Thursday, November 16, 2017

My Life Since 2011 - Something's Missing

 What if you'd spent the majority of your adult years working on something then suddenly it was no longer there?

I was reading some introductions on Mastodon last week and as I thought about how I'd introduce myself, I felt a void. I started volunteering in a tutor/mentor program in 1973 the first year I was in Chicago, while starting a retail advertising career. After one year I was recruited to be on the committee of volunteers who led the program, and at the end of that year I was pulled into the role of program leader.

I continued being directly involved with youth in a non-school tutor/mentor program until mid 2011 when that was suddenly taken away from me. That's over 35 years. Probably longer than most people in the country!

I had no teaching or tutoring experience in 1973 when I first joined the program at Montgomery Ward's corporate headquarters in Chicago and was assigned to work with a 4th grade boy named Leo, so I drew upon my history degree at Illinois Wesleyan and my three years in US Army Intelligence, and began looking for ideas of what to do each week when Leo and I met.

Then, when I joined the program leadership committee in 1974, I began to ask, "How do others do this?" and started to reach out to find other programs in Chicago who I could learn from.

When I became program's volunteer leader in 1975 the program already had been recruiting 100 pairs of kids and volunteers to start the school year for the previous two years. However, nearly half dropped out during the year due to lack of organization and structure, and were not replaced by on-going recruiting.  Thus, I accelerated my learning process, seeking out program leaders and inviting them to a monthly lunch & learn session at Wards.

Systems Thinking articles
While I continued as Leo's tutor and mentor for another two  years, more and more of my time focused on mentoring 100 pairs of kids and volunteers, as well as nurturing a small group of other volunteer leaders to help me.  Leo stayed involved as a student assistant after he finished 6th grade, and I stayed involved with his life through high school, college and we're still connected today, in 2017.

However, my life begin to take on a cycle, similar to this problem solving loop. This repeated every year for 35 years.

In August, the focus was on recruiting volunteers and students from the previous year to return for another year. As we entered September, the focus expanded to recruiting new volunteers to replace those who dropped out, and to recruiting enough kids to match the number of volunteers we recruited.

During September the focus was on student and volunteer orientations (training was on-going) and on matching pairs so that by the last week of September most of our kids and volunteers were paired up and getting to know each other.

This matching process actually extended almost to November since we started the year with either more kids than volunteers, or more volunteers than kids, and spent the first few weeks trying to balance this out. By the end of October we'd matched all the volunteers we had on our waiting list, and then put any other kids still looking for tutors on a student waiting list.

While this matching was taking place, I had to provide a weekly framework for student and volunteer activities, provide one-on-one coaching to respond to questions, find substitutes for volunteers who did not show up, and assign kids to new volunteers when their volunteer stopped coming.

To aid this process we took attendance weekly, with me sitting at a table at the entry to the Montgomery Ward cafeteria where tutoring took place, and checking off names of kids and volunteers as they came in. Usually another volunteer helped me.

Once the session was over I reviewed the attendance and determined which kids and/or volunteers would need follow up during the coming week. By 1979 or 1980 I was using computers and Excel spreadsheets to enter weekly attendance data into a tracking system that enabled me to see attendance patterns, enabling a focused follow up on those who had missed two or three weeks in a row. During the mid 70s the Chicago  Housing Authority was the intermediary who had contact with families. While we called volunteers directly, we had to call the CHA rep, and they contacted the families, if we needed to follow up on attendance or any other issues. By the late 70's we were contacting the families directly.

We provided a framework for weekly youth and volunteer activities and communicated this via verbal announcements and one page newsletters created on a duplicating machine. I  had to write these and get copies made every week.   As we started the year we pointed to Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas and then spring events as learning and writing activities.  These provide conversation topics and work activities for volunteers to build relationships with kids and provided something to "look forward to".

As incentives for student attendance we began to offer quarterly field trips for perfect attendance. These photos are from trips to the Indiana Dunes.  Planning these trips was another on-going role.

