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The Joy of Accompaniment: Reflecting on 15 years of serving moms and babies in Washington, DC

This year I mark my 15th anniversary working at The Northwest Center (NWC). As I reflect on these years, I am reminded of the foundational value of a good volunteer experience and how it can influence future career paths.

As a freshman at Georgetown University, I chose to receive a fourth credit for my Introduction to Psychology course by taking on weekly volunteer work. I value volunteering and also supporting pregnant women, so my search led me to NWC and its Pregnancy Center Program. I volunteered for a semester and subsequently chose to volunteer on my own my sophomore year. I remember helping sort donations and sitting with women and listening to their personal stories. It left a lasting impression.

To this experience, I later added a post-college year of service in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps working with teen mothers and felt called to pursue a career in social work. Fast forward 10 years and, after several years of working in child welfare for Montgomery County, I was thinking it was time for a job change. A friend who had been volunteering at NWC told me there was an opening for Director of the Maternity Home, a second program offered at NWC. Before I knew it, I was working at the agency where I had gained my very first work experience related to my eventual social work profession. Subsequently, I also became Executive Director, overseeing both NWC programs.

Susan

During these ensuing 15 years at NWC, I have grown in so many ways. When I left Montgomery County for the maternity home position, my supervisor gave me a small novelty hammer and screwdriver. To my great surprise, those farewell gifts turned out to foretell how much I would need to learn about maintenance issues for the upkeep of the 100-year-old DC townhouse that houses NWC’s programs.

But the main growth has been in understanding the need in the community and how best to meet that need. I have learned the importance of creating a safe space for women to share their hopes, dreams, and struggles and to respond by listening, not judging, and providing encouragement.

My experience at NWC often brings to mind the words of Father Greg Boyle in his book, Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion. Father Boyle talks about “standin awe at what people have to carry rather than stand in judgment at how they carry it.”

I am truly awed by the resilience of the women we serve in the face of what they have to carry: from domestic violence to poverty and lack of resources (housing, food, adequate medical care), to the racism they face. In spite of this, each and every mother makes countless sacrifices for her baby and her family. My lens of viewing the world has widened as I have seen the daily struggles and joys of so many different families who have allowed me a glimpse into their lives.

“Accompaniment” is my greatest joy in being a social worker and working at NWC. Walking alongside women – providing support, encouragement, guidance – has allowed me to watch the moms grow in every area of their lives as they become new parents and build long-term stability for their families. Being a part of a child’s life – from before they are born, and watching them grow, achieve developmental milestones, and become a member of the village which supports their family – is truly a gift.

The story of one determined mom is an example of the difficult path women have walked as they progress through NWC programs. This mother was pregnant with her second child and did not have stable, safe housing nor health insurance. She was eager in working towards her goals: deliver a healthy baby, find daycare for her children, obtain U.S. citizenship, and find a better paying job to support her family. She obtained health insurance, gave birth to a full-term baby, and found a good daycare. The mother and I deciphered our way through the citizenship application. I drove her to the immigration office for her interview, reviewed study questions for the test with her, and eventually attended her naturalization ceremony. She obtained a better paying job, now lives in affordable housing, and I continue to provide resources and support to her family.

And then there is the joy of reading to a young infant and watching that become a part of his daily routine. I was reading a board book to a 4-month-old who blurted out gleeful sounds every time he saw the hippo in the book. His mom was impressed that a baby that young enjoyed reading and began reading to him daily. Some of the babies liked the animal noises so much that every time they wanted to read a book, they walked around making animal noises and handed their mothers a book.

Many we serve become extended family, keeping in touch after they have moved to independence, and often visiting NWC to support new women entering the programs. This is a real way that I see The Northwest Center living out its mission to support all women through pregnancy as well as beyond to long-term well-being for themselves and their families.

I have been blessed with dedicated, supportive, and creative coworkers who truly define what it means to be a team. I am grateful for the wide range of volunteers who pick up and sort donations, meet with families, and offer their expertise, energy and passion. It is these volunteers that keep me going when the work is challenging. I am amazed at the generous community donations that help provide resources in support of the needs and hopes of new mothers and their infants.

My 15-year tenure also has been enriched by the generosity of our donors, by the strong commitment of the board, staff and volunteers, and by the embrace of our local community. I am humbled to work at an agency that exists and thrives because of these caring efforts in support of pregnant women and families.

