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Celebrating 10 Years of Empowering Young Readers in DC: By Ryan Turse, Reading Partners AmeriCorps Literacy Lead

Reading Partners is a national children’s literacy organization that empowers young students from under-resourced communities to build their reading skills and unlock their full potential. This year, Reading Partners DC is celebrating its 10th anniversary, and it’s been a year unlike any other. Through our online tutoring platform, Reading Partners Connects, trained community volunteers work with students from kindergarten through fourth grade, providing individualized reading support using a structured, evidence-based curriculum that is tailored to each student’s needs. Our program works in partnership with 19 Title I elementary schools across the District, and is virtually managed by over 30 AmeriCorps members who, in addition to tutoring, provide coaching to volunteer tutors and assess students’ progress. I am one of them.

My name is Ryan and I joined the team in August 2020 as a literacy lead. When I learned about Reading Partners, applying to become an AmeriCorps member was an easy decision to make. I really appreciated the core values of the organization: reading matters, big challenges are our thing, volunteers get results, together we are better, data drive decisions, laughter keeps us going, and educational equity for all. I was excited for an opportunity not only to gain more specific experience in education, but to also develop myself professionally and personally. I also really appreciated the emphasis on social and emotional learning (SEL) topics such as mindfulness and self-confidence. SEL topics are critical because they teach students how to effectively apply the various skills and attitudes to both understand and manage emotions, set achievable and positive goals, maintain positive relationships, and learn to feel and show empathy for others.

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While I was in primary school, I was enrolled in a reading program very similar to Reading Partners and it had a tremendous effect on me. As a child, I didn’t like to read because it wasn’t something I excelled in. But thanks to the extra support, I gained the confidence and skills needed to enjoy reading (and become good at it). Reading is a fundamental life skill, as we need to be able to read written language every single day of our lives. At Reading Partners, I have the opportunity to build important skills that are useful not only in education, but can easily be transferred to any other career field.

My favorite aspect of this role by far is having the privilege to work with our students on a daily basis. I really enjoy logging into a tutoring session and having conversations with a kindergartener and their stuffed animals before we dive into an interesting children’s book and our curriculum. It is the healthy dose of laughter I need to get through my day. Working with Reading Partners, I feel like I am doing important work, while also genuinely having fun every day.

Education during the pandemic has certainly been challenging and has required tremendous innovation and creativity. Throughout the year, all of the AmeriCorps members supported each other and our tutors by having tech training sessions. Since most students are logging in from home, we now work with families more closely than ever, acutely aware that everyone’s life has been affected one way or another by the pandemic. We want to do as much as we possibly can to meet families where they are in the moment, which means flexibility as to when and where sessions take place.

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At Reading Partners, we are deeply committed to advancing educational equity for students in DC. We recognize that the ability to read can alter outcomes for young students and entire communities. To move towards educational equity, we need to make high-quality literacy intervention accessible to students everywhere to make sure they have the support they need to be successful in school and beyond. This requires first examining and understanding the unique challenges and barriers that students face and working to dismantle them.

I believe that building an educational environment that is equitable starts with student empowerment. How can we expect students to be successful without giving them the tools they need to succeed? Some of the ways in which Reading Partners strives to build a more equitable educational environment is providing cultural competency training for all staff as well as community volunteers, improving volunteer recruitment strategies with a deeper focus on diversity, enhancing the Core Read Aloud Library to better reflect our student population, and hiring staff with competencies to push forward these initiatives.

Deciding to do a year of service with Reading Partners was one of the greatest decisions I have ever made. Reading Partners is an organization that not only examines the greater systemic issues that students are facing, but does the on-the-ground work to close the opportunity gap. Throughout my service year, I felt supported by both the staff and fellow AmeriCorps members. The training and experience I have received from Reading Partners gave me the opportunity to grow as a person, while fostering and nurturing skills that I will take with me as I continue my career journey.

Community Forklift: Keeping Our Community Cool

Did you know that heat-related illness, while preventable, kills on average 702 people in the United States annually? Every year, Community Forklift’s Home Essentials Program (HELP) provides dozens of free air conditioners to neighbors who need one but can’t afford it. Many seniors and people with medical conditions risk serious health problems as the temperatures rise. For an elderly neighbor, someone suffering from heart or lung problems, or a child with asthma growing up in a neighborhood with heavily-polluted air, an air conditioner can make a world of difference.

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This year we already have 18 households waiting for A/C units, and summer hasn’t even begun!

Community Forklift’s HELP program provides home repair supplies and household essentials free of cost to families and individuals who qualify for need-based assistance. The program has a very simple application process, and staff are constantly screening new applicants. The program has provided thousands of air conditioners, appliances, doors, windows, and other necessary home improvement items for those in need in the Port Towns area of Prince George’s County, DC, and the surrounding area. We also partner with dozens of other organizations and agencies to facilitate greater access to our services. Since 2011, over 4,300 individuals have been served through the HELP program, receiving over $320,000 worth of materials.

