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Expanding Urban Debate For All

Written by David Trigaux, Program Director of the Washington Urban Debate League

In 2015, a group of former debaters surveyed the educational landscape in D.C. and lamented the lack of high-quality debate programs available for public school students. Debate is a transformative educational experience, but it was only available to students at elite private institutions. They decided to do something about it and founded the Washington Urban Debate League (WUDL), a non-profit dedicated to improving student outcomes through participation in competitive policy debate.

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​Debate is a game-changer for students, improving their GPAs, test scores, graduation rates, attendance, and more. Debate improves college attendance and graduation rates, and is one of the best ways to get a non-athletic scholarship. It improves self-confidence and resilience, and even makes students 3 times more likely to vote! Unfortunately, it was only available for students who already had a leg up.

In our first year, we served more than 100 students from 6 schools. Since then, the WUDL has grown rapidly, and was named the Outstanding Urban Debate League by the National Association of Urban Debate Leagues in 2018. Since the 2017-18 school year, we have served more than 500 students at 39 schools each year in our After School Debate program, and several thousand through our curricular programs. As a one-man operation, however, we plateaued, unable to serve more students and more schools without more capacity.

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For the first four years of our operation, I was the only staff member of the organization. We have a fantastic pool of volunteers that has largely made this tremendous growth possible, but there are limits to what volunteers can do, and when they can be available. These first four years, I’ve had to do everything from direct instruction of students and teachers to fundraising, communications, and volunteer recruitment and management…all at the same time. As we grew, I tried to do more and more myself, but there are limits to what a single person can sustainably do.

Last year, however, we were named “one of the best” local non-profits by the Greater Washington Catalogue for Philanthropy. The Catalogue offers training sessions to non-profit leaders through a program called the Learning Commons, instructing on everything from donor management to program evaluation. I’ve been to more than 10 workshops, and have learned so much more (shout out to Matt Gayer, who ran most of them!) about how to be a successful, intentional non-profit manager. I can work smarter instead of harder (something my fiancee appreciates).

 

Thanks to the training and financial resources provided by the Catalogue, and the growth of our donor base, the WUDL is growing again rapidly. We’ve hired a program coordinator, Dara Davis, who has taken more than 30 schools off my plate, and has been an immense help developing curriculum and building relationships with a new generation of our students. We’ve also hired a fundraising consulting firm to significantly expand our fundraising capacity to ensure we have the tools needed to make debate available for more students. We are back to work towards our dream of making a high quality debate program available to every single public school student in the region.

This fall, we’ve taken a big step in that direction in D.C. After serving 39 schools last year, we are adding 15 new schools, all across D.C.:

  • Basis DC(PCS, Ward 2)
  • Bard Early College (DCPS, Ward 7)
  • Browne EC (DCPS, Ward 5)
  • Center City Brightwood (PCS, Ward 4)
  • Cesar Chavez (PCS, Ward 7)
  • Friendship Armstrong (PCS, Ward 5
  • Friendship Collegiate (PCS, Ward 7)
  • Friendship Tech (PCS, Ward 8)
  • Ida B Wells (DCPS, Ward 4)
  • Kipp Somerset (PCS Ward 7)
  • Oyster Adams (DCPS, Ward 3)
  • Paul (PCS, Ward 4)
  • School Without Walls (DCPS, Ward 3)
  • Stuart Hobson (DCPS, Ward 6)
  • Theodore Roosevelt (DCPS Ward 5)

We expect more than 200 new debaters across these schools to participate in just their first year, laying the groundwork for hundreds more in years to come. We aren’t done growing yet, and won’t stop making great opportunities available for students in D.C.

If you have a student in a D.C. public school, sign them up for their school’s urban debate team, or come out to volunteer at one of our tournaments. You can learn more at www.urbandebatewashingtondc.org

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Meet the Catalogue for Philanthropy’s New Staff (But Familiar Faces)

Written by Nancy Erickson, Communications Coordinator, and Laura Rosenbaum, Nonprofit Programs Coordinator, at Catalogue for Philanthropy: Greater Washington

The Catalogue for Philanthropy team has grown! Last month, two of the Catalogue’s interns were promoted to full-time staff members. Laura Rosenbaum first joined the Catalogue as a Learning Commons Intern in June 2018 before becoming the Nonprofit Programs Coordinator. Nancy Erickson began as a Nonprofit Programs Intern in October 2018 and is now joining the team as the Communications Coordinator. The following is an interview with the two newest team members of the Catalogue to help you get to know them a bit better, and why they chose to stay at the Catalogue.

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Tell us about how you first joined Catalogue for Philanthropy.