This reflection was written by Susan Gallucci, LICSW, the current Executive Director of The Northwest Center (Photo by Renata Grzan Wieczorek/FortheLoveofBeauty.com).

A Catalogue Member Reflects: Hear from Nicole Lynn Lewis About Her Forthcoming Book, Pregnant Girl

When I got my first job out of college and started to get to know my coworkers, I shared a bit about my college journey. So many people told me that I need to share more to inspire others and to change the way people think about teen parents. Nearly 20 years later, my book Pregnant Girl: A story of teen motherhood, college, and creating a better future for young families is being released by Beacon Press on May 4th.

Pregnant Girl cover (1)

Part memoir, and written as an urgent call to action, Pregnant Girl explores how we can better support young families so they can thrive and how the intersectionality of race, gender, and poverty impacts our lack of support for young parents. In it, I also reflect on my own experiences as a Black mother and college student fighting for opportunities for my family. The book presents the possibility of a different future for teen parents – one of success and stability – in the midst of the dire statistics that dominate the national conversation.

I also tell the story of how Generation Hope, the nonprofit I founded in 2010 and later included in the Catalogue for Philanthropy in 2014 and 2019, came to be. I share our philosophy and approach to helping young parents succeed, and I talk about the dearth of funding for organizations led by people of color. As a Black woman and nonprofit CEO, I’m often called a unicorn, because this combination is too rare in this sector – less than 10% of nonprofit leaders are people of color. A further differentiator is the fact that I have lived the mission of my organization as a former teen mom and college graduate. This background and lived experience have aided me in leading and growing Generation Hope over the past decade by informing our mission and the whole-family work we do every day to help more teen parents earn their college degrees while also preparing their children for kindergarten success.

One of my main motivations in writing Pregnant Girl was taking steps to ensure that my story, both as a teen parent in college and, in subsequent years, as a Black woman leading a direct service and advocacy nonprofit, is no longer a rarity. Fewer than 2% of teen parents earn their college degrees before they turn 30, and nonprofit organizations led by Black women receive less than 1% of foundation giving. These statistics point to broad systemic changes needed in higher education (Which students do we deem “college material” and worthy of support? Who was our higher ed system designed to serve?) and in the ongoing racial inequality that permeates all industries, including philanthropy.

Nicole Headshot

One of the most powerful tools we have is our stories. In Pregnant Girl, I share stories – mine, and the stories of the young parents we work with at Generation hope – in order to shed light on populations that are too often overlooked and rendered invisible. For too long, the stories that have dominated the issue of teen pregnancy – and more broadly race, poverty, single mothers, etc. – have been negative, damaging, and inaccurate. At Generation Hope, our work is directly informed by the tremendous assets and needs of the families with whom we work, underscoring the different kinds of stories it is possible to tell about teen parents and their families. Our impact and our families’ triumphs have been clear, proving that the future we wish to see is not an impossible dream.

I hope you will join us in telling a new story about young families. You can pre-order Pregnant Girl here, join us for our spring events for an in-depth book discussion and a celebration of our graduates, and/or continue the conversation with me on Twitter. We can all play a role in removing obstacles to opportunity, reimagining our educational systems as places that truly fulfill their promise of mobility and success for all students, and changing philanthropy to invest in leaders and solutions that will truly address racial disparities.

Early praise for Pregnant Girl:

“Reading this book, you will learn something important about race, poverty, and gender and how they play a role in teen pregnancy. And you will learn something about how hope can win over adversity.”

- Soledad O?Brien, award-winning documentarian, journalist, speaker, author and philanthropist

“Pregnant Girl is not just a powerful memoir; it’s an empowering guide for all of us. Nicole Lynn Lewis shows us that all our journeys matter, and the beauty of those journeys is not just the destination but the lessons of the path. I would highly recommend this book to all.”

- Wes Moore, author of The Other Wes Moore, CEO of Robin Hood Foundation

“Makes a compelling case for the multifaceted approach that is necessary to ensure that all young people – particularly our youth of color and young parents – are able to make the choice to pursue a college education, earn a degree, and lead thriving lives…It is an approach that is deeply rooted in the belief and call to action that is core to this book – that all young people are worthy of an education, worthy of resources and opportunity, and worthy of our every effort to help them reach their potential and soar.”

