Saturday, February 4, 2017

Tabitha's Question

Tabitha’s Question

Why do I do this—the Good Neighbors program work? This is the simple question Tabitha, our social media and marketing assistant, asked. It’s a great question and I need to consider it deeply. Why do I do what I do with SML Good Neighbors? What sustains me in this work? Maybe the rambling thoughts that follow will give you—and me—some insights. It may take patience to read through these thoughts!

This past week was filled with national events that made me anxious—it was the first week of Donald Trump’s presidency. As I listened to friends and over-heard the conversations of others, I understood this was not unique to me. It is easy to get in to a circuitous, downward spiral and lose site of what is most important and right in front of me.

I keep the small book, “The Three Questions”, based on a story by Leo Tolstoy, where I can always find it. The story ends with this paragraph:

“Remember then that there is only one important time, and that time is now. The most important one is always the one you are with. And the most important thing is to do good for the one who is standing at your side. For these, my dear boy, are the answers to what is most important in this world. This is why we are here.”

This past week was also filled with activities that brought light in to my life and lifted me up. As I reflect of what this means, I realize that this light comes from human relationships; it is contained in the invisible bonds that connect me with those around me.

It was a full week—interviewing applicants for summer teaching positions; meetings with Lisa; the weekly meeting with our spiritual formation group; lunch with Sara Jamison and George Seals to talk about endowment planning; the Good Neighbors board of directors meeting; meeting with Larry from Appalachian Power to talk about grants; Lib Walker’s memorial service; Jim and I meeting with Bob Craghead about purchasing land for the new Good Neighbors building; talking with a supporter about getting donated supplies to replace those lost in the fire; talking with friends at Art Vision Gallery during their benefit for Good Neighbors; attending “Dancing for a Cause” with about 500 others at Franklin County High School to benefit nine area nonprofit agencies; two afternoons with seven Good Neighbors Scholars in the Middle School After-School Academy; and attending Meeting for Worship at the Roanoke Quaker Meeting.

Quakers frequently speak of—Seeing that of God in Everyone.” As I sat in silent worship this morning, I was reminded that this message keeps me grounded, even in the midst of events I cannot control.


So, what does this have to do with Tabitha’s question? I think I have the answer. This past Thursday at the after-school program, we had a “dust-up” at the end of the day with our middle school scholars. This is a nice way of saying there were behavior problems related to anger and nonviolent conflict resolution. I left the school feeling frustrated asking myself—do we make any difference in the lives of these students? Why am I doing this? During Quaker Meeting for Worship this morning I believe the answer to these questions, and Tabitha’s question, was given to me—“Even when I can’t stand them, I keep coming back to be with our Good Neighbors children because I love them.”            

Saturday, May 14, 2016

So, this is why we do this?

            I was sitting looking out on the lake late on Friday afternoon. All was quiet, the water calm and beautiful. I was enjoying a glass of Chardonnay and feeling at peace. The phone rang—it was someone calling the SML Good Neighbors office. Since it was after hours, a recording told the caller to press one (1) for the executive director—that’s me.

            At first, it was difficult to understand the man on the other end of the line. He was having trouble getting his thoughts and questions put in to words. Finally, he said, “here’s why I’m calling.”

            “ My wife and I recently took our two grandchildren out of foster care. They are having a hard time and we just needed to do this. It’s hard. We’re both on disability and don’t have much.” I could tell this was hard for him to share. “We registered both grandchildren for the Good Neighbors summer program. But I am confused about whether or not they will both get to come. I think one letter says that our granddaughter is registered. But another letter says that our grandson is on the waiting list. They both need Good Neighbors so much this summer. Our grandson will just be devastated if he can’t go. I don’t know what to do. Can you help me?” 

            As the Good Neighbors programs grew we added a fulltime program director and half-time administrative assistant. So, I am much more removed from regular contact with children, their families and their stories. I miss that contact even though their stories sometimes break my heart—this is one of those times.

            As we talked, I learned from Rodney that their grandson is ten and their granddaughter is seven. We talked about the Bedford County elementary school they attend. I could hear the worry, desperation and concern in Rodney’s voice. I assured him that I would talk with our program director about the registrations but it would be Monday before someone was in contact with him. I got all the important information; the names of the grandchildren and his full name and phone number. And then I said, “Rodney, what you and your wife are doing for your grandchildren is wonderful; I know it has to be so hard.” At this point, in a tearful voice he said, “it is hard. God bless you for helping.” We said goodbye.

