If You Build It

After a shaky start, yesterday’s open house – the main event toward which I have been working these last six weeks – was a success. Families showed up in good numbers to register for this new Community Learning Center. I was aiming for 50 students for our K-8 afterschool program. We registered 53. We also registered 40 adults for our ESL classes, which I am told is a good showing.

All in all, we did well, though things were in doubt at the jump. Recall how I mentioned I have been working with a consultant with years of experience with similar events. She continues to be indispensable. Whenever I am consumed by a hornet's nest of tasks and to-do’s, she is quick to pull me back to see the larger picture and help me re-prioritize. But for all of our accomplishing these last few weeks, we forgot something as simple as registration packets for the families upon their arrival! Both the consultant and my co-workers jumped in to iron out that issue while I rolled with the original plan to corral the kids with the teachers who have been hired to run classes from art, to math, to physical exercise.

The flyer announcing our open house event.

After the rocky start – which only took about 20 minutes to resolve though it felt like hours – things were off and running. I spent the night explaining the program, and introducing the teachers I have hired and what they will be offering in the way of classes. Parents seemed genuinely enthusiastic about this resource. Many of them work jobs that do not allow them to be home with their kids once they are released from school. These kids can therefore be exposed to the usual risks of a city’s neighborhood streets: drugs, gangs, etc. A resource like this not only offers alternatives, it provides a few extra hours of learning in a fun environment. I am excited to see how that plays out.

Much of this success can be attributed to the networking and advertising we have done over the last six weeks. We met with teachers from three local public schools and helped them send their students home with fliers and materials so the parents would know this new resource exists, not just for their kids but for their families. We also attended a 5:30 a.m. Mass on the Feast of the Our Lady of Guadalupe, a big day in the Latino community. In short, we have been hitting the pavement.

Calling this “a learning experience” would be both a terrible pun and an understatement. I have undertaken a multitude of tasks in areas in which I have had no experience. For example, I have had to interview all of the aforementioned teachers and make sure they pass a thorough background check. I have never done anything like that before. It was a trial by fire. Very possibly I was more nervous at times than my applicants. It took about ten interviews before I felt I had the hang of it.

In addition, I have had to deal with a thorny issue of a similar program offered by the school attached to the parish that is allowing us to use their otherwise unused building. The school has a program that allows parents to drop off their kids early and stay afterschool, for largely the same reasons as our program: it accommodates job schedules and keeps the kids out of trouble. However, St. Bartholomew school charges for their program, which provides supplemental income for the teachers. Our program is free. As soon as word began to spread about us, the rumor mill spun up about why we are here. The biggest one has been that we are involved in an intricate plan to reduce the overall cost parents pay to St. Bartholomew school. By offering a free alternative, parents will save money and increase the likelihood their children will remain enrolled.

Recall that the Spiritual Director I have mentioned in the past is on the Board of Directors for the Northwest Neighborhood Federation. He is also the pastor at St. Bartholomew. It is therefore easy to see how a rumor like this has gained traction. Fortunately, it is not true. However, that did not make my task any easier. When I met with them, I was warned they would be hostile towards me. Although there was a slight “on edge” feeling in the room when we started, it never felt hostile. However, they were less-than-receptive to the idea that our respective programs could easily co-exist given the multitude of neighborhood children in need of both of our services. In short, I invited them to see the situation from a mentality of abundance rather than scarcity. They chose to respond by looking at me like I had three heads.

Apparently, this concept is foreign to most people. The group more-than-struggled to understand where I was coming from. A few folks even looked insulted when I first mentioned it. The idea that we are here to “steal” their kids has been firmly ingrained in their minds. But that is what a scarcity mentality does. It straightjackets potential and reinforces the asymmetric thinking that if you are winning, I must be losing. The idea that both of us can thrive is beyond the realm of possibilities. An abundance mentality, on the other hand, challenges that notion, even to the point of being attacked because a well-worn and familiar paradigm – even if it produces sub-optimal results – is an easier path to take than learning a new one.

Nonetheless, I persevered in explaining how two programs can co-exist at the same campus, and how it can be a good thing for the multitude of neighborhood kids in need of such services. I also explained how our primary audience is students in local public schools, that we intend to meet our capacity quickly, and will have to turn down any parents tempted to withdraw from St. Bart’s program in favor of ours. It mostly worked. The “on edge” feeling had dissipated, and teachers seemed more amenable to the idea of our program running in parallel to theirs. But I could tell I did not completely win over everyone and will likely have to make another appearance in the future.

Thankfully our open house had a strong attendance and, as I mentioned earlier, we seem to have met our enrollment cap and I can focus on the myriad tasks I must complete between now and our opening in three weeks. I am trying to dwell more on what went right rather than how the open house – and everything we have done up to now – could have been done better. The pervasive pit in my stomach and increased anxiety over how well this project will go is not subsiding, nor do I think it will throttle back over the holidays. There is simply too much to do. Thankfully, a few members of NNF’s Board of Directors attended parts of the open house and congratulated us on the turnout and the job we have done in a short amount of time. That might help me sleep a little better in the coming days, but I would not count on it.