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During the COVID-19 pandemic, we began providing free delivery for customers to minimize the risk of COVID exposure and to ensure that those who are unable to come in person to the Reuse Center are still able to receive their home essentials.

In June 2020, we received a call from Ms. B, a 59-year-old woman who is homebound and suffers from asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Her apartment would get very hot in the summer and she needed her home to be well ventilated. Ms. B was able to receive two window A/C units through the HELP program, which Community Forklift delivered directly to her home. Ms. B said, “Thank you so much! I didn’t know how I was going to make it this summer. I really appreciated it and I appreciate you.”

Rock Recovery: A Mission to Help Our Community Overcome Disordered Eating

My journey to Rock Recovery began twenty years ago, when I went on a seemingly harmless diet that fueled almost a decade of disordered eating. Many of my loved ones and peers praised my weight loss. The health magazines that I scoured further affirmed my bias that the thinner you are, the healthier your body must be. For so long, I put my body through a rigorous cycle of disordered eating and over-exercise. It took me years to realize my “small diet” had grown into a major problem, let alone for me to seek treatment.

When thinness is the goal, health will not be the result. Health was never truly my goal; thinness was. While my eating disorder may have started as a simple desire to lose weight, that wasn’t where it ended, and it isn’t where it ends for millions of Americans who struggle.

Christie Dondero Bettwy

What many people don’t know is that eating disorders are complex illnesses, and a combination of biological, psychological, and environmental factors contribute to their development. According to the Academy for Eating Disorders, an estimated 28.8 million Americans will battle an eating disorder (such as anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating disorder) in their lifetime, while millions more will struggle with disordered eating, dieting, and an unhealthy relationship with food and body image. Yet, as stigma and misunderstanding remain high, treatment coverage and affordable options for care remain low.

Until recently, eating disorders were the number one cause of death from mental illness (now surpassed by opioid use), yet too many people consider eating disorders to be a phase, a fad, a choice, or, worse yet, a vanity.

Now more than a decade into recovery, I have the joy and privilege of serving as the Executive Director for Rock Recovery, a D.C.-based nonprofit that provides affordable and accessible clinical treatment, community support, and educational programs to bridge gaps that keep people from getting the help they need to recover.

Countless clients we serve at Rock Recovery come to us feeling like they are failing, ashamed that they can’t seem to get better on their own. At Rock, we provide the clinical treatment and community support they need to heal and break free from their eating disorder. Since finances are one of the biggest barriers to treatment, we provide our recovery services to clients without regard to their ability to pay as we never want cost to be a barrier to anyone receiving treatment.

As our society continues to demonize fat, idolize thinness and belittle the severity of eating disorders even though they are life-threatening illnesses, our team at Rock is working hard to change the conversation. May is Mental Health Month and our hope throughout this month (and all year long!) is to educate people about this important mental health issue and begin to eradicate the stigma surrounding weight, size, health and disordered eating. Our hope is that community members will discover a new mindset around health and the relationship with food, while those who need support will learn how to get connected to the life-saving treatment they need.

As a community organization, the best part about working for Rock is hearing the powerful testimonies from our clients. People often come to us broken, lost and afraid, clinging to that last sliver of hope for recovery. There is no greater joy than watching them leave the program with a renewed sense of hope and an excitement for the life that is possible in freedom from an eating disorder.

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Daniela, one of our program graduates, said, “Rock Recovery set a safe space for us to follow one of the most basic human needs, eat free of judgment, and especially from our own judgment. Moreover, at group, I felt for the first time in my life that my life mattered.. When I look back at my darkest moments, I remember that there were people who thought I was worthy of feeling good in my body, that encouraged me to trust myself, and believed in me, the Rock team. I still have moments of doubt and hesitation, but I can seek comfort in healthier habits and not in rules and restrictions.”

Another program graduate, Tim, reflected, “I was never supposed to have an eating disorder. I’m male, I had self-control, and I had friends….The group met on Sundays, but during the week I’d think of the people there. They weren’t supposed to have eating disorders either. But they did, and now they were looking at my life for proof that recovery was possible – that we didn’t have to be this way forever – and I was looking at them. What I saw saved me.”

I love hearing these testimonies, or stories of healing as we call them at Rock Recovery. My personal journey to Rock Recovery began twenty years ago, when my life was changed by an eating disorder. Fifteen years into recovery, I get to use my journey to show people that freedom from an eating disorder is truly possible – for them, their loved ones, their friends and so many more. It’s incredibly meaningful work and I cannot wait to see how the journey continues.