- Dr. John King, 10th US Secretary of Education under President Obama

Street Sense Goes Weekly, by Eric Falquero, Editorial Director

Street Sense Media is realizing a long-time goal of doubling how often we publish the street paper of our nation’s capital! Starting April 14, our community can look forward to a new publication every Wednesday! At the heart of this expansion is one simple thing: vendor income. We project that the women and men selling our newspaper will earn an average of 40% more money based on observations from our sister street papers in Chicago, Seattle, and Portland that have already transitioned to weekly distribution.

This increase will help vendors meet their daily, basic needs​ and make the program more attractive to new vendors. The more consistent income will make saving and budgeting funds from working with Street Sense Media easier. And we will also be able to pay the artists who contribute to Street Sense – writers, photographers, illustrators, and more – twice as often.

SSM J McNeil

A 2015 analysis of our past sales data found that sales were, on average, 74% higher in the first week of a paper’s circulation. And in a readership survey the following year, a whopping 78% of readers said they would purchase the paper every week if we made this change.

Writing, editing, designing, and printing twice as much is a big lift and it has taken a long time to successfully connect with the generous funders who have made this happen. Last year, we hired a second full-time editor, Deputy Editor Jake Maher, doubling the size of our editorial department. And we are – continuing to recruit – volunteer editors, reporters, and page designers.

SSM Q Featherstone

More frequent publication also strengthens our product to better serve our community. The range and depth of our journalism has continued to grow from year to year. Publishing more frequently will mean bringing our print readers more timely news by featuring articles that would usually run online only. It also allows space to spotlight more relevant news from our partner newsrooms: DCist, The DC Line, Greater Greater Washington, and other street papers from around the world. Our community calendar and job listings will be more frequent. The voices and talents shared in our pages through poetry, prose, and visual art will diversify and be amplified all the more. And the opinion section, which is – open to all members – of our community, will be able to provide a platform for more timely commentary and debate.

This is our entire community’s paper, and we’re so excited to grow it with the community’s support.

A lot has changed over the past year. The pandemic decimated paper sales; street vendors cannot work from home. Our community rallied around us, helping to establish a vendor assistance fund for our case management department and increasingly using – our mobile payments app – to pay vendors for what people are reading at home, or just to provide them extra support. But none of this has measured up to the same level of income Street Sense Media vendors earned previously. As our community works through the vaccine rollout and continues to rebuild and recover, we want to be there to meet our readers? information needs every week and provide a stronger no-barrier work opportunity than ever before for our unhoused neighbors.

This is Woodley House DC: Meet Chris

This is the first installment in our #thisiswoodleyhousedc series: Meet Chris! When you ask Woodley House residents and staff to describe Chris, the words helpful, respected, flexible and a leader come to mind. Although he’s only been part of the Woodley House program for two years, he’s made a major impact on his fellow residents and is a true asset to our program.

Chris says he was born into a family of helpers. He remembers his parents organizing all the neighbors on their block to give out food baskets every Thanksgiving to those in need. Following that tradition, Chris works every Tuesday in our Food Pantry, loading shelves and giving out food. Helping others comes naturally to him, but it took a while to get there.

Chris_Woodley House

Chris came to Woodley House in 2019, having been homeless off and on for a few years. Chris moved into our Holly House group home in the Shepard Park neighborhood. Holly House provides permanent supportive housing for 8 adults with severe mental illness, most of whom are seniors who experienced chronic homelessness in their past. Chris’ case worker hoped that Holly House might provide the stability he needed. In the beginning, Chris didn’t trust anyone and wasn’t sure that he’d be there for long. Slowly he started to listen to staff about how to adjust to his new home. Attending Day Programs, he learned how to interact with people — when to step up and when to distance himself — learning to adapt to changing situations. Over time he came to be great friends with and a huge help to his older housemates who needed extra help with daily living tasks.

Chris was doing so well that his case worker and our Woodley House Recovery Support Specialist agreed that he was ready to move into our Supported Independent Living Apartment Program. He now lives in his own apartment that he shares with two other residents. He still returns to Holly House for his Day Program and to visit with his Holly House friends. He receives a stipend for assisting as an aide to one of the senior residents at Holly House through a grant from the National Lutheran Impact1890 Foundation. He also volunteers every Tuesday at the Woodley House Food Pantry and receives a small stipend through a grant from the Rotary Foundation of Washington DC. He is interested in furthering his computer skills and taking classes in peer counseling or cooking.

