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7 Questions with Miriam Gandell, Executive Director of The Dwelling Place

Today we give a warm welcome to Miriam Gandell of The Dwelling Place, who will be answering 7 Questions. Miriam is a self-proclaimed generalist in a world of specialized fundraisers. She has worked as a Development Secretary, Parents Fund Coordinator, Deferred Giving Assistant and Board Liaison at Harvey Mudd and Scripps Colleges in Claremont, California followed by Special Events Coordinator and Prospect Research Director for the Olive Crest Treatment Centers for Abused Children. She then served as Executive Director for the Foothill Family Shelter in Upland, California, as well as the Director of Development for Habitat for Humanity of Montgomery County and for the last 5+ years, as Director of The Dwelling Place.

1. What motivated you to begin working with this organization and what need does it fulfill?

I have worked for over 20 years with children who are victims of abuse and neglect as well as children who are affected by family homelessness. The consequences of the chaos and pain felt by these young ones is my reason for working with families in crisis. Homeless families served by The Dwelling Place are in need of more than just housing to move forward and improve their lives. They are primarily made up of young, single mothers with minimal family support, education, or training, and they need the time and structure and role modeling to move forward both for themselves and their children.

2. What was your most interesting recent development, update, project, event, or partnership?

We have found a champion in Brian Holloway, former New England Patriot, through one of our Board members. Since retiring from football, he makes his mark on the world as an inspiring motivational speaker. After learning about our program, he “adopted” our organization and in only a few short months has made the community more aware of our work. He is passionate about helping those in need and we look forward to having him as a partner for years to come.

3. What other projects are you up to?

With the changing economic climate and demographics in our community, we are focusing on education and training as a way to achieve future stability for our families, in addition to finding affordable housing. Our Education Fund can pay for tuition, fees, tutors, books, and more, and we now require our clients to works towards their GED, attend classes for career certifications, or be involved in on-the-job training. A minimum-wage job with fluctuating hours is not going to establish a future leading to upward mobility. Without education, opportunities for future “careers” are extremely limited and we want to support the efforts of our clients to have hope for change.

One of our past (and most successful) families (a mom and her son) were murdered two years ago as a consequence of re-involvement with a past abuser. Their success stands as a shining example of how lives can change. They were an amazing family who overcame so much. She had made incredible progress but still tragically allowed this person back into her life. In memory of mom and son, we started a sport scholarship fund for kids in our program to participate in football, baseball, piano, karate, ballet, and more which they would otherwise not be able to afford. Spending time together and sharing experiences is a wonderful way for mother and child to bond, and we know Mom and son would be pleased to know that they are making this possible for others.

4. Who inspires you (in the philanthropy world or otherwise)? Do you have a hero?

I had a mentor in Southern California who modeled being an Executive Director and inspired me to continue working in the philanthropic arena. Everything I have learned has been through hands-on experience, starting as a secretary and working my way up over the past 30 years; as a woman raised in the 50′s and 60′s, I struggled with being both a friend and a supervisor, and with how I could best help whatever organization I supported.?My mentor helped me with this. He was straightforward, brilliant, and successful at running both large and small nonprofits. He still inspires me today.

5. What is the single greatest challenge that your organization faces and how are you working towards combating this issue?

Our single greatest challenge is developing a sense of self-responsibility in families who have grown accustomed to government assistance and can’t envision a life of financial stability without it. We can help our families find subsidized housing but that’s not enough in the long run. Establishing new and healthy habits, like regular budgeting, saving, and paying off debt is a daunting task and one which requires a significant amount of time and energy. But without it, changing the future and giving our children a healthy, positive role model and maintaining stable housing is not possible.

6.What advice do you have for other people in your position? What’s your biggest take-away lesson you would tell others that you have gleaned from your experiences?

Although people will tell you that your work must be very rewarding, some days it just isn’t. But keep all you do in perspective and take joy in each and every positive step forward your clients take. It’s not the day-to-day progress that counts but the overall journey that tells the story. And don’t feel guilty that you aren’t always “fulfilled.”

7.What’s next for your organization, both in the short term and long term?

Maintaining financial stability is our number one goal. We are working to enhance our fundraising efforts through major gifts and increased community awareness. Long-term we would like to be able to open a facility for young mothers where they would be in a communal setting and not in a scattered-site apartment, on their own, and without supervision. There is a great need for a program like this in Montgomery County.

In The News …

Profile: Matthew Wheelock, founder of Live It Learn It (Washington Post: Schools Insider): “A decade ago, the next logical career move for Matthew Wheelock was to head overseas to work in his law firm’s Tokyo office. Instead, aiming to make a difference in the city where he grew up, he became a fourth-grade teacher at the District’s Walker-Jones Elementary School …” Looking for new ways to motivate students, many of whom were living in poverty, Wheelock found the answer outside of his classroom. Three years later, Wheelock founded Catalogue nonprofit Live It Learn It — “a nonprofit dedicated to making sure disadvantaged kids get access to hands-on field trips [...], a model that draws plaudits from teachers and principals.”