Laura: My sister had a friend from college who knew someone who knew Matt. At some point during my internship search Matt reached out to me and from there it’s been history. I wasn’t initially searching in the nonprofit space, but after coming across the Catalogue I was immediately intrigued. I’m so happy I took a leap of faith and trusted my gut!

Nancy: I had just moved to the DC area to start my MPA program at American University. While searching for internships, I noticed something called “Catalogue for Philanthropy” on an online job board. At the time I had mostly been interested in going after international development work but decided to apply to the Catalogue too out of curiosity. After interviewing me for the role, Matt gave me a copy of my very own print Catalogue. On the metro home, I remember being impressed by how professional and beautiful it was as I flipped through its pages. Imagine my delight to be offered the position!

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What was your internship experience like?

Laura: I mostly did secondary research about the nonprofit space and best practices to help inform our professional development efforts. After compiling this research, I would work directly with Matt to make new workshops to use with our nonprofit network. Throughout the summer Matt and I completed five workshops. I also did other “odd jobs” like tracking attendance or doing evaluation analysis. The last big project I worked on over the summer involved helping Matt launch our Learning Commons portal. One of the big pieces featured on the portal is the short three to four-minute “how-to” videos. I did a lot of scriptwriting for the videos and Matt and I spent a week in the studio filming. After the summer, I went back to finish my senior year of college and I interned remotely during the year.

Nancy: Initially the focus of my internship was like Laura’s — research and writing for Learning Commons workshops and other various projects. However, my position slowly expanded both in scope and time as I committed more of myself to the Catalogue mission. The focus of my role first began shifting the day I was asked to make a social media graphic. The team was so impressed with what I came up with that I started getting more requests for visual design, including the task of editing the videos which Laura had filmed the previous summer. The videos have been a ton of fun — a real creative challenge. As I grew in my abilities and confidence, I knew that the Catalogue valued my professional development and took pride in their internship program.

What did working at the Catalogue teach you?

Laura: Wow, honestly so much. I didn’t know a lot about the nonprofit space before interning at the Catalogue so doing secondary research inundated me with knowledge from the get-go. I learned a lot from Matt specifically–like best practices for branding and teaching, scriptwriting, and the ins and outs of “how to be scrappy.” The Catalogue also taught me what it’s like to work from the heart. I know it sounds super cheesy, but it’s true. Everyone at the Catalogue works hard because we all care. I would say the Catalogue taught me how to love what I do.

Nancy: First and foremost, the nonprofit sector! Like Laura, I hadn’t known very much about it prior to joining the team; I still remember innocently asking Matt early on in my internship “What’s a board of directors?” But since then I have learned so much, in big part thanks to the Learning Commons workshops. As an intern, I was responsible for attending and staffing these workshops, which meant that I essentially got to learn about nonprofit management best practices while on the job! Additionally, the Catalogue has invested significant time and resources in my technical abilities, such as photo editing, graphic design, illustration tools, and video software.

Why did you want to expand your role at the Catalogue?

Laura: I had a great experience as an intern and felt like I instantly clicked with the team. I mostly worked with Matt last summer and he trained me on basically everything I did. I knew once Matt and Aaron were promoted to Co-Executive Directors, the Catalogue was only going to grow in terms of our impact and the strength of our team. I’m not only excited about the work itself, but I really enjoy who I get to work with which I think is important to be effective at a job. I genuinely enjoyed coming into work every day last summer because I felt like I had a real impact and I loved learning more about the nonprofit space. I found that the Catalogue had such a unique mission and I’m thrilled to be able to work full-time now!

Nancy: The Catalogue has a warm and open work culture that has made coming to work a real pleasure. I never felt like “just an intern” –I felt like a valued and respected member of the team. My ideas and contributions were taken seriously and utilized. As I felt the end of my internship date coming closer, I realized that I wasn’t ready to leave just yet. I had become emotionally invested in my ongoing projects and the future of the Catalogue. Having developed a role which provided creative freedom and challenges, I knew that I still had more ideas to contribute to the Catalogue.

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What are you looking forward to in your new role?

Laura: As an intern, I did a lot of behind the scenes work. I’m really looking forward to getting to know our nonprofits better and interacting more face-to-face with everyone. I’m also excited to be the point-person for Giving Tuesday. I know it’s a big project, but I think it has a lot of potential to expand and I’m excited to work with Nancy on it too. I also know there are a plethora of projects and data to look into at the Catalogue and I’m ready to get “knee-deep” in everything!