When asked about his best memory of Woodley House, he thinks of how he didn’t trust anyone in the beginning, but that they taught him everything that he knows! Chris says he’s “found my niche” and is happy to continue his parents’ legacy of a being a family of helpers.

Jasmine is a Woman on a Mission!

Jasmine’s success, and the success of her community, has been driving her for a long time, but especially since she returned home in October 2020 from a 15-year prison sentence.

Last year brought challenges for everyone. Combining the challenges and barriers of COVID-19 with the stigma of being a returning citizen, Jasmine was faced with a choice: return to the life of her past or continue to fly high. Only weeks after choosing the latter, Jasmine connected with the DC Department of Employment Services’ (DOES) Project Empowerment Program for supportive services, job coaching, employability and life skills, for DC residents living in areas with high unemployment or poverty. It was there that she was introduced to Suited for Change.

From beginning to end, Jasmine describes her experience with the volunteers at Suited for Change as “Amazing. From the moment I stepped in, I felt comfortable, even though I’ve never had an experience like that. It was like I was at a photo shoot,” Jasmine recalled. While there, volunteer Marianne Clifford Upton helped Jasmine pick out clothes that made her feel comfortable and prepared her for her next steps.

JASMINE_JOYNER

Jasmine remembers walking away from her first appointment feeling proud, confident and excited about the choice that she had made, and that was even before she was put in touch with her Suited for Change volunteer mentor coach who helped her prepare for her interview with the Congress Heights Community Training and Development Corporation.

Jasmine remembers her coach, Patricia Blackshire, being incredibly patient and working with her through job interview exercises.

“Patricia made me feel so confident in my skills. This experience was so new to me, but I walked away feeling assured that I was going to be able to obtain a job and do well.” Each Suited for Change coaching session focuses on bolstering client confidence in their qualifications and tailoring their strengths for upcoming interviews.

After Jasmine successfully got a job as an Administrative Assistant with the Training and Development Corporation, she shared that she is most excited about her work for several reasons:

“Success just excites me, I’m so hungry to succeed because I know that through working here, I can continue to soar.”

Jasmine also shared that she is excited about continuing to build her skills working for an organization impacting in her community. The Training and Development Corporation works to provide training and employment opportunities for people in economically depressed neighborhoods to help them and the surrounding communities. Jasmine is tied to the mission because it allows her to be a part of something that makes the path to success easier for people in her community faced with lots of hard choices.

Her experience at Suited, with DOES and now at the Training and Development Corporation have helped her immensely on her path to success, but Jasmine also attributes her success to others along the way like her mentor, Michelle West. Michelle was a fellow inmate with Jasmine and was influential in leading her towards her current path as a role model and mentor.

“Women like Michelle, who is a first-time offender facing two lifetime sentences, are my why. She taught me simple things like being early is being on time and looked out for me on my path to this choice.”

Jasmine’s excitement is infectious, and her drive to succeed is clear. Now that she is well on her way, having made her choice, there’s clearly no stopping this woman on a mission. We here at Suited are glad to have been a part of her journey.

Building a Generation of Volunteers

“Everybody can be great…because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.” Martin Luther King, Jr.

Volunteer Fairfax was pleased to combine two popular family-friendly volunteer events, Valentines Challenge and Give Together, into the 2021 MLK, Jr. Weekend of Service. In both events, volunteers worked on service projects from the safety of their homes, school, or after school programs. Thanks to the generosity of our sponsors and some ingenuity in sorting supplies, we were able to distribute nearly 1,000 project supply kits out to the community! The kits included bird seed, crayons/markers, construction paper, glue, stickers, string, pompoms, pipe cleaners, valentine decorations, etc. Sending out project supply kits eliminates the need for parents/guardians to spend funds to secure these items. Our goal was to ensure that, regardless of access or ability to purchase materials, everyone should know the power of Dr. King’s call to service and be able to participate in service activities. We were honored to work with nonprofit organizations like Cornerstones, Lorton Community Action Center, Neighborhood Community Services, and other local civic groups like the Jack and Jill Club of America, Inc. to ensure that several supply kits went to youth in need.

