How to Make a Family Happen

Volunteering and serving on non-profit boards has been an integral part of my life. For the past 14 years I have been deeply involved with Hathaway-Sycamores Child and Family Services, which is one of the most expansive agencies serving  Los Angeles County. Hathaway-Sycamores will impact the lives of more than 8500 children this year through 26 innovative programs, from residential care and counseling for youth at risk to foster family placements and permanent adoptions.

Our signature fundraising event each year is called Celebrating Children. We invite all our wonderful donors and sponsors to this gathering in the fall, and for the second year we have held it in the Stadium Club at Dodger Stadium when the Dodgers play an away-game. I am the event chair as well as the MC, which gives me the privilege of working closely with our dedicated staff all year-long to bring friends together in a room filled with love. We broadcast the game on a multitude of monitors and invite a retired Dodger Great to join us. This year we welcomed the legendary Ron Cey to talk a little about his career and a lot about how the Dodgers are also rooted in community service. We then honor one  or two of our supporters with our highest service award, and this year that went to my dear friends, Annsley and George Strong, longtime contributors of their time, money, and vision to the kids and families of Southern California.

All that is wonderful, but it’s not what I really wanted to post just now. We held the event earlier this week, and as we do each year we made a short video that shows a bit of our work. This year we focused on foster care and adoption. We called this story: “How to Make a Family Happen.” The words I write will never do the mission or impact of this work justice, so please have a look:

The Gutierrez and Puccia families who appear in this video were with us at the event, and there were not a lot of dry eyes in the house. They are examples of what happens when individuals decide in their own way to make a forever family happen. These stories are powerful, and they are just two of the miracles we can help make real, to bring a touch of hope and light to a troubled world. If you want to support the kind of work exemplified here, please visit our website.

Please share this video with anyone whose life you think it might touch. There is so much work we can do to improve our communities, and it all begins with local stories of caring and success.

Together, we can make families happen.

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Reading to Kids

Reading to KidsLast weekend my wife and I had the inspiring opportunity to spend the morning with five energetic first graders through a Los Angeles non-profit program called Reading to Kids.  As it is said about so many volunteer opportunities, I am sure we got way more out of it than the children.  It was an eye-opener on any number of levels.

Reading to Kids follows a simple but profound philosophy, that “the single most important activity for building the knowledge required for eventual success in reading is reading aloud to children,” cited in the 1985 report of the Commission on Reading.  On the second Saturday of each month, volunteer recruits gather at one of seven underserved elementary schools near downtown Los Angeles, and are assigned in pairs to read an age appropriate book to small groups of kids beginning in Kindergarten and advancing to Grade 5.  The books are selected by the regular curriculum teachers at each of the seven schools, and are all award winners by well-known authors for children.

Training is provided on arrival, and new volunteers are paired with experienced participants, some of whom have shown up more than 50 times for the three-hour block!  After training and a chance to review the book, readers meet their groups on the playground, where parents are waiting with their eager kids to line up and walk the volunteer pairs to an assigned classroom.  Everyone is there because they want to be, even the school principal who walks around to make sure everything is going well.  The children are happy, exceptionally well-behaved, curious, excited, thankful, warm, all of that, well beyond expectations, even the shy ones.

We started as instructed with a thematic overview and picture tour of our assigned book — A Sick Day for Amos McGee — then read the book and acted out the characters, many of whom were animals from the zoo (I won’t spoil the ending).  We asked tons of questions of the children before turning each page, which they more than answered.  After we finished the book and discussion, we did an arts and crafts project about the book’s theme of friendship, making Valentine cards which the kids took home (some gave their artwork to the volunteer adult readers to say thank you).  At the end of the morning, every child is awarded a prize book to take home with them after a brief farewell ceremony.  A copy of each read-aloud book is then donated to the school’s library.

It’s that simple.  It’s beautifully organized, and we even went to lunch afterward with many of the other readers at a nearby restaurant that offered free snack trays.

Why in the world am I writing about this on my business blog?

It’s no secret that I have spent a reasonable amount of my career around children’s media, and that I have some deep convictions about the necessary link in learning between education and entertainment.  This experience was different.  What I saw before me at this Los Angeles Unified School District facility — surely in need of financial investment — were five young people as motivated about learning as any I have encountered in all my travels and focus tests.  There was one minor difference, English was their second language, even though they were growing up here in Southern California.  For my thinking, that actually put them at the head of the class — how many six-year olds do you know already equally fluent in two languages?  These children knew most of the words on the pages of our book, they had opinions about all the characters, they were willing to go out on a limb and predict how the story would twist and turn, and they were clearly able to interpret the moral of the story, that when we are at our weakest, we most depend on our friends.

These kids were amazing.  They have all the potential in the world.  They are ready to dream and learn and help each other and work hard.  As we drove home and I looked around at parts of Los Angeles where many of us don’t spend enough time, I wondered, where will these kids be in five years when they hit middle school?  In ten years when they are in high school?  Will they go to college?  Will they have the kinds of opportunities that will let their dreams come true?  I couldn’t know, but that’s what I wanted to happen.

We allow the subject of education to be politicized, but it’s not really a political topic in my mind.  Year after year, I fill out the surveys sent to me by government leaders, local and national, whichever party is in power, always asking for my priorities.  My priority for tax dollars never changes, I believe the priority has to be education.  If we want these kids to have good lives, they need education.  If we want our economy to thrive, we need an educated population.  If we want a new generation of businesses to be born and staffed, education is the proven route to success.  The thing is, at six years old on a Saturday morning, the kids are showing up, their parents are bringing them, so what they need they already want.  How can we not see that of every possible investment we could make with a taxpayer dollar, this is the one that will pay off?

Is there inefficiency in school districts and administration?  Of course.  Will these bright young kids soon enough become less exuberant adolescents?  History would seem to confirm that.  Do we have competing priorities for underserved community needs?  Without a doubt.  All of those are realities, which simply makes them challenges.  What I want to see are those first graders I met last weekend on a path to realize the same kinds of dreams we all share.  I think in a nation as great as ours we have a moral responsibility to make that happen, broadly for the greater good.

What can we all do to think globally and act locally?  First off, try a little volunteering.  Reading to Kids is one fine program among many, find one that makes a difference in your home town and sign up.  You will do good, and it will do your soul good.  Second, as the national debate on budget control escalates to hyperbole, think hard about where money should be saved and invested, with an emphasis on the notion of capital that can provide a return on investment, where human capital is the most precious resource we can nurture.  Third, if you are investing in your own future, consider investing in the future of our communities with whatever dollars you can afford, in the form of a donation, directed to a program you find of value.

Reading will always be one of the most magical experiences we enjoy as human beings.  A love of reading brings a love of learning, and that is a gift of boundless reward.  Spend three hours reading a children’s storybook to some kids you’ve never met and you might just learn more than they do.  I did.