Nancy: I’m also looking forward to working with Laura! It’s funny that we overlapped as Catalogue interns for 9 months without ever actually meeting (because she was tele-interning at the time from Missouri.) I’m also looking forward to finding more opportunities to visit our nonprofit partners in person. My goal is to cultivate new ways to showcase them by volunteering, attending events, and visiting their work in action so that I can then share via blogging and photography. I’m so excited for the road ahead!

Tell us one fun fact about you!

Laura: I really enjoy camping and hiking. I’m a NOLS (National Outdoor Leadership School) alum and I spent a month packrafting and hiking in Alaska a few summers ago!

Laura Camping

Nancy: Once, I went rappelling off the side of a cliff in South Africa. I screamed my head off, then I paused to smile for the camera, and then I continued screaming all the way down. It was terrifying fun!

Nancy Rappelling

The Catalogue has run out of interns…because they have all been promoted! That is why the Catalogue is now hiring a new Nonprofit Management Intern to join our team to support our programming, communications, and fundraising. You can read more about this position here. We hope that our next intern has as rewarding an experience as Laura and Nancy did!

A Day in the Volunteer Life: Food for Others

1 warehouse + 2 hours + 20 middle schoolers + 7,700 pounds of food = my morning spent volunteering for Food for Others, a nonprofit partner of Catalogue for Philanthropy. The mission of Food for Others is to distribute food to their neighbors in Northern Virginia who struggle with food insecurity. They rely upon food donations — a lot of donations. In 2018 alone, they distributed 2.2 million pounds of food. My task was to help sort some of those donations.

Signing up online for a volunteer shift was easy and painless. Despite being a food-focused nonprofit, the real bread and butter of Food for Others is their volunteer force. Since they rely upon so much free labor (up to 1200 volunteers a month!), they ensure that their sign up process is as convenient as possible. At 9:30am, I arrived at their warehouse, which was already bustling with activity. After being welcomed by the receptionist (another volunteer), I signed into a computer (10 seconds tops) and I was ready to go.

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The atmosphere of the warehouse was informal, yet industrious. Everyone was friendly, but no one had much time to chit chat; they had mouths to feed, trucks to fill! My supervisor for the morning was Jenn. Prior to joining Food for Others, she used to work in an Amazon warehouse. In other words, she knew her stuff.

Jenn was accustomed to managing large and diverse batches of volunteers: individuals, retirees, corporate teams, school groups, etc. My team of co-volunteers consisted of eighth grade students from a local private school. Twice a year, these students participate in service activities at various nonprofits in the region.

In a succinct, 2-minute orientation Jenn explained our job. We would sort the massive bins of donated food into three categories: dry goods, cans, and breakables.

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A few of the donated items were already partially consumed, which meant that they had to be thrown out. Unfortunately, one such item was an open bottle of maple syrup, which soaked through and ruined other otherwise acceptable donations in a sticky disaster. Note to readers: if you donate items to food pantries, thank you, but please do not include open or expired items!

Although most of the food were standard staples that you would expect, there were also occasionally some surprises in the mix, such as Polish luxury jams, dog food, maraschino cherries, and even mail.

Working with a pack of middle schoolers was fun. They brought a positive and enthusiastic energy to the morning. What’s not to love about a teenage boy tossing a pack of ramen into a bin and yelling “KOBE!”?

The kids treated me like an authority figure. This amused me since I was hardly an expert, being just a fellow first-time volunteer like them.
Kid: Ma’am, should this be considered a “dry good”?
Me: Sure?
Kid: Should we start placing cans in this empty bin?
Me: Why not! Sounds like a plan.
Kid: This is a box of a can. Should it go in cans?
Me: Follow your heart!

Spurred on by the spirit of innovation and efficiency, the kids formed an assembly-line which involved throwing and catching food items. Although this seemed like fun, I was concerned about them potentially dropping and damaging donations. Even as this thought was going through my head, my own plastic bag of donations split open from the weight and my glass jar of tomato sauce smashed onto the ground. How embarrassing! Unlike my own clumsy self, the students never broke anything (although Jenn did ask them to please pass the food instead).

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Overall, my two hours at Food for Others was a great experience. It was convenient, enjoyable, stress-free, and rewarding. Despite the legions of new volunteers cycling through every day, the warehouse is a well-run machine in getting donations to the people that need it. The work can be whatever you want to get out of it; you can either get to know new people or just as easily zone out to a podcast.

The warehouse position is just one opportunity at Food for Others. For example, they also have gleaning events at farms (well-suited for families) and food distribution jobs (good for people who like directly interacting with clients). Volunteer relationships can be as involved as multiple hours a week or as noncommittal as once a year. You can learn more about individual and group opportunities on their website.

