Sunday, October 11, 2009

Get out of your suits and come help!

I was unable to attend the Jim Wallis luncheon event last week. But I was told that Brittany, a college student who grew up in the Roseland TownHomes, had some well-spoken, but fairly harsh words for the people in the audience. "You need to get out of your suits and come down here to help. There are kids like me who want to do something and we need your help."

I'm glad Brittany said what she did.

Growing up in Roseland and the inner city, what Brittany understands is that the people who have the most resources, contacts, and connections do not and cannot feel her pain, know her dreams, or celebrate her successes. They can't because they don't know her.

Nearly every day I'm told that in order to get funding, we need "outcomes." Outcomes have always frustrated me. I see large organizations get amazing grant dollars...not because they have created a great program, but because they have learned how to write outcomes down on paper in a concise way that look good. I have listened to organizations tell me that they don't care if the kid stays at their program that day, but they want to make sure and count him/her so they can keep their numbers up for their reports.

Outcomes frustrate me.

As a director, my job often keeps me in the office writing grants, figuring out ways to write down on paper what we do, and writing endless charts about what we're going to measure. Just about the time I think I've got a handle on everything needed, I get a new email asking for more "stuff."

Over the last three weeks I have helped create two new educational programs--a library/bookstore and a Teen University--in the Roseland addition to our already existing After-School Academy. (our Digital Connectors program will be starting soon!)

I am giddy with excitement as I watch Katrina (Roseland Library/Bookstore) teach the kids that visit the library how to greet in sign language. I have watched her gather a small group of kids together as they take turns reading a magazine together. I listened to a parent walk by the library/bookstore and ask Katrina if she would be open that day because she was watching three extra kids for the day and wanted them to have something to do (Katrina said people say stuff like that to her all of the time). I have received excited text messages from Katrina on Saturdays telling me how kids showed up all day to read and participate. And I can't help but be excited when she tells me how kids are scrambling to buy the books she reads to them.

I am in awe of Terrence's (Teen University) ability to draw in the Roseland teenagers. So far he has drawn about 20% of the 12-18 year olds in Roseland (which amounts to about 29 teens). I absolutely love walking upstairs to the Teen University unexpectedly and see Terrence sitting on the couch with a couple of them, helping them do their homework, while a few others are on a different couch looking up words in the dictionary. At the other end of the room there are kids playing Scrabble, and still others inquiring about colleges.

My heart warms as Danielle (After-School Academy) updates me on the daily activities and little progresses of the kids. I've seen some of our biggest challenges walk into the garden and completely transform as they dig dirt, water the garden, and check out the vegetables they've grown. I get excited watching Shawn working with our junior reporters, thinking that they will be writing for Dallas South News soon. I love walking in and seeing all of the kids busy on the computers working away.

The reason I get frustrated with outcomes is not that they don't exist in our programs; it's that "outcomes" cannot be written on a sheet of paper. Our "outcomes" are often not represented by a sharp increase in their reading or math scores. Instead, it's what we see and observe. It's the smile on Fred's face compared to the angry, furrowed brow when he entered the program at the beginning of the summer. It's Kevin talking through stuff instead of getting mad and refusing to talk to anyone. It's seeing the light switch go on in Raymond's head as he figures out how to ask a good open-ended question. Outcomes and improvement is different for each child.

I try to think of the kids in the After-School Academy like I would my own children. My parents let me try things out. They knew that letting me explore baton twirling, Future Business Leaders of America, choir, piano lessons, etc. would lead me to finding myself. I learned to discipline myself to work toward goals with the things I loved. I learned to value playing the piano, but also learned that practicing every day was not how I wanted to spend my time. If I didn't make huge gains, my parents didn't withdraw me. They expected me to do my best.

So, I want to encourage people to come be a part of what we're doing. Come see what the kids are doing. Come garden with them. Come work with them on a designated project. Watch the change for yourself. In Brittany's words, "Get out of your suits and come spend time with us." The outcomes that exist when you least expect it and are so much better than what's on paper.
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