Dying embers

It was a mom-and-pop operation, offering seasonal activities but no real program. Its genesis, minimal budget, and small staff were all provided by outsiders. After five years, the combination of being volunteer-driven, a Board comprised solely of the founder’s friends, and no connection to the community in which it operated prescribed its decline.

Something clearly needed to be done.

Flames burning

The spark that began it all was the threatened loss of the vacant lot on which the organization’s activities had taken place.  It forced children and families to realize the importance of the agency, take ownership, and decide that this program mattered.  People rallied, marched, lobbied, and won the piece of ground from the city. That effort changed the agency from one shaped by the vision of one person to one in which the community had a stake.

The rebirth

As a result of the community coming together, the organization got a new executive director, new chair, and several new Board members as they focused on attracting skills and experience that could add value to the organization.  Further changes included extended hours of operation, expansion of services needed in the community, and a focus on program evaluation.  Help with school work, a safe haven from gangs, help with family problems, job skills, and preparation for college were asked for and provided.

The Board heard from the community both directly and indirectly.  Staff members regularly attended Board meetings, and Board members spent time at the agency, attended its functions and interacted with all constituencies.  “You get it all from the parents, in one way or another,” the executive director said. “Real energy is put into back and forth between parents and staff.”  Community involvement is not only built into the program: community involvement built the program.

Keeping the Cycle Going

While the outside threat to the program was the catalyst for community involvement, it happened once and effort was needed to keep the program alive and vibrant.  Careful planning transformed the community — program participants and neighbors — into supporters.  The agency developed several practices to keep the community voice alive:

  • Call people together for good times.  Many parents are used to thinking that when an institution calls about a child, it’s not for a positive reason.  Now when a call comes, it’s about trophies or rallies or celebrities coming to the neighborhood.  The Board even structures the formal points of new Board orientation entry around program celebrations.
  • Don’t rely on children, especially older ones, to relay information.  Volunteers call the parents of older kids.  The parents want to be proud and involved. But teenagers, seeking independence, may not mention the upcoming rally.
  • The motto became, be persistent!  People need time to build trust or to see that the program is a good thing. “People feel sorry for me,” the volunteer said about her efforts to get reluctant parents involved.  She may call a parent five times and get excuses for not coming but on that sixth call … the wall is breached.
  • The key word is “free.” If you want people to come, have free snacks, free lunch, free games and free uniforms.
  • Listen and respond.  If new programs are being considered, talk to people, find out what their reservations are, and work out the objections and obstacles with them.
  • Encourage neighborhood participation at all events.  Get to know the neighbors, the families and friends of those who attend the program.
  • Reach out to the business community.  The agency worked with businesses to create safe havens for children on their way home and volunteers from the agency keep watch on the streets so children are not harassed by gang members.  It became a neighborhood force.

The result is a self-sustaining program.  Participants become attached to the program, stay in it for years, go to college, then come back as volunteers to support the program, shape it, and recruit relatives and friends to join.

Always new!

The agency created staff positions to formalize and expand relationships in the community, according to the deputy director.  Staff has been hired to work with parents to find new ways to help children or to develop bonds with businesses and neighbors outside the immediate environment of the agency.  Focus groups with parents and children are now integral to the evaluation of programs.

The lesson here: Practice what you preach. “All lessons that apply in the program, apply everywhere,” the executive director said. “Try your best, respect others, work hard and be intentional about every action.”

That agency is now the thriving heart of its immediate neighborhood. Community members and an alumna of the program have been added to the Board. The organization was formed on a shoe-string, as the vision of one person.  When all that changed, they faced a crisis and were reborn stronger!