Written by Nancy Erickson, Communications Coordinator at Catalogue for Philanthropy

Summer Outdoor Theatre by Traveling Players Ensemble

Traveling Players Ensemble trains actors like no other theatre in the DC metro region. Their programs are innovative, inclusive, and super fun! And transformative, too.

Their mission, to bring great theatre into the great outdoors, means high school actors perform ‘Shakespeare in the Park” in Shenandoah National Park while backpacking on the Appalachian Trail. These actors don’t just create a show, but have adventures they will remember for the rest of their lives.

You may not have heard of Traveling Players, but people who know about actor training do. The National Endowment for the Arts named Traveling Players one of the nation’s 25 Summer Schools in the Arts and recommends that others follow their comprehensive curriculum as a model. Most other summer programs are simply too short to make the same kind of deep impact, or too large to offer the same level of individualized attention and challenges.

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The Washington Post called them “a summer gem.” Artistic Director Jeanne Harrison has taught at Interlochen Center for the Arts, Folger Shakespeare Library, and various universities. By focusing on classical theatre (Shakespeare, Moliere, and Commedia dell’Arte), Traveling Players trains performers who are bold, resourceful, and skilled. It’s said that if you can act Shakespeare, you can act anything. If this is true, a summer at Traveling Players Ensemble trains you to act not just anything…but anywhere.

All the world is a stage, and this company travels with its oldest students. The tours perform all over Virginia and beyond, combining high-profile venues like Colonial Williamsburg and Lime Kiln Amphitheater with state parks, summer camps, retirement homes, and children’s hospitals, giving the actors unforgettable experiences – and community service hours!

Traveling Players specializes in the immersive experience, which is when transformations happen. Working in small ensembles of only 13 students, a trio of directors stage a classic, supported by a design team. Directors craft their rehearsals around their cast to ensure they build skills on stage — and off. The ensemble nature of the program allows students to practice life skills that will allow them to be successful no matter what career route they ultimately choose. This holistic approach is unique in theatre circles.DSC_2072 (smaller file size)

The camp offers a range of programs for grades 3 to 12. Their High School Ensemble is a four-week program that teaches students the ins and outs of Shakespeare. This year, they will produce Much Ado About Nothing, one of the bard’s most iconic comedies. Their Middle School Ensemble performs hilarious farces by the French playwright Moliere, filled with colorful characters, lightning wit, and slapstick physical humor.

Did we mention that Traveling Players is local to the DC metro area? Its day camp is in residence at The Madeira School in McLean, VA. They provide transportation -on purple buses! – which is included in tuition. Campers are picked up and dropped off behind Dulles Town Center, at 8am and 5pm respectively.

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Once a week the actors pitch tents, cook over an open fire, and sleep under the stars. Whether bonding over s’mores or bringing 400-year-old Shakespearean stories to life, friendships are kindled, confidence nurtured, and actors transformed.

For more information, visit www.travelingplayers.org, call 703-987-1712, or email info@travelingplayers.org.

For Youth in Foster Care, Mentoring Makes a Meaningful Difference

Our very first mentee, Michael, was matched in our program in 2005. He entered into foster care at the hospital on the day he was born, and aged out of care on his 21st birthday. Throughout those 21 years, he was in and out of foster homes, lived off and on with different relatives, and experienced homelessness as a teenager. He constantly faced instability because of his time in the foster care system.

One day Michael, who had just recently aged out of care, called us at BEST Kids in a lot of pain. He had injured his shoulder at work, and after spending the entire day in urgent care, the doctors wouldn’t prescribe him any pain medication or offer him any relief. I went to meet Michael outside his apartment, and while he was calm and in stable condition, he was still in a lot of physical pain. I decided to ride in the ambulance with him to help him get his shoulder checked out at the hospital.

At the emergency room reception desk, they ran through all the routine questions with Michael: his name, insurance, address, etc. I’ll never forget what happened next: they asked him for his emergency contact information. His face dropped and he fell silent. Upon seeing the look on his face, my heart dropped as I saw him struggling to think of a family member or friend in his life that he could list. After about 10 seconds of visual and nearly palpable hopelessness, his face perked up a bit and he spurted out, “My mentor, Lyle.”

Those 10 seconds were an emotional roller coaster for me. To see Michael have to vocalize that he did not have someone to call on in emergencies broke my heart. It opened my eyes to just how difficult that realization is for our youth in so many everyday situations. But the fact that he had a mentor, and that he felt he could count on his mentor during an emergency, gave him hope and reaffirmed for me that the work we are doing is powerful and imperative.

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We hear about the challenges youth in foster care, like Michael, face all over the country. These stories and statistics undoubtedly demonstrate the need for increased resources to help these youth succeed, and the various ways in which we as individuals and communities can support this particularly resilient, yet vulnerable population.

