Tuesday, May 04, 2010

The Ask - Fundraising Moments

The seminal moment came on Monday night in Hartford. A late arrival to a parlor meeting which had been under attended in the first place. I thought to myself, ‘Oh no, I have to make a presentation all over again.’ Within 5 minutes of sitting back down and listening to some of the chitchat between another listener and my newcomer, I realized that I had a rare opportunity. To pitch a very well to do, philanthropically minded individual.

What to do? Listen. We talked about a variety of things from his interest areas and passions locally to his business and his thoughts about the Jewish community in his town. I told him about Shutaf (LINK) and our hopes and desires for the future. I shared numbers and stories about kids and lives changed for the better.

I was honest and told him not only what we need for this summer but what we need to grow and continue to serve our population of kids and teens with special needs.

I reminded myself a few times that developing a relationship with a giver of means takes time. I also reminded myself that he dropped in on the parlor meeting and that he knew that he’d be meeting and hearing about a charity in Israel – an organization dedicated to making a difference in the lives of children and their families.

I wrote him and thanked him for coming. I’ll continue to explore ways of engaging his interest and inviting him to be a partner, a builder an active member of the Shutaf community.

It was less scary than I thought. That’s a change for the better I think. 

PS. He didn't step up to the plate yet. Right now, he's busy with many good things in his community but it's a relationship I'll work on and hopefully develop in the years to come. 

Thoughts about Home

Thoughts from my trip to the US in March. 
I arrived in NYC. JFK felt as I remembered it – a bit grubby and unfriendly, a long walk from the plane and the annoyance of having to pay for your luggage carts. It’s so nice that they’re free at Ben Gurion Airport. I walked out with my luggage and enjoyed the searching glances of people waiting for their loved ones – ‘is that her?’ ‘no,’ said with a deep sigh and a glance at the cell phone, willing it to ring with news from baggage claim.
Being picked up was a plus. Sitting in the car next to little Michael, now aged 7, with friends Don and Judy in the front seat, I felt at ease. Driving on the Belt Parkway in stop and go traffic, I felt a shock of déjà vu. Pulling up in Brooklyn in front of their lovely brownstone, I felt at home. Or, at least I sort of did.
What was once deeply familiar, almost unpleasantly so at times, has become somewhat novel and even nostalgic. Walking on Court Street, I noted what stores had closed and who had survived the recession. On Smith, noting the usual array of new restaurants alongside the stalwart favorites held its same appeal, perhaps with a note of melancholy for the havoc that the economic collapse had wrought on the always happening and hip restaurant row.
The subway thrilled me with its speed and ease of use. Being underground is so much more pleasant than shlepping along the street on the bus.  I assumed the NY  train stance – legs hip width apart, body held conspicuously tightly so as to avoid any untoward contact during rush hour.  I made eye contact with almost no one and enjoyed the anonymity and studied unfriendliness – well it’s not exactly unfriendliness, it’s just minding your own business.
I walked the streets of Manhattan and enjoyed the press of bodies, the noise, the color, the thrilling pace of it all. I was dressed like a business person myself – unusual for me – I fit right in with the rank and file office worker.  I yapped on the phone with the locals, ate soup at Hale and Hearty and shopped when I had a minute amongst the malls of Manhattan. Shocking really, the mallification of NYC.
And yet, I kept wanting to say excuse me in Hebrew, or sign my name on the credit receipts in a foreign language. I yearned to sit outside and linger over an espresso, Starbucks just didn’t call to me.
The weather was fine, except for the ‘Nor’easter’ over the weekend, complete with intense rain and wind. It was a novelty that had it’s pleasures – I’ve grown to enjoy rain and to be grateful for it. The fatalities that accompanied the weather took the pleasure out of it for sure and when the sun finally shone, it felt like a rare and special gift.
But home is where the hearth is. My thoughts were with my family – my husband coping with home and Akiva. The big boys sending me notes every so often letting me know they were alive. The back and forth with Jessica about work – the bits and pieces that let me know that she and her family were fine. Wondering about everyone else – Ira filled in my questions and wrote long and informational emails.
Even the Kane Street Synagogue, my spiritual home for so many years was not home anymore. It still impressed me with its beauty and its lived in historic feel. Sitting next to friends felt wonderful. Eating lunch with friends was equally wonderful.  It wasn’t home though. I may struggle each week to figure out where I want to be on Saturday mornings and who my friends and community are only 3-years into our Israel adventure but I’ve moved beyond the style and feel of my Brooklyn home of yore.
That’s okay, I think. Home is a changing notion over the course of one’s life. It shifts with age, development, emotions and thought. It can be something simple like walking down a favorite street, or laying in bed next to your partner, or sharing a good laugh with a dear friend.
Home now? Israel. Where I’ve learned that I can live – despite the challenges. Where will home be one day in the future? Not sure. Hopefully, with the people I love best of all.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Friendships - A History