By 1980 the enrollment was up to 125 pairs and we convinced Wards to give money for us to hire a part time college student to work a few hours a week to help  us.  Throughout the 80's this number grew to three students, with non working more than 20 hours a week. However, they took a huge load off the weekly work I was doing.
A big change was made in 1980 or 81 I changed from having a small  committee of leaders that I recruited each spring to building an larger group of leaders, focused on all of the functional areas involved with operating the program.  The program grew, and grew, and by 1990 we were up to 300 pairs of kids and volunteers....and we still had only 3 part time college students working 15-20 hours a week helping do the administrative work.

As we moved through the  year, from September to June the challenges changed from recruiting and retaining, training and on-going support, to celebrating work done during the year and recruiting new leaders to help repeat the cycle again in the following year.  I did this over, and over, for 35 consecutive years!

My job responsibilities with Montgomery Ward grew throughout this time. By 1980 I was in charge of the creative print development for all of their national advertising and throughout the decade I took on other management and planning responsibilities. Yet, I also devoted huge amounts of time on weekends, evenings and lunch breaks to the work of leading the tutoring program.

 I met my future wife Emily in the early 1980s when she became a volunteer tutor and much of our social life was centered around tutoring program activities and volunteers.  We were married in 1986 and while she took evening college classes I spent time in my office either doing my advertising work, or my tutoring program work.

Things changed in 1990 when I was given the opportunity to leave Wards (or be fired) and I turned that into an opportunity to convert the tutoring program to a non profit where I could provide full time leadership and get paid at the same time.  Things really changed when our daughter Amanda was born in October 1990, about the same time as we received our 501-c-3 papers.

With the birth of our daughter Emily was no longer involved with the tutoring program, but with the day-to-day work of raising a child, and holding her own job.  Our time to socialize together with the volunteers in the program was greatly reduced in the 1990s, and 2000s. 

The new non profit, which we named Cabrini-Green Tutoring Program, Inc., was an artistic and financial success. We grew to 440 students and 550 volunteers by June 1992 and raised over $100,000 to fund our operations. However, I misjudged what it would be like to have a governing board overseeing my work, and the frictions  that grew over those two years led the board to fire me without notice in October 1992.

Oct. 15, 1992
Of course they did not consult with the volunteers, students or parents when they made that decision. As a result many volunteers rallied to my defense and wanted to fight my firing.  However, as this was happening, something else happened that changed everything.  A 7-year-old boy named Dantrell Davis was shot and killed in Cabrini-Green. He was related to many of  the kids in the tutoring program.

I was driving home as I listened to this news on the radio, and the thought  popped into my mind "I don't need to lead an under funded program with 900 people involved, and with a dysfunctional board, to share what I've learned over the past 17 years to help tutoring programs grow in all poverty areas of Chicago."

I immediately stopped looking backwards to regain what was lost and began looking forward.

At the same time, I recognized an opportunity to fill two voids. Parents had been asking for a program for kids beyond 6th grade, and I'd begun to develop an expanded Junior Assistant program in 1990 and 1991.

With the help of six other volunteers created a new volunteer-based tutor/mentor program aimed at helping kids move from 7th grade through high school and beyond and named that Cabrini Connections. That filled the first void.

To fill the second, and larger void, we created the Tutor/Mentor Connection to help similar programs grow in all high poverty neighborhoods of Chicago,  including our own Cabrini Connections program and the Cabrini-Green Tutoring Program, Inc.

The Cabrini Connections program launched in January 1993 with seven volunteers and five teens meeting in the day-room at St. Joseph's Church. In the fall of 1993 Wards donated space on the 16th floor of the corporate tower on Chicago Avenue, and $40,000 a year, and we move our operations there and started to add new 7th and 8th graders each year. By 1997  we were serving about 80 pairs of kids and volunteers and by 1999 the first 7th graders were finishing high school. By 2003 some of these were finishing college.


We spent 1993 planning the Tutor/Mentor Connection and launched our first program survey in January 1994.  120 programs responded and we printed the first Tutor/Mentor Programs Directory and held the first Tutor/Mentor Leadership and Networking Conference in May 1994. Over the next few years we created an information based strategy and quarterly events to draw attention to tutor/mentor programs throughout the city of Chicago.