This is where BEST Kids one-on-one mentoring program comes in. Experiences for youth during their time in foster care are quite different. Some youth come into care at birth and spend the entirety of their young lives as wards of the state, while others spend just a few months in care while systems of support are put into place for families. Some youth come into care because of various forms of abuse, while others experience some form of neglect or a tragic occurrence. Youth in foster care experience so many adults and service providers constantly coming in and out of their lives, most of which are paid to do so. Besides voluntarily giving of their time, what makes mentors any different?

Mentors open up opportunities and provide assistance, but aren’t social workers. Mentors are listening ears that aren’t therapists. They inspire a love for learning, but aren’t teachers, and they motivate and encourage, but aren’t coaches. They guide and support, but aren’t parents. Above all else, mentors are there consistently and voluntarily, as they cater to the individual needs of the youth, including creating space for our youth to be kids and have lots of fun.

Lyle has supported Michael as a mentor for over 10 years now. Throughout the years, they participated in many activities like biking, canoeing, picnics and ballgames. Lyle also practiced interviewing skills and supported Michael when he got his first job. He helped Michael get his first apartment and taught him how to fix a few things around the house. Lyle most recently mentored Michael as a new father to a beautiful little girl.

Lyle didn’t swoop in and make Michael’s life perfect or heal all of his trauma; and as a mentor, he was never expected to do so. We train and individually support our mentors to simply spend time with their mentees consistently, to care for them, and help them to keep the hope they need to become successful adults, while overcoming obstacles youth face together.

I urge you to learn about the various ways you can support youth in foster care in your community. There is an ever present need for foster homes throughout the country. You can volunteer with or mentor with organizations that help youth in foster care to thrive, or you can advocate for systemic change to improve services impacting youth in care.

BEST Kids is a nonprofit organization that provides one-on-one mentoring for over 150 youth in foster care in the Washington DC Metro area. We match caring and consistent adult mentors with youth to provide them not only the guidance and support they need to grow up, but also to help them navigate challenges specific to growing up in foster care.

Written by Krislyn Mossman, Executive Director of BEST Kids

Meet the 2019-20 Catalogue Class!

It’s the most wonderful time of year! Well, for the Catalogue team at least. We love each May when we get the chance to unveil to you our brand new 2019 class of nonprofit partners. We hate keeping them secret, so always are looking forward to shouting their names from the mountaintop, exclaiming to all these “best of the best” local nonprofits working to make positive change in our communities.

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All 112 partners in this year’s class went through a rigorous vetting process. We are proud to be able to tell you, with confidence, that your support of these organizations will be well used and leveraged to make a difference in the places we live, work, and play. All organizations went through a three-step process that involved 150+ volunteer reviewers, a financial review, and an in-person site visit. They’re legit, and you can donate, volunteer, or advocate for them with confidence.

Our nonprofit partners cover a range of issues. From preserving the rich history of jazz in DC, to providing a safe and nurturing out-of-school time for young girls, this class is working in a variety of ways to move our community closer to the community we want, need, and deserve. Stepping in to fill gaps in the safety net, working on systemic issues, and enriching our cultural opportunities. Holding hands, making meals, and advocating for change. Regardless of the mission or the specific work, all of our partners have in common their passion, expertise, and focus on using their efforts to strengthen our community.

Now, this announcement isn’t just about our brand-new, awesome, community-changing partners. It’s about you. And us. All of us. We don’t announce this class just because we love announcing things we share and lift up these changemakers so you can find an organization that you can become passionate about. Whether it’s sharing your time, or wealth, or influence, our partners need your support.

We’d love to give you a challenge today, to do just two things. This might be your first time “meeting” many of these organizations, so we aren’t asking you donate or volunteer just yet (but if you do that’d be great!). All our team asks is that you:

  • Pick one (or more) organization to shout out on Instagram/Facebook/Twitter and say thank you for the great work they’re doing in the community. Do it today if you can!
  • Choose one friend/partner/colleague/chatty person next to you to tell about this organization, or to share this announcement with today.

That’s it. You’ll have plenty of opportunities over their four-year partnership to get to know these organizations, support them, and become passionate about their dedication, knowledge, and impact. For now, just help us celebrate and spread the word about these local nonprofits, working with small teams and limited resources to make a real difference, close to home.

Sincerely,
The Catalogue Team

A Day in the Volunteer Life: Anacostia Watershed Society

An innovative, environmentally-friendly workout idea: cleaning up a garbage-bag-worth of cigarette butts. A single butt only weighs about 1 gram, but once you pick up hundreds of them, they start to add up to some serious bicep strengthening. That’s how I celebrated Earth Day 2019 with the Anacostia Watershed Society on April 13th.