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Making its debut this year was the first-ever MLK, Jr. Volunteer Guidebook which was available in hard-copy or digital download to those who registered to participate in Give Together. This outstanding publication outlines actionable service project ideas to engage families. Parents and educators can select projects based on key mission areas including food insecurity, social justice, elder care, and homelessness. The MLK Jr. Volunteer Guidebook also included Step-Up Challenges geared towards helping teens make simple service ideas actionable with their peers and within their communities.

“Thank you so much for this resource book-it’s set up so nicely, in a way that really helps families engage with their kids of all ages to do something meaningful within the local community. I appreciate all of the local extensions/community contacts, and the overall format with very clear guidance and thought- and conversation-provoking questions. Thanks for putting this together for families looking to volunteer during the pandemic!” Kristin Kuyuk

“Well done! Impressive jobs on the booklet and service projects ideas!” Sara Holtz, 2020 Providence Community Champion

This year, the Valentines Day Challenge expanded its mission beyond supporting youth aging out of the foster care system and challenged the community to share the love with frontline healthcare workers. Based on the overwhelming response for supply kits, we expect our volunteers to have hand-crafted more than 10,000 valentine cards that will be distributed to the following organizations: Foster Care to Success, Fairfax County Foster Care System, Adoption and Kinship Children, Children’s National Medical Center, INOVA Hospital System, Walter Reed Medical Center and Wounded Warriors.

VolFairfax - Handmade valentines day cards 2

We know that those receiving these cards will appreciate the good wishes of the community displaying the creative cards kids and adults alike have so thoughtfully created. To see card making in action along with other Weekend of Service activities, visit the VF Kudoboard. These images have been posted by the community as they share their amazing work and talents.

One of the highlights of the MLK, Jr. Weekend of Service was having U.S. Naval Academy’s Midshipman 1st Class Sydney Barber join us in recognizing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy of service with a video message to families to help foster volunteerism with young people. Midshipman 1st Class Sydney Barber, the Naval Academy’s first African American female brigade commander, has an impressive list of accomplishments including her volunteerism working with a STEM outreach program that leverages mentoring, literature, and service lessons for middle school-aged girls of color. She shared, “My passion, the things that drives me and gets me out of bed each morning is service to others.” For the full recording of Midshipman 1st Class Barber’s inspiring kick-off message, click here.

Thanks to Lead Partners – AT&T, Leidos, and TransurbanCGI; Silver Supporters -Deloitte, NetApp, Northwest Federal Credit Union, and NOVEC; Foundation Supporter -Virginia Service Foundation; and In-Kind Supporter -Wegmans for making this event possible! Special mention to our long-time partner, the Pozez Jewish Community Center, where we hosted a food drive on MLK, Jr. Day that provided 781 pounds of food to Food for Others.

Our hope for the year’s event is to inspire children and youth to observe what’s going on in their community, ask questions of why something might be happening, dream of how things could be different, and feel empowered to be great agents of change. Seeing and hearing from so many of you, despite difficult times, lets us know that together we can accomplish great things! We can be great because we can serve.

For more service ideas for you and your family, please visit our volunteer opportunity database VolunteerNow!

Celebrating 10 Years of Support for Immigrant Students

The Dream Project began 10 years ago at Emma Violand-Sanchez’s kitchen table. She organized a group of people who knew students’ immigration status should never limit their educational aspirations. Now, a decade later, the Dream Project has grown to support 100 students annually with scholarships and has expanded programing to include mentoring and case management to give students their best chance at success.

Like all nonprofits, the Dream Project has had to adapt and pivot due to COVID-19. However, we have also been fortunate to be able to grow and celebrate thanks to innovations and virtual programs. We began celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Dream Project with a wildly successful virtual holiday event. Our supporters recognized that immigrant students and their families were disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 and responded with overwhelming generosity. Thanks to their donations, we have been able to bolster the support we are providing to Dreamers.

Dream Project

As you may know, the majority of our immigrant students are ineligible for state and federal aid, including Covid-19 stimulus funds. The majority of our students work in small businesses to pay for school, some juggling multiple part-time jobs. Unfortunately, these jobs in restaurants, retail and other small businesses were the hardest hit by the pandemic. So, in addition to awarding scholarships, we made supplemental funds available through our COVID-19 Emergency Fund and the Herman Loan Fund, and increased our case management, connecting clients to low-barrier resources for rent assistance, food pantries, mental health services, medication coverage and more.