Oxon Hill town meeting focuses on financial literacy (Gazette): “Financial literacy and investment experts stressed at a meeting last week the need for Prince George’s County residents to have access to financial training, but added that perhaps even more important is the need for teens to get the same education.” At a town hall meeting last week, John Hope Bryant (chairman of the Underserved and Community Empowerment Subcommittee) pointed out that “financial literacy courses are key to encouraging teens to aspire to be entrepreneurs and small business owners;” however, not all schools offer such courses. You can explore Catalogue’s life skills and employment-focused nonprofits here; for example, at Cakes for Cause, youth learn to work in a bakery and handle their own earnings.

Helping Children Soar With Educational Advocacy (Huffington Post): “As the country and the District debate what goals we should set for student achievement, [10-year-old Sky Stringer] reminded me that a failure to invest in all of the children in our community will rob us of the talents and skills of those we leave behind,” writes Judith Sandalow (executive director, Children’s Law Center) Two years ago, Sky was diagnosed with ADHD and dyslexia. However, “the school didn’t want to give Sky special education services;” so the Children’s Law Center took her case to court to see that she received an “individualized education program (IEP), and intensive services.” Considering this case, how else can we ensure that children (in all grades and schools) have an advocate when they need one?

Early Economics

Back in April, we talked about Elmo’s take on financial literacy for all ages. Namely, should (and how could) financial literacy be taught alongside traditional literacy to Sesame Street’s target demographic? Today, here’s another take from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (not a furry red monster), “Teaching kids financial literacy? Don’t forget entrepreneurship:”

You teach them the value of hard work and the importance of telling the truth, how to be a loyal friend and a good citizen. But you might be overlooking one of the most important lessons you can teach your children to help ensure they do well in life — financial literacy. [...]

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Reading the Numbers

When we think about literacy, we often consider letters rather than numbers. But over the past few years, financial literacy has become ever more crucial — and more widely-discussed. And as of this past week, even Elmo has joined that discussion.

For his preliminary lessons in personal finance, Elmo learns the difference between a “need” and a “want,” emphasizing that his father likes the word “prioritize.” The three-and-a-half-year-old Elmo also learns about “deferred gratification” when he realizes that he needs four more dollars to buy a sparkly “stupendous ball” rather than a standard, less-stupendous rubber ball.

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In The News …

Welcome to the first Wednesday of the (hopefully not too) rainy month! We have a bundle of Catalogue non-profit news coming your way …

Congratulations to five non-profit leaders — Last night, the winners of the 2010 Exponent Awards were honored by the Meyer Foundation. And of those winners, four are the leaders of Catalogue non-profits: Jean-Michel Giraud of Community Council for the Homeless at Friendship Place, Layli Miller-Muro of Tahirih Justice Center, Scott Schenkelberg of Miriam’s Kitchen (check out his “7 Questions” interview!), and Adam Tenner of Metro TeenAIDS. Many, many congratulations! You can also check out the Washington Post’s earlier coverage of the award announcement.

Being Bilingual May Boost Your Brain Power — Check out this cool discussion of bilingual families from Monday’s Morning Edition: “Judy and Paul Szentkiralyi both grew up bilingual in the US, speaking Hungarian with their families and English with their peers. When they first started dating, they spoke English when things turned serious they did something unusual — they decided to switch to Hungarian” for their children. Additionally, several Catalogue non-profits, such as the Latin American Montessori Bilingual PCS, are also strong evidence for the power in bilingual education!

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In The News …

Welcome to Wednesday, Greater Washington! The Blue & Orange lines are up and running again and we’re back to doing mid-week news & notes in the middle of the week. Let’s focus on two major items today:

First, Catalogue charity Wider Opportunities for Women (WOW) recently completed an in-depth cost of living analysis for the Greater Washington area, calculating how much income was necessary for an area resident to feel “financially safe.” The report’s tables break down necessary expenses and income based on family size and home area and account for everything from child care costs to “rainy day funds.” The findings were featured in Monday’s Washington Post — which points out that, while the DC metro area is the most affluent region of the county, “it is also among the costliest.” So according to WOW Executive Director Joan Kuriansky, “even the highest estimates of how much a family needs to earn are conservative.” Here’s my question: are there specific expense categories on which local governments and non-profits should focus? Could defraying one particular cost make the difference? Or should we focus on the larger issue? Namely, that the cost of living is high — and the cost of living securely is both high and often unconsidered.

Also, as you likely heard last night, Michelle Rhee will resign as DC schools chancellor. Says the Post, Chancellor Rhee “survived three contentious years that made her a superstar of the education reform movement … but Rhee will leave with considerable unfinished business in her quest.”, which tracked the probability of her resignation in mid-September, quotes several DC councilmembers who expressed both profound disappointment in her decision and faith in her interim replacement, deputy chancellor Kaya Henderson. I’m clearly writing this before Wednesday’s 10:30 AM press conference, but long after Mayor Fenty’s defeat in the mayoral primary. So it’s fair to say that this outcome is not surprising, yet it still feels incomplete. Or uncertain. What do you think? What comes next? Moreover, who is your pick for the next chancellor and why?

(Speaking of education reform: we posted this link several weeks back and countless opinions are appearing daily about the documentary Waiting for Superman and how we can answer its call. Check out “Tapping our Collective Superhero” over at Deep Social Impact and a post from this evening at Business Insider.)