Now, almost 24 hours later, I find myself still holding these grandparents and their grandchildren in my thoughts—in my heart. Each time I remember our conversation I realize that I too am tearful. This is why we do this work and I pray that we will never become hard-hearted.


              

Thursday, May 12, 2016

A Letter to the Cofounders of SML Good Neighbors

from the desk of Russell Baskett                                            


“A Home of Our (SML Good Neighbors) Own”
April 26, 2016

Dear Sally, Charles and Mike,

Can you believe it? —SML Good Neighbors has its own home. We have a real office, meeting spaces, storage, and living quarters for up to 13 summer teachers. We’re not keeping our files in our garages and basements. And—it is paid for! I am simply amazed. 

And can you believe that it was only 10 years ago this spring that Sally called us together to share our concerns about young children—especially during the summer months—in the region close to Smith Mountain Lake. In our wildest dreams, none of us could have imagined the breadth and depth of the SML Good Neighbors programs that would emerge over the next ten years. Even the name—SML Good Neighbors—had not been invented.

A few weeks after the four of us started meeting, Lois, Sarah and Wendie joined us. Our group of seven was soon joined by five others who felt as passionate as we did about the children in our community. We became the “vision team”, the team that spread the word in our community. We started talking with church leaders, school administrators and community leaders. I think we talked (maybe preached) to everyone and every group that would listen. One thing became clear; large numbers of young children in our community needed out-of-school support and experiences that could not be provided by the schools or other existing community resources—there was a big gap.

And so, the Vision Team started brainstorming about enrichment programs that could be provided at no cost to families living on limited resources. Little did we know how much time, how many people, and how much knowledge would be required to make the dream a reality. I know you remember those exciting times—you were in the middle of it, including the frustrations and disappointments. Fortunately, the energy and faith of the group kept us moving forward. There was the rejection of our proposal to Project Transformation, but we didn’t stay down long. With Charles’ leadership we were soon incorporated in the Commonwealth of Virginia and received our 501(c)(3) status from the IRS. Sally found Lana Miller at Eastern Mennonite University and she helped us write a detailed curriculum. There was the extensive discernment process to decide the summer model we would use—four weeks, six weeks or eight weeks. What could have been contentious and divisive became an early example of community building. I think those challenges set the tone for how we still work. Even the process of picking our organization’s name and logo—and there were many ideas to choose from—was a community building effort, albeit a little raucous at times!  

After the hundreds of hours spent planning, the time finally came to take our planning notebooks and make the plan a living, breathing reality. In 2007 we provided a small summer lunch and weekend backpack program in a few schools. But our real objective was to launch a four-week summer enrichment program, and we did that in 2008 in both Bedford and Franklin Counties. We worked so hard. There was intern recruitment, recruiting volunteers, getting everyone background checked through the county school systems, arranging for intern housing, arranging for meals at the summer camps, arranging transportation, buying supplies, arranging for program sites with the schools—the list goes on and on. Looking back I am surprised it actually happened. If we had known in advance all of the steps and challenges, we might have passed up this opportunity!

So, in 2008 we enrolled 65 rising 1st – 4th graders from two schools in Franklin County and three in Bedford County. We had six college interns and probably about 100 volunteers. In early June we opened the doors at Burnt Chimney Elementary School and we have never looked back; it has been an amazing journey. Our lives have been enriched and enlarged by our Good Neighbors children and families.
Now here we are in 2016 moving quickly and expectantly toward the opening of summer programs—our ninth summer. I get a little light headed when I think through everything that has happened since our first conversations in 2006. There is so much to remember and share.
It would be easy to list output and outcomes assessment data. The kind of things you do in annual reports and grant applications. I’ll do a little of that. But, the things most vivid in my memories, and written on my heart, are personal experiences with, and stories about, the kids. So, I’ll mix the two— stories mixed with some typical data and news. Truth is found in both; both describe who we (Good Neighbors) are and what we’ve become.
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This year we will work with students from 10 elementary schools and two middle schools. We will have rising 1st – 6th graders. We expect 160 – 170 to participate this summer and at least 120 in after-school programs. We already have a waiting list for the summer program.