As a fellow with Catalogue for Philanthropy, I have the honor of working with and learning about over 400 locally-based nonprofits in the Greater Washington Region. So when my school’s community service committee asked me to arrange a volunteer opportunity for myself and other American University students for Earth Day, I knew where to look. Time to join the #Trashtag Challenge!

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Anacostia Watershed Society’s annual event engages nearly 2000 volunteers for 44 sites around the Anacostia River. My site’s neighborhood in Anacostia was not directly next to the river but in the river’s wider watershed area; whenever it rains, all of the trash in the residential area flows into the river, hurting wildlife and the ecosystem.

Fellow volunteers and I met at We Act Radio Station, a hip local institution and de facto community center. I sat among piles of books from their ongoing book drive. We were welcomed by Stacy and Aroni, two friendly and enthusiastic Anacostia Watershed Society staff members and our team leaders for the day. They gave us gloves to protect our hands, picker-uppers to prevent back strain, and matching t-shirts to look cool and groovy.

It was a beautiful Saturday morning to go for a stroll and pick up garbage. We made a circle around several blocks, carrying a blue bag for recyclables and a white bag for general trash. About 70% of what I picked up were cigarette butts. In public discourse, we acknowledge how cigarettes choke our bodies, but not enough about how they choke the environment too. What made me saddest were butts littered on the ground not 3 feet away from public trash cans.
It was rewarding work. Quite a few residents stopped to thank us and a few even added some trash to my bag. I was pleased too by how social it was; the steady and relaxing pace of our walk through the neighborhood easily facilitated conversations with new and interesting people. Our crew even had a beauty queen! If you want to meet new people, explore a new neighborhood, and make a difference in the environment, I strongly recommend signing up for clean up events. There’s no better way to celebrate the new springtime weather with friends than going and picking up a bag of butts.

 

Written by Nancy Erickson, Nonprofit Programs Fellow at the Catalogue for Philanthropy

Independent Movie Theatres are the Stuff Community is Made Of

I’ve always loved movies. I come by it almost genetically. My father taught film production at various universities during my childhood, and I grew up on a steady diet of indie, niche, and foreign films: The Last Unicorn and The Point probably being the two most memorable and most watched in our household.

But it was in Argentina, on an academic research grant, that I fell in love with film. Not “movies,” but film itself as a medium.

I went to Argentina with a single, albeit complex question: how does a society heal from trauma on a massive scale? Argentina suffered a brutal military dictatorship from 1976 until 1983, during which time over 30,000 “leftist rebels” were “disappeared” by the regime. In 2007, when I was doing my research, the nation was still grappling with the fallout. For a while after my arrival, I posed that single question to everyone I met, and at first the answer surprised me, until I’d gotten the answer so many times it couldn’t be coincidence. Most Argentines I spoke to directed me to a single film: La historia oficial (The Official Story).

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La historia oficial tells the story of Alicia, a high school history teacher who is leading a comfortable life with her husband, Roberto, a businessman with ties to the military, and their adopted daughter. When Alicia begins to wonder about the identity of her daughter’s birth parents, she finds herself suspecting that she may be the child of people abducted or killed by the government. She is faced with an impossible choice: live knowing her child is missed by her real family or give up the thing she loves most in the world.

The film came out as Argentines were first learning that, during the dictatorship, children had been abducted from rebel parents and given as rewards to those loyal to the regime. As a country, they were struggling to cope politically and legally with the issue. But the film gave the country a glimpse into the individual, personal heartbreak obscured by the headlines: that real mothers, both biological and adoptive, were being faced with a no-win scenario. And in making the political personal, the film kick-started a national healing process.

What made me fall in love with film was understanding that it is so much more than entertainment or even education. Film is, to my mind, the most visceral way to tell stories, and humans need to tell stories. It’s how we understand ourselves, our families, our communities, and ultimately, our entire society. Stories define our nation, our religious traditions, and even our most intimate unit: the family. Those stories tell us who we are.

While I have been, from my youth, a great believer in the power of film, after my time in Argentina, I see it as a vital necessity to any community.

But film in the U.S. today has a problem. Our media is evermore mediated, and the stories that need to be told aren’t getting out there. Six companies own almost all media: and that’s not just film, that’s news, television, online portals, and more. The barometer they use on funding film projects is what will make the most money, not what stories need to be told. So they put their faith in what they know: the same old directors and regurgitated plotlines. And since the studios hold all the cards, they can charge gigantic licensing fees, ask for 90 or 100% of a theater’s ticket sales, and even take a cut of concessions sales. The only way to survive in that context is to be a giant corporation with pull of your own, and even then to survive, the multiplexes charge prices so high that film is becoming increasingly out of reach for the average American (whose income is decreasing).

