If it hadn’t been for a group of active young professionals in Erie, Pennsylvania, I might not have built a career in nonprofits.
In December 2005, I completed a 4-year degree in English at Gannon University. I was lucky to find a Professional Communications track in the English curriculum and I picked up a minor in Fine Arts. Upon graduation, I headed to the Chicago area with a friend from the group. I also reunited with my very first college friend who had moved to the Midwest four years ahead of me.
The young professionals were a diverse group with enthusiasm. We talked a lot about leadership, equity, and inclusion. When they shared their life stories, I set out to show them how meaningful it was to me, and that I was truly listening to their hopes and struggles. Friendship with them brought joy to my last year of college and beyond. I went on to meet a lot of fantastic people.
For the first year, I helped renovate a Georgian-style home in the inner suburbs of Chicago. Among many projects there, I refinished a staircase and I laid sod in the backyard. You could say I caught the DIY spirit! It was rewarding to look at something, see the potential in it, and then set out to fix it. After that, I started looking for volunteer work that complemented my interests.
I chose to tutor adults in English as a Second Language through a local community college. We had difficulty finding meeting space at the college library, and the public libraries near me and my first adult learner weren’t close enough for her to walk there safely. She is a brain cancer survivor and her treatments left her with some limited abilities. We both walked everywhere, so we had something in common that helped us relate to one another.
At the same time, I used my research skills to find the best teaching and learning materials for tutoring. My public library had an older literacy collection that wasn’t being managed well. I ended up requesting most of my educational materials through interlibrary loan. I would often ask myself and others, “Shouldn’t it be easier to help people learn basic skills?” From there, it was only a matter of time before I decided to volunteer to at a nearby library with a good volunteer program to help process interlibrary loans. It was a way I could give back to a service I was regularly using.
As a result of my tutoring and library experiences, I crafted a vision in 2009 to build a small adult literacy program at my public library. It would provide friendly spaces for personal tutoring and small groups, and I would update the adult literacy collection so we didn’t have to rely on interlibrary loans. It would become easier for adult learners to get library cards so they could borrow texts and workbooks. We would attract the young professional audience to the library and give retirees a way to invest their professional experience back into the community.
Eventually, in 2015, we would become the first public library in the state of Illinois to proctor the official GED exams. This particular program generated its own revenue and did not require any grant funding to implement. It was my single greatest administrative achievement in programs.
That was the public service part of my career, but my nonprofit work ran parallel and went beyond it. In 2009, I was invited to become a board member at a grassroots nonprofit that focused on adult literacy. In 2012, I became vice president, and in 2013, I became president of the board of directors. I served for seven more years.
I recruited a new board of young professionals who understood adult literacy, and I recruited new part-time staff members who had considerable expertise with adult learners. LinkedIn was the latest in social media, and I used it to do all of my recruiting. My best people came from that effort! Along the way, I picked up a bevy of nonprofit administrative skills, including fundraising, marketing, outreach, and volunteer management.
When I paused to tally the impact, I realized I had raised half a million dollars to support a cause I truly believed in. My board service fueled my passion to do public service work, and that fueled my passion back to my board service. Things that I couldn’t accomplish in one aspect were possible in the other, which supplied me with hope for progress.
It all started with inspiration from a group of friends in Erie who were enthusiastic about leadership, but the reason I built the vision was to help a handful of people in the Chicago area; I wanted to see them win. We felt the impact in our community through changed lives. When our neighbors could read better, speak English better, when they became citizens, voted, passed the GED exams, and got better jobs—that has power to ignite change for generations.
Those were the kinds of results that made a difference to individual people, but I know organizations evaluate impact through the bottom line as well. That’s why I also tally my impact to convey a monetary value. It’s every bit as impressive as the change we made together.
It was never about the money, but whenever I was told there was no money for something I wanted to do, I raised it. When we needed good people, I found them.
It was the most challenging thing I had ever done, but it was worth it.