Today for 7 Questions we welcome Eloise Russo, Executive Director of City Kids Wilderness Project! Eloise has been with the organization since January 2011. Prior to City Kids, Eloise worked with Institute for Non-Profit Management and Leadership in Boston, MA, and with Kaplan K-12 Learning Services, managing after-school and summer school programs for 800 under-served DC youth. Eloise earned her BA from Tufts University in Peace and Justice Studies, and her MBA from Boston University’s Public and Non-Profit Management Program. Most recently, Eloise was selected as a member of the 2012 class of the Nonprofit Roundtable of Greater Washington’s Future Executive Directors Fellowship.
1. Welcome Eloise! What motivated you to begin working with City Kids? What need does it fulfill and how is your organization working towards meeting this need?
I started with City Kids Wilderness Project (City Kids) shortly after graduating from business school. I grew up in DC, attended public school K-12, and wanted to join an organization doing community building and youth development work with DC youth. In addition, summer camp and wilderness experiences through Outward Bound were critical in helping shape my view of the world and my abilities and confidence as a leader. Joining the City Kids team allowed me to combine my passions for youth development and wilderness programming with my background in program management and organizational development.
2. What was your most interesting recent development?
City Kids works closely with many other nonprofits and social service organizations in order to open doors for our youth. For many years, we have had a strong partnership with the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), through which many of our youth have received scholarships to attend NOLS wilderness courses. One of our youth, Tyrhee Moore, successfully completed two NOLS courses and is now being sponsored to climb Denali in Alaska as a part of Expedition Denali. This is an all African American climb designed to help inspire youth of color to get outside, get active, and become stewards of our wild places. Tyrhee grew up as a part of the City Kids program, is now a student at West Virginia University, and is a mentor and role model for our younger youth.
3. What other projects are you up to?
We just moved out to Jackson, WY for the summer, where we run programming for our DC youth. We’ll have three sessions of summer camp where campers will go horseback riding, canoeing, swimming, and white water rafting. Camp is a fun-filled time for our youth and includes camping trips to National Forests and National Parks including Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton National Park.
4. Who inspires you (in the philanthropy world or otherwise)?
My biggest inspiration is our kids and seeing them grow and challenge themselves through the City Kids program. Our kids consistently step outside of their comfort zones to try new things, be it rock climbing, jumping off a ledge as a part of a high ropes course, or applying for and participating in their first internship or job experience. Being a part of an organization where trying new things is built into the structure of our work, encourages all of us, staff and kids alike, to take on big challenges and to not be afraid to fail.
5. What is the single greatest challenge that your organization faces, and how are you working towards combating this issue?
We’re growing! City Kids started as a summer camp for DC youth in 1996, and in the past several years, we have expanded to become a year-round program. We now have a four day per week after-school program for our middle school youth, weekend outdoor adventure programming, and leadership development, job training, and post-secondary educational and career support for our older youth. As we grow our programs and the length of time that we work with each child enrolled in the program, we need to work hard to ensure that our focus on program quality continues to be high and that we continue to be able to provide individualized support to our youth. In addition, as our programs grow, we have also needed to focus on growing our organizational capacity in order to support our increased efforts. To support this growth, we applied and were recently selected for a Fair Chance capacity building partnership. We are excited about what this year will bring and look forward to building the strength of the organization so that we can continue to provide high quality programming for under-resourced DC youth for years to come.
6. What’s your biggest take-away lesson you would tell others that you have gleaned from your experiences?
Build and nurture your network! I recently participated in the Nonprofit Roundtable’s Future Executive Director Fellowship and have been blown away by the support of my peers through this fellowship. Having a strong network of people to go to for support, to bounce ideas off of, and to share resources with makes the role much more manageable and makes your potential impact that much greater.
My biggest lesson that I learned is that it really helps to absolutely love what you’re doing. Being an ED is a demanding role, but when you love what you’re doing, it can also be a really fun role. On any given day I can have a funding meeting, conversations with a parent, a meeting with our accounting team, a conference call with board members, a program site visit or even be directly involved in leading our youth programming. Having a strong belief in the mission, and an innate enthusiasm for the role, helps to make the breadth of the responsibilities of the ED role more personally fulfilling and ultimately helps make me a better leader and advocate for the organization.
7. What’s next for your organization, both in the short term and long term?
In the short term, we’re focused on revamping our evaluation system. Working with kids for 6+ years includes many important milestones and being able to track our participants’ growth over time and their ability to meet goals is crucial. In the long term, we’re focused on creating a sustainable organizational structure. This involves formalizing many of our program and organizational systems as well as being really thoughtful about our growth, financial model, and community of supporters.