Christie Dondero Bettwy serves as the Executive Director for Rock Recovery, a local nonprofit that helps people overcome disordered eating by combining clinical and community care. Having gone through recovery herself, she understands the depth of emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual support needed to recover. She is passionate about spreading the message that complete freedom from disordered eating is possible. She is an active speaker and shares her story with organizations and media outlets across the country. You can learn more about Rock Recovery’s work at www.rockrecoveryed.org

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.

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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.

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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

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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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.

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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.

Changing the Conversation on Teen Pregnancy in DC

I was honored last week to accept the Changing the Conversation Award from DC Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. DC Campaign has been very successful at reducing the rate which, just in the last six years, has decreased dramatically in teens ages 15-19 from 54.5 to 28.2 per 1000. Or to look at it another way, in hard numbers over a longer period, we?re talking about 999 births in 2006 and 458 in 2016 — the most recent year for which we have stats. That’s more than a 50% decrease and this is a very good thing, and well worth applauding. But as the DC Campaign will tell you, it isn’t yet good enough. And this is true for a number of reasons: first, though the rate is lower here than in demographically comparable cities like Philadelphia and Baltimore, it is still higher than the national average, and second, because the numbers in some wards of the city are still just unacceptably high.In Wards 7 and 8 in 2015, there were 278 births while in Ward 3… one. Chevy Chase, Cleveland Park, AU Park, Cathedral Heights, Friendship Heights. One. And lest we think this is strictly a matter of race, the difference between the rates for black teens outside Ward 8 and inside Ward 8 is significant. The combination of poverty, unemployment, high female-headed households, crime, and low rates of school completion — what Child Trends calls “community disadvantage” — is at the heart of the problem.

Barbara Harman giving her speech at DC Campaign's 20th Anniversary Change the Conversation Luncheon

Barbara Harman giving her speech at DC Campaign’s 20th Anniversary Change the Conversation Luncheon

And what is striking, if less apparent, about the numbers, is the overall impact that they have on the well-being of multiple generations. Teen moms and their children — without other kinds of interventions — generally do not fare well: pregnancy often means dropping out of high school, or not attending college, or both, and this is linked to a similar pattern in the next generation. Of course there are interventions — at the Catalogue for Philanthropy: Greater Washington, which I founded in 2003 and where DC Campaign has been featured since 2004 as one of the best community-based nonprofits in the Washington region, we see a wide range of efforts that help prevent teen pregnancy both before and after it has occurred: in programs that keep teens off the streets and deeply engaged in after-school arts, or sports, or educational enrichment; in programs like Generation Hope, which works with teens who DO parent — to complete their education, and to focus on the child as well for a two-generation approach to ending poverty; or in schools like Columbia Heights Education Campus whose MCIP program helps fund an on-site day care center and program for teen parents that is very successful at keeping parenting teens in school and thus short-circuiting the intergenerational repetition of the problem.

But at least in these latter two examples, it’s a case of closing the barn door after the horse is stolen. Until we solve the problem of “community disadvantage” and bring the teen pregnancy rate to zero we need these programs, but to address the problem now we need the DC Campaign to help parents talk to their kids about sexual issues, to invest in the after school programs that are effective at engaging them productively, to talk to boys as well as girls, and to their parents about sexual health, to advocate on behalf of teens, and to make contraception widely available. DC Campaign’s simple assertion “there are only two ways to prevent teen pregnancy: don’t have sex or, if you do, use contraception” — may sound simple, but simple it is not. We need to keep at it, to work with teens (and their communities and families) on delaying sex, preventing pregnancy, and ensuring more promising lives for them and for the children they will bear in their 20s and 30s when they have finished school, have decent jobs, and are ready for the demands of parenthood and of life.

Barbara and Amira El-Gawly, one of Catalogue for Philanthropy board members, at DC Campaign's May 2nd Change the Conversation Luncheon

Barbara and Amira El-Gawly, one of the Catalogue for Philanthropy’s board members, at DC Campaign’s May 2nd Change the Conversation Luncheon

Because one thing I think we can all agree on is that we want a better life for all of the children who live here — not just for our own. I have a very young granddaughter who lives with her parents in Ward 3. One of my many wishes for her is that she will do what her mother did and have a child intentionally in her late 20s when she is fully and happily ready to be a parent — economically secure, parenting with a spouse (or partner – because parenthood is a joy, but at the same time it is not easy to do alone), diplomas in hand, ready and eager to take on the world and to take on …another life. I think we all want to see community disadvantage become community advantage — but that is a long haul and, in the meantime, this right here, this work — this is something we can do now. We are already doing it, and we must continue the work. Our lives — and the lives of all of our” children — depend on it.

 

Written by Barbara Harman, Founder of Catalogue for Philanthropy: Greater Washington