The pandemic also presented a challenge of maintaining the vital sense of community that started at Emma’s kitchen table, celebrating the successes of the past 10 years while acknowledging the hardships everyone, especially our students and their families, faced due to COVID-19. The Dream Project was inspired to create new ways to connect from our homes while advocating for undocumented students in the community. In partnership with Busboys and Poets, we launched a series of virtual book talks called DARE TO DREAM: Important Conversations about Immigration, which is open to the public. The books and presenters selected reflect the struggles of our students, Dreamers and the Immigrant community. Thanks to the virtual format, we have had highly esteemed authors such as Four-time Emmy Winner and NPR reporter,Maria Hinojosa and prize-winning poet, Marcelo Hernandez Castillo.

Our next talk, with a panel from PEN America’s DREAMing Outloud program, will take place on February 18th. RSVP here.

The Dream Project is optimistic about 2021 and invites you to join in our efforts to empower immigrant students by attending our DARE TO DREAM book talks, mentoring, donating and staying up to date on our programs. More information about the work of the Dream Project can be found on our website or in our Annual Report.

Conversations Matter: A series on local Black history and race equity

Main Street Connect creates dynamic opportunities through affordable, inclusive housing and community engagement so people of all abilities can live their best lives. In August 2020, we were thrilled to open our flagship affordable apartment community, with 25% of the units set aside for adults with varying disabilities. The building is spectacular, but what we are most proud of is the people. We offer a community of support, dynamic programming and an affordable place to live, belong, and thrive. With George Floyd’s death earlier this year, we wondered how we could use our platform to bring our community together, how we could be true to our ethos of creating a space for belonging, and use our outrage at the current state of things to ultimately ask the question, WHY DO BLACK LIVES MATTER?

In collaboration with key partners and local leaders, including the Montgomery County Collaboration Council, Donte’s Boxing and Wellness Foundation, and Virtues Matter, we collectively present an informative series of conversations to educate, support and make change! Thanks to support from Maryland Humanities, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and a generous donor, Conversations Matter was born. It is a free, four-part virtual series, open to all and intended to educate and address why Black Lives Matter, through the lenses of our local Black history and the intersectionality of race and disability. Our third and fourth sessions will share ways to take action in our local communities and sustain the change we all seek. To join the next Conversations Matter session, please register here.

Conversations Matter graphic

Our first session kicked off on January 19th, and focused on our local Black history, connecting what transpired in our own backyards with key moments in history and how those moments resonate today. The panel covered many different moments and key places in local Black history, including the U Street Corridor, also known as Black Broadway. Panelist Shellee Haynesworth, producer of Black Broadway on U Street, shared thoughts about how Black Broadway came to be: “Black communities built hubs out of necessity and served as early incubators for Black arts, commerce and culture. By 1920 there were 300 African American owned businesses on the U Street corridor, locally known as Black Broadway on U. It was insulated, a safe haven,?and they had all they needed so didn’t need to leave and deal with the unpleasantness beyond their area.” It was an area built by the Black community, for the Black community. Many in attendance during our first session wondered what happened to these Black corridors – many of them were wiped out due to gentrification and urban renewal.

Our second session explored the intersectionality of race and disability. Speakers Tatiana Lee, actor, model and Hollywood Associate at RespectAbility, and Lachi, performing artist, disability champion, and speaker with RespectAbility’s Disability Speakers Bureau, shared their stories of the impact of working in the entertainment industry as a woman of color with a disability. As we work toward more diversity and equity in our communities, Lachi reminded us that, “Disability should be included as diversity.”

Our third and fourth sessions will address ways to take action to support and expand racial justice in our own community and sustain the change we seek. We hope you can join us to learn more and get involved. We hope the connections made through our Conversations Matter series can be a resource to propel you to action and help sustain you as more informed community members and better neighbors. We have a long way to go, but we believe in the power of conversation to help us build a better world for ourselves and our children.

To register for upcoming sessions, click here.

Resources from the first session can be found here.

Our Minds Matter Hosts Winter Leadership Training

For many, Sundays are for football, worship and trying to not think about anything related to school and work. It is the last refuge before a Monday, a sanctuary day when no one is supposed to do anything for as long as they can.