With the first 1993 grant of $40k from Montgomery Ward we hired two veteran tutoring program volunteers (Gena Schoen and Claudia Crilly Bellucci) to work part time as leaders of the Cabrini Connections program. Working together we created a structure for the tutor/mentor program and from that point forward my role as President was to overview that work, provide ideas, fill in during transitions of staff, and raise money to pay the bills.   I also provide much of the work behind the work of building the Tutor/Mentor Connection.

We never had enough money, or enough staff do do all this work, which meant that I spent countless hours, weekends included, doing program work.   I often brought our quarterly newsletters home and Amanda would help me put mail labels on them.

Our son Jacob was born in 1998.   The responsibilities of being a parent grew, but the responsibilities of leading a small non profit with more than 200 people depending on me to keep the doors open, also grew.

My daughter once said to me "Daddy, you love those kids more than you love us."

War on Poverty planning
That hurt.  Yet over the years I've talked about the work I was doing as part of a "War on Poverty."  I realized that I could do little to change the education system, or change the  habits and behaviors of parents living in high poverty areas. But through the tutoring program I felt we could help kids escape the cycle of poverty by helping them through school and into college and careers.

I realized that one small program could be life changing for a few kids, but would have little impact on the couple hundred thousand kids living in poverty in Chicago. That's why I have been so passionate about the Tutor/Mentor Connection and its goals.

Youth in poverty, and their parents, need a system of supports.  This map visualizes some of the supports that are needed.

System of support needed


However, there were few leaders in Chicago, or the country, using maps and visualizations and thinking of ways to support an entire ecosystem of youth serving organizations, using the same strategies that teams in corporate headquarters of big companies like Wards were using to support multiple stories all over the country.  Thus, just getting the attention and participation of youth, volunteers and donors in a single program, and support for the intermediary role of the Tutor/Mentor Connection often seemed like a Marine battalion's efforts to land on a fortified beach. You took a lot of casualties before you were able to get a foothold, then move inland.

In many ways I think I'm still fighting that battle.

I recognized that I was neglecting my own kids to help other kids who lived in high poverty neighborhoods and did not have the support my kids enjoyed where we lived.  I rationalized, that in war, soldiers leave home for years on end, and some never come home, or when they do come home they are severely injured. We accept that as a price of freedom.

I said to myself,  "If I can help make a world that is better for kids born in poverty, then I'd be creating a better world for my own kids and grandkids, too."

I met Merri Dee of WGN TV in the early 1990s and she supported my work through the early 2000s. She gave me a slogan that I took to heart.

If it is to be, it is up to me (and you).

In 2011 the board of Directors at Cabrini Connections asked me to resign, as a result of the financial crisis that had started in 2008. They gave me ownership of the Tutor/Mentor Connection as part of the deal, since they did not want to continue supporting that strategy.

I created Tutor/Mentor Institute, LLC since I did not have a group of volunteers to help me create a new non profit structure. I've continued to lead the T/MC since then, but without any source of revenue other than my own savings and social security.

In many ways I've had more time since 2011 than ever before to focus on the work of the Tutor/Mentor Connection, because I've not had responsibility for the weekly operations of the entire organization and the kids' program.

Yet, when I was thinking of how I'd introduce myself in that group last week,  I recognized that I have had a huge void in my life for the past six years. I spent almost every day for 35 years thinking of what needed to be done to connect youth and volunteers in a single tutor/mentor program. I got to know the kids who came to the center as they kept coming back from 7th grade through 12th grade. I got to know the volunteers, too, and some of them had a huge impact on helping get the Tutor/Mentor Connection started.

That involvement with the youth program was a big part of my identity. It gave me daily reinforcement for why the Tutor/Mentor Connection was so needed.

I've not had that anchor in my life and that make the introduction difficult.

At the same time, my own kids are now adults, and the world I hoped to build for them is still just a dream.

Want to know more:  

View timeline - 1965-1990 - click here
View timeline of Tutor/Mentor Connection - 1990-2016 - click here
Read "Tutor/Mentor Business" written in 1997 by Sara Caldwell

Want to help? Connect with me on any of these social media platforms - click here.

And....A financial contribution would be welcome. click here

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