We, rather I in particular, prided ourselves on our kids' friends back in NY - from all walks of life. Living in Brooklyn for 20 years, we liked the fact that our block was multi-racial, that through the homeschooling world we had friends who were Catholic, Protestant, Lutheran, Mormon, Muslim, Agnostic, Black, Caucasian, Asian...and so on. Sure, our synagogue, Kane Street, provided an important point of reference for us as a family - we went every weekend, were involved in all sorts of projects, volunteered our time, shared meals with friends - and enriched our lives within the local, Jewish community but I always prided myself that I had stepped away from the ghetto that was my upbringing.

To be fair, I grew up in a lily white town, that wasn't home to so many Jews. Malverne, New York, on the South Shore of Long Island was a pleasant enough place to grow up in - tree-lined streets that were perfect for kickball with the local kids of whom there was always a group from which to choose up a team. (I'm reminded of Bill Bryson's reminiscences of his childhood. How there were always hundreds of kids waiting to play at every street corner.) But conflict simmered under the surface with some kids being more acceptable than others and nobody wanted to play with Anthony on the next block who was fond of making racial epithets and using language to which we had not yet graduated. Synagogue life was fairly dull for me. Problem #1, I was the Rabbi's daughter, making me already suspect to other kids and #2, I didn't attend the local public school, I went privately to a Jewish Day School in another town. So, I made friends but the friendships were tentative and not lasting. My sister's both were fortunate enough to make close friends who enjoyed getting to know our family and our different style of life - both girls were from Catholic families - but neither my brother nor I had the same luck.

Moving to Brooklyn as a newlywed was truly entering a new life. Aged, wizened looking ladies in black walked the streets, tough looking Italian guys hung out on street corners smoking, older men spilled out of the social clubs that were still found in the neighborhood of Carroll Gardens where we lived. When we moved to Boerum Hill, the demographics shifted yet again. Pacific Street is close to two housing projects and our block boasted a Latino population that had lived in the neighborhood through the tough years of the 60's and 70's. Read Jonathan Lethem's The Fortress of Solitude for a sense of the neighborhood during that time.

We made friends on the block and grew to enjoy the mix that developed over our years on Pacific Street. Moving to Jerusalem in 2006, we weren't sure what to expect. We didn't move so that our kids would only have Jewish friends or so that I could stop obsessing about how they'd every meet nice Jewish girls - they met plenty of lovely non-Jewish ones - but I hoped that it would become a bit easier to do so. Our kids slowly made some friends, going through a series of short-term relationships (Gabe especially) until they really found friends for the long run. It is a bit more mixed that you'd think even if it's nothing like NYC. Yeah, almost all of them are Jewish but they come from a variety of backgrounds religiously - like Gabe's buddy the Hebrew Christian, or Natan's Druze friends in the army - and politically as well as financially. Not everyone is a lawyer or doctor here - strange to me after New York. Kids's parents work in the NPO world, in teaching, social services - often, I have no idea what they do. I find the political differences often more polarizing than the religious ones - a subject for another blog post.