Yet, on Sunday January 10th, we saw the next generation of mental health activists come into their own on the Our Minds Matter (OMM) zoom stream. Our Minds Matter hosted its Winter Leadership Training where over 75 students from 45 schools across the country joined to learn about how they can end the stigma against mental health in their school environments. Each student is a leader of an Our Minds Matter club and together with other student leaders and members, they work together to promote mental wellness and increase access to mental health support among their student body. These clubs have the potential to save lives and change the story around mental health; over 80% of participating students in OMM’s summer 2020 wellness series reported an improved sense of well-being from the program.

OMM Pic

Led by Laura Beth Levitt and Catherine Royston of the Our Minds Matter program team, OMM’s club network has seen explosive growth through its mixture of competent mental health wellness programming and peer-to-peer club model that allows teens to really become leaders of their own social movement. Student leaders work hand in hand with school officials, teachers, and mental health experts to help them speak out about their mental health issues and find adequate support. As COVID-19 has increased rates of depression and anxiety among teens according to the CDC, Our Minds Matter is working with teens to counteract the next public health crisis before it occurs.

The training touched on different aspects of leadership development, teaching students to be attentive leaders in both the administrative responsibilities of their club as well as build their interpersonal skills. A panel of student leaders presented tips, tricks, and challenges on the following topics: student recruitment, leveraging OMM resources, making online meetings interactive, school-wide campaigns, and leadership transition planning.

The most exciting part of the leadership training was seeing how each of these teens valued making a difference overall. During the question-and-answer section of the program, student leaders were asked about what they hoped for most in 2021 and their answers were powerful:

  • To be someone people can talk to in my community.
  • To bridge divides between people and communities.
  • To normalize the discussion of mental health.
  • To create a community for everyone to feel safe and welcome.
  • To build a life where I feel I made a difference.
  • To be a hotline for someone in need.
  • To leave behind a club that can make an even more long lasting impact.

Each student sees themselves as part of a larger movement, one that is building a world where mental health is treated with the importance it deserves. These student leaders directly see how their work needs longevity, that the change must persist after they graduate and embark on the next chapter of their life.

This is the level of civic engagement that Our Minds Matter promotes. We work with teens to help them realize their own power to influence social change. We already have young leaders hosting townhalls, working with government officials to provide more mental health support and challenging long-standing and archaic norms around mental health.

The session ended with a mindfulness exercise that focused on self-compassion. The calming energy could be felt even over Zoom.

This is all to build a world where no teen dies by suicide. Our Minds Matter student leaders are going to make a difference in 2021. We should all be in their corner, providing them support to succeed.

Adoptions Together: Home for the Holidays

However holiday celebrations look this year, one thing is certain: all children deserve to enjoy the season with a loving family.

Across the United States, there are over 120,000 children available for adoption. These children live in a state of uncertainty – moved between foster homes, group homes, and other unstable settings. As we count down the days until Christmas, we are all surrounded by images of children spending days of celebration with the warmth and security of a family. For these children that is far from reality. While these children wake up every day with uncertainty of what the future will bring, they will not spend Christmas wrapped in the loving care of family.

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Adoptions Together is driven by the belief that family is a human right. We believe there is no such thing as an unwanted child, just unfound parents. Every day spent without a family is a day that offers no chance to heal from trauma. We know healing happens in the context of healthy relationships and we do everything possible to support children and families.

Children should be home with their family, especially during the holiday season. Adoptions Together has been working hard throughout this complicated year to ensure that kids are connected to their forever families and we are thrilled to be placing 6 children with secure families this month – just in time to make dreams of spending Christmas with family come true.

Adoption across state lines is complicated and geography should never be a barrier for a child to have a family. While each state system has a complicated bureaucracy to navigate, social workers must work diligently to push through the process. Unfortunately, it can take months of additional instability before a child arrives home with their forever family. At times, it can take advocacy on all levels to bring a child home.

Eleven-year-old Anthony was matched with his mom and dad back in July and has been visiting through daily FaceTime calls since then. It has been hard for Anthony to understand. Why is it taking so long for him to come home? Our team has moved mountains to get this young boy home for Christmas. We are thrilled that Anthony will wake up Christmas morning in his own room and be surrounded by his forever family.

While we celebrate the joys of these six children and their families, there is still much to be done. As you experience your own holiday traditions this year, as different as they may be, we hope you will dream about how you can help make a difference in the life of a child.

Remember, there is no such thing as somebody elses child.