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We were on a field trip at Ferrum College. While walking on the campus, Rick, one of the older kids, put his arm around my shoulders, looked me in the eyes, and said, “we’re pretty good buddies Mr. Russ.” This was, and is, special. Rick has Asperger’s and it’s challenges. I replied, “we are good buddies Rick, and I like that.”
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This summer we launch a new initiative—the Middle School Academy. This is a year-round program for rising 6th, 7th, 8th and 9th graders. The objective is to help prepare students for success in middle and high school. Students and their families commit to the four-week summer program and an after-school program two days per week during the school year. We expect about 20 students this year.

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I was wandering around the cafeteria—I think it was at Moneta Elementary—during the morning breakfast and game time. At the end of one of the tables was Judy, a long time servant leader with Good Neighbors, brushing the hair of one of the girls. This particular girl was a behavioral challenge and uncooperative many times. We weren’t sure she could stay in the program. Judy’s special attention—the act of safe, loving contact—was calming and transformed the negative behavior of this young lady in to positive behavior, at least for that moment.   
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This summer we will have 11 summer-teaching staff from many different colleges as far away as Earlham College in Indiana. We used to call this group college interns. The title, teaching staff, reflects the professional work we require of them. Remember, we started with six in 2008.  

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I was walking down the hall at Dudley Elementary when Zack, one of our summer teachers, stopped me and said, “we need to talk.” We did talk, and he shared with me the writing of a boy who had been sexually abused and traumatized to the point of requiring hospitalization. Zack was devastated. We did talk and also talked with the student together. Nothing was required of us. All legal steps were in order. But our innocence—Zack’s and mine—was ended.  

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We currently have after-school programs in four Franklin County elementary schools and two Bedford County schools plus one middle school. These programs reach 120 – 130 students. Most of the after-school programs are in partnership with the Roanoke Children’s Theatre. RCT has worked with us since 2009.

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I think we were at Dudley Elementary for the Franklin County summer program. It was 2011. Elizabeth tracked me down. “We have a problem, Donté has taken off. He ran up the hill in to the woods.” Sure enough, there he was, visible but in the trees. I walked up the hill, asked what was going on and, as expected, got silence. But, he didn’t run! There is a well-house built in to the hillside so it is easy to step up on to the roof. I did that and invited Donté to join me. I sat down and waited. He eventually joined me on the roof and sat down. We didn’t talk; we just listened to each other in the silence. When it was time, we walked down the hill; Donté rejoined his group and I resumed whatever I had been doing. It was a good day.

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In a typical summer, as many as 90% of the children we serve participate in the free or reduced-cost meal program during the school year.

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It was 2010. We took our students to the Taubman Museum of Art in Roanoke. They had a great tour, attended a play at the Roanoke Children’s Theatre, and walked to a small park for a boxed lunch. Several parents, or grandparents, and volunteers joined us. Two of the students were brothers being raised by their grandmother. She was their legal parent. We loved having the brothers in the program. But, one of them had serious anger-management issues, especially with his brother. It could become violent at times so we were always vigilant. Many times one of us sat between the two of them to prevent problems. Their grandmother joined us on this field trip. She had difficulty walking so we arranged transportation for her to the small park for lunch. During lunch the brother with anger issues took care of his grandmother. He made sure she was comfortable, took the lunch to her and tended to her needs. It was a side of him we had not seen. I observed his “true self” that day—a kind, loving, and gentle soul.    

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Approximately 90% of our summer participants either maintain or improve their reading levels during their four weeks with us. Principals tell us this is outstanding. Students who have no educational stimulation over the summer experience the “summer slide”, losing as much as two months from their reading and math levels. Low-income students are the most vulnerable.

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It was either 2009 or 2010. It was the end of the week and we gave the kids their weekend backpacks. This week we were also offering leftover food supplies to families. We had more than we could use. One of our interns, with tears in her eyes, shared a story with us. Two sisters told her, with big smiles on their faces, that their mom was really going to be happy—they had no food left in the house; now they would be ok.

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In 2015, 69% of the households we served had annual incomes of $35,000 or less; 54% had incomes of $25,000 or less.