Last Saturday night, I left the house for my usual post-Shabbat gym and swim. The house was in full swing, with Natan and a group of his friends, along with Gabe and the girlfriend, playing and singing Elton John (!) on the piano and guitar. It was such a nice scene - a sign of how far everyone has come in the past 3.5 years here and an indicator of future success and happiness. It doesn't take away missing what we left in Brooklyn but I'm glad for what they've found and worked on since we've gotten here. I guess as a Jewish mother, I wonder if their Jewish future is secure but remind myself that it's much too early to tell - where they'll go, with whom they'll be, what they'll want to observe. I guess living here in Jerusalem is only one step on their personal - and mine, too - journey.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

It may not be Manhattan

But we can be at the Dead Sea in little over an hour. No skyscrapers, it's true but stunning views of rocky cliffs - brown, craggy hills tufted with swirling patterns of the sea perhaps created in some long ago millennium.

The view is truly an unusual one, and it's made even more so by it's proximity to the big city - Jerusalem. As one descends the road from town, the view becomes increasingly space age, as regular flora and fauna give way to brown - with little relief. Towns are tucked into the hill around you - Ma'alei Adumim and it's spinoffs - Mishor Adumim and Mitzpe Adumim. Bits of green abound near the towns - surprisingly lushly in spots, which always makes one wonder about the water used to grow such greenery. Bedouin encampments are scattered along the side of the road, some quite crude looking, others complete with satellite dishes and water tanks. I always think of the women and how they manage keeping house under such conditions - tin roofs, patchy walls made from fabric, tarp and other simple stuffs. Broiling in the summer and freezing in the winter. Even if one likes living off the grid, this doesn't look pleasurable to my modern eyes.

Signs along the road mark the descent in terms of sea level. The Dead Sea shimmers in the distance, an impossibly, still body of water, surprisingly blue from afar. On the other side of the coast, Jordan beckons, it's mountains rugged, red hued and impressive looking.

We turn right at the bottom, driving past signposts with an ancient pedigree - Qumran and Nahal Kidron. At Mineral Beach, we park and change into our suits in the car - one of my favorite rusticating things to do. We head for the hot pool and sink in with a grateful sigh. Lovely if a bit tingly in all the areas that you'd forgotten about - the cut on your hand, the rough patch of skin on your elbows, etc.  Follow that with a walk down to the Dead Sea itself and the obligatory mud rub and wash up in the Sea. Sit and relax. Eat a bit. Read. Work on the Sunday crossword puzzle. Get cold. Head back up to the hot pool for a final soak and float - we've gotten good at managing the weightless feeling in the water and can even do it on our bellies without getting any water in our mouths.

Driving back home after changing back into dry clothes - yes, we could have done it in the bathroom but we didn't want to - we feel rested, relaxed, sort of dry and salty but our skin is soft and smooth to the touch.  The road is quiet, the light softer as the day begins to fade towards evening.

And Manhattan glistens in the distance - a mirage, 6000 miles away.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

A Conversation about Healing

What makes people change their tune and decide not to fight anymore? How do people shed their old belief systems and move to new ones? Does acceptance really bring about healing and change?

I'm reminded of the 2005 Tsunami - amid the devastation in Sri Lanka and elsewhere, longtime rebel revolutionaries, the Tamil Tigers suspended their activities during the rebuilding period.  They didn't seem to undergo too much of a change because they returned to their anti-government activities and related violence some months later.

What about the Middle East? What would it take for peace to truly 'break out' locally? We know that much has to happen, from improving the well-being of Arab citizens of Israel to Palestinian school children being taught the real history of the region and not manufactured stories guaranteed to make them into the suicide bombers and militants of tomorrow. Both sides have to learn to trust again and to believe that peace would be better than the other alternative.