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That’s why, in 2015, when I met Dr. Caitlin McGrath, I was immediately hooked on her vision to turn the Old Greenbelt Theatre into a nonprofit, arthouse cinema. Revitalize this a historic gem of a theater by: showing films that make people think; creating a space where the community can come together to digest, unpack, and process these films; and do everything possible to make these films accessible to everyone?regardless of age, income, or ability. It’s what every community needs, and we are beyond lucky to have this resource in Prince George’s County.

The Old Greenbelt Theatre is run as a nonprofit because we are mission-driven, not profit-driven. As a nonprofit, we can solicit the support of our community so that when we lose money showing a film (which we regularly do since studios can demand such a deep cut of our profits) we can still exist to screen more films that our community wants or needs to see. If we were worried about a wide profit margin, we wouldn’t have brought you Transit, If Beale Street Could Talk, Boy Erased or even First Man.

Independent movie theaters are closing down all across the country. They can’t compete in a corporate world that is cannibalizing the very locales that show their films. But there are important movies being made that need to be seen and not on a smartphone (as much as I applaud Netflix and Amazon for picking up the mantle of independent filmmaking). Film is at its most powerful when witnessed in community.

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That’s what we’re doing here at the Old Greenbelt Theatre. As a nonprofit, we bring you films from screenwriters and directors outside the mainstream. We provide a place to experience these films in community, and I truly do mean experience, because we follow up so many of our screenings with guest speakers and Q&A sessions. It doesn’t pay to do guest speakers. It’s something we do because it’s important.

We’re a nonprofit because we serve a vital role in our community. We aren’t providing bread or shelter, that’s very true. But in many ways, we are creating a safe haven. A place where people of all walks of life can come, see themselves on the big screen, and have their experience understood by the community. We’re helping tell the stories our community needs to hear, and stories are the very stuff of which community is made.

By Kelly McLaughlin, Director of Marketing & Development, Friends of Greenbelt Theatre

Lucky Dog Animal Rescue: My Story

People often ask me how I got involved in dog rescue. The story is surprising, even to me. Dog rescue was not something I had planned on doing, and was not something I grew up wanting to do. I fell into it while living in DC because I was lonely – I wanted a friend, even if that friend had four legs instead of two.

I found Sparky after a lot of googling. His photo showed him trotting along with a pink ball in his mouth. His bio said he loved playing fetch and soccer with his family. It was love at first sight (at least, for me).

Sparky - Formatted 2Sparky was living in Richmond, and it wasn’t important to me that there were rescues to be found in my own backyard. Sparky was it – my dog. But after coordinating a time to pick Sparky up, I began to have second thoughts: was I really up for caring for a living being? I couldn’t even keep plants alive.

Sparky was clearly overwhelmed when I first picked him up. His tail was tucked, and he was shaking with nerves. If I had known then what I know now, I may have not moved forward with the rescue. Nervous Sparky deserved better than a first-time dog owner: he needed someone who knew what they were doing, or maybe someone who had other dogs to give him confidence. But he got me.

I loaded Sparky, along with his pink ball, dog food, and crate, into my car and drove back to DC. Despite Sparky’s nervousness and my own hesitations, I was getting excited. Sparky and I would have a great time together. We could go on hikes and walks. We’d play fetch. It would be perfect.

Nothing is ever perfect.

For the first 24 hours, we went on multiple long walks, but he didn’t pee. Not once. I called the Rescue frantically, asking if something was wrong with him. They told me to “Just wait. He’ll pee when he’s ready.” Well, he did. On my carpet. Standing next to me.

Later, I decided to take Sparky to a dog park. We were playing fetch and bonding a little, until a car nearby backfired and Sparky bolted. He ran all the way home-crossing two streets with traffic–with me crying the whole way behind him.

After some time had passed, I was ready to give up. My relationship with Sparky was characterized by things I had not anticipated: I was sneezing at home, I had to get up earlier and stay up later, and I was running home at lunch and running back to the office. Everything was different.

Different was scaring me.

Not long after I brought Sparky home, I sat on the floor and called my mom. Trying desperately to hold it together, I told her that I had failed: I wasn’t able to care for the dog, I just couldn’t do it. My mom listened to my litany of troubles. Then, she asked: “Where is Sparky?”

I told her, “He is lying down across from me. He is staring at me. I think he knows I failed.”

“No,” she said, “he is telling you he needs you.”