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“Russ, this is Barbara, principal at Moneta Elementary School. I have to share a great story with you.” This was the beginning of a phone call about a Good Neighbors student. Here is the short version. This young girl was terrible. Lots of anger, difficult to control, spent more time with Shearer than in her group. She was also a holy terror at school. On this day, she was sent to the principal for angry behavior in her class. After a cool-down, Barbara asked—“how could you have handled this better?” The girl’s reply: “Well, I could jump off the anger escalator or count to 10, or walk away…” Barbara asked, “Where did you learn that?” Her reply, “at camp; the Good Neighbors Camp.” The principal shared this with the girl’s teacher and suggested she remind the student of these things when she was having a bad time. It worked, her behaviors changed and she has been a model student with Good Neighbors ever since. This was several years ago. She will be one of the “scholars” in our new Middle School Academy program that begins this summer.

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We now have approximately 200 volunteers every summer. They work as reading buddies, teacher assistants, camp facilitators—doing the setup, cleanup, mopping, etc., and movers of camp supplies from storage to the schools. This doesn’t include the board and the hundreds of hours they spend planning and working.

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It was at the closing celebration of one of the camps. We were in the cafeteria having ice cream. Of course this included Connie’s special, homemade fudge sauce. The cafeteria was full of kids, families, teachers and volunteers. It was festive. Elizabeth, one of our summer teachers, came to my table. “Russ, you have to come hear this mom. It’s amazing.” As ordered, I did join her table. It affirmed what all of us know and believe in our hearts—we are “sowing seeds of success in our children.”  This mother was almost beside herself with praise and amazement. Her daughter had many serious issues. She didn’t get along with other children, was a problem at school, was a problem at home, hated to read, hated school, and on and on and on! But, she couldn’t stop talking about what had happened this summer. Her daughter had totally changed. Mom couldn’t believe she was the same child. She was being nice at home, was having fun with other kids, was reading and excited about going back to school. It was not possible to measure the extent of her gratitude for SML Good Neighbors. Results like these don’t lend themselves to quantitative measurements.

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In 2013 we established a fulltime, paid position—Program Director—and have now added a half-time position of Administrative Assistant. Our program director, Lisa Lietz, has done—and continues to do—a remarkable job. We all understand that the size and scope of our current programs would be impossible without her initiative, leadership and amazing work ethic.

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We are currently in the process of establishing an Endowment Fund. Over time, this fund will provide significant investment income to sustain the Good Neighbors programs.

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I could go on and on with data, news and stories. But I will stop here. However, before I end, I want to remind the four of us that from the very beginning one of our major goals was to provide a “vocational exploration experience for college students.” This idea was written in to our mission statement. I have been blessed beyond measure by having the opportunity to work closely with nearly 50 of these students since 2008. It has been a capstone experience for me. We have recruited carefully and almost always been happy with the result. These young women and men have been outstanding teachers and role models for our Good Neighbors children. They have become colleagues and friends. Many are now pursuing careers, starting families and “giving back.” A few examples:

3rd grade teacher at Bedford Elementary; 3rd grade teacher in Henrico County; high school math          teacher in Portland, Oregon; social media director for NPR in Richmond, Virginia; Peace Corps workers—two have done this; teacher with Teach for America; teacher with Quaker Volunteer Service; speech pathologist with Montgomery County Schools; graduate studies in education at Hollins University; student in nursing program at U. Va.; just accepted elementary school position in Louden County, Virginia; entering graduate studies in non-profit leadership this fall; works with Food for the City in Washington, D.C.; following completion of a Masters in Public Health from George Mason University, Michelle works as an epidemiologist with the Armed Services Health Surveillance Center and has become a significant financial contributor to SML Good Neighbors.

I know I didn’t include all of our teaching alumni, but you get the idea—we remain true to the mission statement written almost 10 years ago.

It’s hard to know when to stop writing. There are many, many stories and hundreds of interesting details I would love to share with you. But I will stop writing now knowing that each new year will bring more stories by dozens of people touched by the work of SML Good Neighbors. I am truly grateful to be part of the group that gave birth to this program. And, it has been wonderful to be on this journey with you.  

With thanks and gratitude I remain, your devoted friend,

Russ