Last week I popped in for a cup of tea and a bit of chat with friend and feminist mover and shaker, Tova Hartman. I was greeted at the door by Racheli, Tova's middle daughter, who welcomed me inside even though Tova hadn't gotten home yet. Standard procedure for this household which always has friends and neighbors popping in during the day. Tova bustled in with groceries in hand and her elder daughter, Nomi, pregnant and feeling lousy with a flu of some sort - not Swine according to the doctor. Within minutes, the kettle was up and snacks had been dispatched to all in need. Tova joined me and we chatted about stuff - life, kids, aging parents (hers and my mother).

Tova commented - I'm not sure how we got to this part of the conversation - about what she felt was the missing link in achieving peace and healing in the region. She said, 'in order for peace to happen, defeat must be accepted.' It seems so simple, right? But let's consider what that might mean to our neighbors in Gaza. Palestinian peoples must deal with the loss of their land, their homes, their dream of nationhood in 1948, the sour taste in their mouths that the Jews won, the feelings of disillusionment with having become refugees for more than a generation.  Okay, big demand but then again, they've had 60 years to deal with the defeat - maybe it's time.

Of course, as I type those words I say to myself, 'duh,' this is not rocket science, but as Tova spoke further about healing being the result of accepting defeat the other day, I thought, 'she's right.' Loss is painful of course, loss hurts, loss sticks in your throat, especially when you've spent decades perfecting the art of loss - teaching it to your kids, living as a refugee - and the greater art of hatred as a result.

In life, one always deals with loss. Loss of job, loved one, dreams, hopes - these are the difficult emotions that can cross our 'desks' on a regular basis. I've dealt with the loss of intellect ever since Akiva was born. Not that he doesn't have intellect but I've had to accept that his is different and that he may never read or write or really converse with me in a meaningful fashion. Years of thinking about this has helped me cope with the daily insults of rearing someone with developmental delay in a world that isn't so willing to forgive him with what I've come to terms.

What about the acceptance that comes with defeat? Tova's line of reasoning continued with the thought that once you've accepted defeat, you can deal with it when it 'rises up in your throat' again and again. Again, a sensible response. Acceptance leads to acceptance or acceptance leads to understanding or acceptance leads to peace.

I know I don't always feel at peace with the things that I do accept in my life. I might feel a bit more at ease with them but I don't necessarily feel contentment. I'm a person who likes to do - acceptance is okay with me but change is even better. But you can't always change everything that you need to accept and sometimes you just can't do, you just have to let it be. 

May we all find some sort of peace and healing in 2010. 

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Siblings in Need

Had a fun day filming at Shutaf last week, with friend and fellow parent of a kid with special needs, Michael Liben. Michael and I are friends from childhood and the Malverne Jewish Center, where my father was Rabbi for 25 years before retiring in 1992 and making Aliyah to Israel. Michael went to Brandeis High School while I was at Hillel - we shared the bus as the two schools were across from the street each other although they were much farther apart ideologically but that's another story.

Michael and I were looking for a story and that day we decided to follow the Junior Counselors - local teens, ages 15-19, both with disabilities and without. They were having one of their midday meetings and we shot them chatting, laughing and having fun, a blend of energy and happiness - no teen was left out of the discussion and nobody was marginalized because of disability.

After the teens went off back to their groups, we had a brief chat with one teen, Avigail and the Teen Coordinator, Nomi. At first, the camera made everyone a bit stiff until I asked the question of Avigail, 'why do you come to Shutaf?' She gave a positive response 'I love being with kids with special needs.' But I wanted a bit more and Avigail is the older sister of Atara who was at camp with us during the summer. Atara's issues are not insignificant - developmental and physical - so I wondered that Avigail had no sibling fatigue from dealing with kids with disabilities. I asked her about this. She told me that when she goes with her sister to the park or to shul that often she's hurt by how other kids behave to her. She said, 'I go home and I cry.' She also said that 'Atara doesn't understand' but of course, Avigail does and  hurts for herself and her sister's feelings. 

