Friday, June 26, 2009
What does it take?
El Da'Sheon Nix has been writing articles showing how great sports teams get that way because of the combined efforts of the team on the field, and the team in the front office, and the fans in the stands.
The image on this page shows the goal of Cabrini Connections, of helping transform the lives of the youth and volunteers who become part of this organization. Seems like a simple concept, right?
Yet every day there are numerous activities that good organizations need to do, ranging from those that support youth and volunteers, to those that raise money, and those that provide administrative oversight to the facility, the technology, and the paid and volunteer staff.
We have never had more than one or two full time Cabrini Connections staff to do this work. Nor have we had a secure stream of funding which was available every year to fuel our work and provide job security or retirement benefits for people who work here. Finally, while there is plenty of information to show how to create strong organizational structures, there is little information on how to make a volunteer-based tutor/mentor program have a live changing impact on its members.
Thus, as we've tried to figure out how to make what we do work each year, we've also needed to try to find ways to recruit and keep one or two full time staff, as well as a variety of volunteer leaders. While Gena Schoen stayed with Cabrini Connections from 1993 to 2000, and helped build the structure we have today, no other leaders have come to us from the volunteer ranks, as Gena did (she was a tutor from 1989 till joining the CC staff), thus each new person who has had to build their understanding of the infrastructure support, while coaching the 70-80 pairs in the programs, and while trying to find money to pay the bills.
While we've attracted really talented people in to the lead coordinator role, they have had other opportunities that attracted them to other jobs after one or two years. Thus, building the organizational knowledge and experience that is needed to support the work of kids and volunteers has not been one of continuous growth over the past 8 years, but one where we're always in a steep learning curve.
What has helped offset this has been the growth of a core of veteran volunteers who have stayed with the program 3 or more years, serving as mentors to other volunteers and staff, and often serving as coordinators of the weekly tutoring sessions.
Because this high turnover of staff, and volunteers, is common in non profits, and youth serving organizations, I have created an on-line library of information that anyone from Cabrini Connections can draw from at any time. It's the knowledge and experience that I've gained from leading a tutor/mentor program since 1975. It's also the knowledge and experience of others who also lead tutor/mentor programs, in Chicago, and in other cities. This library is the Tutor/Mentor Connection
In many organizations, one or two people becomes an expert, and a resource or mentor for everyone else in the organization. I've had that role at Cabrini Connections since we started. However, since I've learned what I know by practical application over a 30 year period, it's not possible for me to sit down in a session, or even a series of sessions, and "train" someone else, or all of our volunteers, to know what I've learned, or to be able to apply that knowledge in the same way, for the same goals.
When the Internet became a tool, I started taking information from my mind, and from my file cabinets, and posting it on the T/MC web site. At the same time, I started posting links to other programs, and to research that I was reading that helped me understand what the challenges were that we and our teens face, and what some of the solutions might be, if we could find the volunteers and dollars and staff to implement those ideas.
While the knowledge of the T/MC was originally intended to support just Cabrini Connections, I've been networking and learning from leaders and peers in other programs since I first became a leader myself. Thus, the Internet has enabled me to share what we all know, with anyone who wants to find ways to help build the infrastructure needed to support kids and volunteers in programs like Cabrini Connections.
As we go through this summer into next fall, I hope a growing number of our volunteers will skim through the T/MC sites and begin to draw from that knowledge so that we have more ways to help our own teens and volunteers when school starts in September.
At the same time, I hope some of you will help me find additional volunteers, partners and donors, so we can organize and teach this information, the same way the school of Engineering or Law at a major university organizes its knowledge and teaches it to students every year.
As El Da'Sheon has written often, this is a team sport, and summer is not a time to vacation, but a time to do personal workouts and training so we can improve from year to year. I hope many members of the Cabrini Connections community, and the larger tutor/mentor community, will join me in this on-going learning, and in efforts to apply what we learn to the way we help kids.
If you'd like to meet with me for a tour of our on-line resources, or to talk about ways you might help, please call 312-492-9614