was excited, happy and really looking forward to this experience and I can say proudly, I am too!


Charity Matters.


Copyright © 2014 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.