We talked more about this but I was struck by this feeling that Shutaf works for her because it's a place she can let down her hair and not worry about having her feelings hurt - about feeling any sense of humiliation for her sister, her self or for some perceived lack in her family because of her sister's presence. She can love her sister even more because of Shutaf and maybe she can forgive herself for any of the guilt she carries about this mix of feelings percolating around in her head and heart.

Wow. Maybe that's why I like Shutaf too. 

Sunday, December 13, 2009

A Letter to the Editor

A local friend sent me a link to a recent article in the Jewish Week about the invisibility of being a certain kind of kid with special needs. It was hard not to want to react, both as a parent of a child with special needs and as a professional and exec at Shutaf. Even though my child's issues are more apparent, I understood immediately the frustration and sadness of the parents writing in to the paper. We want acceptance - for our kids and for ourselves. It's time that the great community really consider what that means. I don't know if my letter will make it so here it is for you to read and opine. 

Dear Jewish Week,
November's article 'Invisible Disability' Kids are being Left Out' struck a chord with me. My 12 year old son, Akiva, has a more visible disability - Down Syndrome and PDD - and yet, he is often just as invisible in community life. While he has many adult friends at Kehilat Mayanot in Jerusalem(where we regularly attend), and is welcomed when he arrives, he tends to remain by our side during Shabbat services. He's outgrown the children's service - he's too big to sit with the little ones - and we no longer have the patience to accompany him. Most kids don't know how to relate to him and he lacks the social skills to make appropriate overtures even though he loves contact with other children. 

When we lived in Brooklyn and attended the Kane Street Synagogue, we often wondered how we'd ever find a way to connect him with the other kids of the community. Once a child passes through the cute toddler stage (when all the teenage girls lavish attention), if they can't run with the pack they get left behind. If a kid has more moderate or 'invisible' issues, they suffer even more - they look like the others but can't cope with the typical kids social pace and demands. When we left Brooklyn and moved to Jerusalem, community life became even harder. At least in Brooklyn, everyone knew us and knew Akiva. Here, we were brand new and people weren't used to Akiva's noisy shul presence, consequently, we didn't feel welcome in every shul. 

Inclusion and acceptance are critical areas that need to be developed in every area of Jewish life - as an ethical, social and necessary Jewish value. Parents need to be educated and children taught to watch, care and include - with love and acceptance. 

Looking to answer my own child's needs, I co-founded a new camp and after school program in Jerusalem that teaches these important skills - Shutaf. At Shutaf, we've developed a unique new inclusion model that that teaches these important values in real time. We 'include' the typical kids, who are outnumbered by kids with special needs - all types, all disabilities, visible and invisible. Differences are not such a big deal when everyone is having fun together - when the program is carefully planned and the staff well-trained. By leveling the playing field in such a dramatic fashion at Shutaf, we teach with a gentle hand and make a difference in the lives of all the kids that participate. And our teen program offers opportunities for the older set to feel less marginalized by their differences. They train and work and earn, alongside their typical peers and life looks just a bit more brighter. 

It's not so impossible to create more programs like Shutaf in every community. Youth movement programs could be easily adapted to an inclusion model like Shutaf's. With proper parent support and education, barriers to such programs; fear, lack of awareness and experience, can be reduced and over time even eliminated. 

Parents of kids with special needs have special needs. We need extra attention and effort paid - we tend to feel isolated and alone in our lives, even if we have good friends and seem involved in community life. The toll of caring for our kids takes a huge amount out of us. Making such efforts will go along way to bringing us back from the margins, from the 'invisible' corners of the community. And remember this - the typical kid and teen who has a positive experience now with a child with special needs may be the one who will hire him/her in the future, who will have less fear and more awareness that we're really all created in the image of G-d. Tikkun Olam - something we all need. 
Thank you,
Beth Steinberg
Executive Director and Founder, Shutaf.
Shutaf. Community. Inclusion. Fun.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Is NPO a Dirty Word? Finding a Model that Works in 2010

Those of us working in the NPO world constantly think about fundraising - how, when, where, etc. Then again, those working the world of profits always think about money - bottom line, where's the next money making idea, profit margins, etc.