When I looked back at Sparky, I saw an animal who needed me as much as I needed him. Who, like me, was afraid of “different”, but who, with me, could learn to love it. After some time together, I began to feel Sparky’s unconditional love for me, too.

And that started my journey into rescue.

- Mirah Horowitz
Founder and Executive Director – Lucky Dog Animal Rescue

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La Cocina VA: Eliminating the Barriers to Better Futures

On any given night when you go to a restaurant in the DC metro area, take a quick look at who is preparing your meals, cleaning your tables, or maintaining the restaurant’s facilities. There is a high probability that those individuals are of Hispanic descent. That is because the U.S. restaurant industry is comprised of roughly 2.3 million foreign-born workers. According to the findings of a Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. Census data, U.S. eating and drinking establishments in 2014 employed more foreign-born workers than almost any other industry, second only to the construction sector. One of the biggest challenges for many of these workers is the lack of relevant training and limited English proficiency. This often leaves them stuck in dead-end work with very little room to grow financially. It’s quite a contrast to imagine the trendy vibrant front-end of some DC restaurants versus the ‘back of the house’ where folks are putting in long hours of hard work in the kitchen unable to earn enough to support their families.

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La Cocina VA has seen the dire need to confront this challenge for the workforce in the food and hospitality industry. Since its founding in 2014, La Cocina VA has harnessed the power of food to transform lives and create change for the low-income communities in the Washington D.C. region. We are a nonprofit organization that generates workforce and economic development opportunities for unemployed immigrants, minorities, low-income individuals, and veterans. We provide structured training that helps these individuals obtain real living wage jobs in the food and hospitality industry where they can create a career and become financially independent. At the same time, we are looking to the future of a growing industry, where there’s a huge gap for skilled, motivated, and dependable workers.

During our 4 years of operation, over 100 La Cocina VA graduates have completed the organization’s bilingual culinary training program. Moreover, 85% of those graduates have been placed in steady jobs within the restaurant and hospitality industries. Our vocational and technical training program provides students with instruction in the culinary arts, English language skills, industry certification, and a paid internship that often results in a full-time job.

Consider Karina Herrera, who is presently a line cook at a Hyatt Regency Hotel in the D.C. area. She is a shining example of the program’s success. Five years ago, desperate to find a way to take care of her three young children, she came to La Cocina VA and enrolled in our bilingual culinary program. She currently earns $22/hr and has enrolled in a college culinary arts program subsidized by her employer with the goal of becoming an executive chef. Like most La Cocina VA participants, Karina has overcome extreme hardships.”It’s been a huge help having a bilingual program like this,” Herrera said. “My English has improved a lot and La Cocina VA has given me financial independence. It’s an excellent investment in a better future for me and my kids.”

Before joining La Cocina VA’s training program, 70% of our students were unemployed and 30% were under-employed. Over 90% of our training participants have been women from challenging circumstances, survivors of domestic abuse, human trafficking, chronic unemployment and/or poverty who have now obtained financial independence through our unique training programs.

Our work uplifts those often left behind by our economy–individuals full of potential and capable of incredible transformation when they are provided the appropriate resources and opportunities. There is enormous capacity within our local communities that has gone untapped for far too long.

While La Cocina VA’s roots have been to work closely with the Hispanic community, La Cocina VA is now expanding its programs aggressively in 2019 to serve even more immigrant and minority communities, refugees, and veterans. We are also increasing our efforts to support and train entrepreneurs to create their own small culinary businesses.

As part of a recently announced partnership with Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing (APAH), we will establish the Zero Barriers Training and Entrepreneurship Center (TEC). TEC will be a new 5,000 square foot facility designed to offer services, resources, and support to help eliminate the many barriers our clients face, such as access to child care, financial advice, and counseling. The new facility will also include a culinary small business incubator, a catering service, and a community cafe. TEC will be located in Gilliam Place, APAH’s new affordable housing development in the vibrant Columbia Pike corridor in Arlington, Virginia. La Cocina VA expects to open TEC in late 2019. Through our capital campaign, we have already raised $1.6M of our $2.5M fundraising goal for the construction of the Zero Barriers Training and Entrepreneurship Center, and we are working to raise the remaining amount by the spring of 2019.

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We aim to continue to tap into this undiscovered pool of talent, entrepreneurs, and leaders that exist within our communities, all while helping to solve social issues like unemployment, lack of access to entrepreneurship opportunities, and food insecurity. What are we waiting for? The time to make a change is now.

To learn more about our work and how you can get involved, please contact our CEO Patricia Funegra at patyfunegra@lacocinava.org or visit our website at www.lacocinava.org.