Reflections at five years

A few weeks ago, one of my colleagues reminded me that the calendar was quickly approaching December 13, 2015, my fifth anniversary at Simon Youth Foundation. So, it only seemed appropriate that I commit to writing a blog to commemorate the occasion.

My task, to me, seemed easy until I sat down and actually tried to put pen to paper. How do I recollect and convey the many emotions I have felt over the years as I was able to witness so many of our students cross the stage at graduation? How can I ever appropriately bear witness to the countless parents and families who showed unedited joy and pride as they watched their child and student succeed when most of the odds were against them? In what way could I ever heap enough praise upon our partner teachers for the way in which they preform everyday miracles and so many undocumented acts of generosity and kindness without ever a thought of repayment?

(As a qualitative researcher by training, I have been taught to keenly observe and report on the actions of others and then take those observations and distill and discern them to their common core and the thread of the narrative which binds them all together. I can hear my colleagues now chiding me for the professorial tone of that last sentence.)

In the midst of my travels last week – where in the course of 86 hours I was in four states and inside airports 9 different times – I had a unique moment of clarity.

The trip itself was pretty standard as my travels go. It started in Katy, Texas to discuss a possible Academy at Katy Mills as well as extending the SYF relationship to a current school providing services to students we serve. After an energized dinner with the mall manager, I had the opportunity to spend the next day touring the current program and was in awe of the dedication and commitment the staff and the teachers had to these students. Later that day, I had the great opportunity to tell the SYF story to the Katy Independent School Board in hopes that we would get an affirmative vote that would move us to the next phase to building an Academy in 2016.

Then it was off to Boston, more specifically Peabody, Massachusetts on the Northshore, to visit with the Academy and to present to the local school committee about their 5th anniversary of their partnership with SYF. The final day had me visiting the south of Boston and touring potential sites for SYF expansion in 2017 and beyond. All in all, a pretty textbook-type, predictable trip I have come to know over my term so far at SYF.

Yet on this trip, I began to become so keenly aware, as if almost for the first time, of the true core and essence of the work we all do at SYF.

(Now this is where the academic researcher provides you with examples of his thesis, stick with me!)

As I sat in the Katy Mills office catching up on work, I had a moment to chat with the center’s operations director. He thanked me for the work we do at SYF, and I in turn thanked him for his support that allowed us to do our work. He pressed me on this, countering again how important the work we do is and the leadership that the SYF team brings to the Foundation. We traded stories on our own background, each of us having a perspective that closely identified with our students and each other. With a buzz and a crackle from his walkie-talkie, he was off; but the words of that conversation rattled around my head for quite a while, “it takes somebody to stand up for what is right for these kids”. I used those words during my presentation to the Katy Independent School Board in praising the work I had seen during the day, and why partnering with SYF would be a good decision for this school district even though they are clearly demonstrating it through their current programs.

The Peabody School Committee began their meeting Tuesday evening by recognizing outgoing Board members whose terms of service were coming to the end. I am always fascinated at these types of events where people are pseudo-eulogized at the end of their tenure. I have a quote that hangs in my office that reads, “You get to decide the legacy that you leave”. For me, events like this are one manifestation of that quote. After the niceties and accolades were pronounced, the retiring members were asked for comments.

Mr. David McGeney, a retiring board member of 20 years, gave an impassioned speech about public education and the importance of caring teachers.

He recounted a story of visiting a school and meeting with a principal who was facing a tough conversation with a student. While in school that day, the student would need to be told that she would have to begin immediately living with her grandfather, as her mother had been sentenced and remanded to prison that morning. This meant that everything in that child’s life had been upended, included needing to give away her dog, by all accounts her only constant companion. He pointed out that principals and teachers are the ones shedding tears for these students.

“They make sure those kids have coats that are warm enough and food enough to eat. Our teachers know that Johnny isn’t lazy, but he only gets a few hours of sleep every night. They know that Sally isn’t defiant, there’s just nowhere in her house to do homework and no one cares that she doesn’t.”

“My colleagues, your cause is a noble cause. When you defend Public Education, you are defending children. When you stand up for teachers, you are standing up for our country’s first line of defense against poverty, tyranny and oppression.”

And there it was, staring me right in the face. The essence of what all of this work is about.

Passion.

The common unifying characteristic of all these interactions across the last 5 years has been the passion that all of us who are involved with SYF share and celebrate.

Passion comes in all shapes, sizes and manifestations. It comes from the Simon colleagues who generously commit annually of their own resources to SYF. It comes from other Simon colleagues who work tirelessly on their local events to support SYF breaking records year over year raising money for our mission. It comes from our Board members who use their networks of influence to help us tell our story. It comes from our volunteers who brave all sorts of elements to help promote our work through events, and those generous donors who attend and participate in those events. It comes from my staff colleagues who come to work every day to promote and expand the services of SYF, and from our families who work to support them in reaching our goals. Passion comes from our teachers who perform small miracles every day within our Academies and it comes from our students because for many of them just getting to school today will take massive untold amounts of passion.

Merriam-Webster defines passion as a strong feeling of enthusiasm or excitement for something or about doing something; including an intense, driving, or overmastering feeling or conviction. Pretty much sums it up, doesn’t it. What we do matters, and what matters is our students.

I am definitely changed, molded, honed and humbled by the passion – the soul – of this organization. I am thankful for this opportunity, and buoyed by your trust in my stewardship of our mission.

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