But in fundraising circles there is this increasing sense that NPO's have to reconsider how they do business, especially in these economic times. How can one stay current in the world of 'the ask,' where every conversation may lead you to new contacts, where every letter of inquiry might, once and for all, be the one that means real sustainable funding for your program.  Or, how to move beyond the constant scrounge for funding to monies that mean growth, development and success in the years to come for the organization. Can one use a for profit approach that will reduce the fatigue of 'yet another NPO asking for funds.'

But what about the social worth factor? Something that makes a difference to others. Isn't that why you got yourself into this mess? As Dan Pallota, longtime NPO innovator writes, "We got involved because human suffering is not okay with us, and because we wanted to stop it."

Pallota, believes that NPO's should be allowed to do business in a way that would align them much more with profit making businesses, and in his new book, Uncharitable, writes that NPO's should be unleashed to do their good works under a free-market model.

“It is about freeing charities—and all of the good people who work for them—from a set of rules that were designed for another age and another purpose, and that actually undermine their potential and our compassion,” writes Dan Pallotta in Uncharitable (Tufts University, 2008).

As a parent of a child with special needs, I can tell you that I did not intend to start a program that would grow from 10-40 kids in less than a year. But it was hard to stop the ball from rolling once my colleague and I saw the need. Shutaf, the camp program that we founded makes a difference, serving children during long school vacations, August and 1x a week. Did the funding or lack thereof stop us from bringing in teens with special needs as well? Err, no. Our own kids are growing up and we saw the need. More than two years into this venture, we have yet to take a salary or truly pay ourselves back for costs incurred and time given.

Maybe Shutaf isn't yet ready for the kind of business models that Pallotta presents or maybe we should have considered building our infrastructure from the get go the same way a new business would. And yet, when I recall our 2nd camp, back in December 07, we had a budget shortfall. Essentially, we had some donations to make camp possible that combined with parent tuition should have covered everything. It didn't. One salary to one specialist remained unpaid for 6 months, until we had more funds in place by the following summer. Powerful lesson I thought at the time. We will never run a program again if we're not sure that we have the money.  That's a good business lesson, one worth learning but not one that all NPO's follow - at least not here in Israel.

What about partnering with NPO's doing similar work? This makes sense in theory but in practice or reality, doesn't always jive.

At Shutaf, we've been examining this concept from all sides but have discovered that it's not so easy. We spent much of the past summer negotiating with two local organizations in order to run our proposed weekly program for Shutaf kids with them. One organization works within the community and offers much of interest to typically-developing kids. Kids with special needs fit in only if they can manage within traditional inclusion boundaries - that is, they can be part of the program with minimal intervention. Unsurprisingly, many kids with special needs don't take part because they need extra staff or for the program to be adapted to their needs. They want us to bring our kids to them but were unwilling to really offer a space or a way of making it possible. Organization #2 works with a mainly adult population (they started off as kids) and is accustomed to the needs presented by people with special needs, even bigger needs, but they're not sure why they should bother with our method and our population - what's the worth in it for them. After having spend some time trying to convince both of them, we gave up for a while - rather, we retreated to reconsider a better approach in the future.

Financially it could have been a boon for us - shared resources, shared funds and a chance to fundraise and tell individuals and organizations that we serve more children, learn from each others methodologies and ultimately make a bigger and better difference.

We sat down again, rethought our finances, decided that we could manage a bare bones program for a small group of kids and went ahead with our fall program albeit much more simply - 8-10 children, 1x a week and found ourselves a hosting location willing to make it work for us financially. A success? We think so, but that means we're back to square 1 when it comes to finding longterm funds for the program.

I constantly think about other ways that we can generate funding in a more traditional sense. Lots of ideas but none that would work right now. We're running a program in a poor city, serving many marginal families with children who would not attend our programs unless they were as subsidized as we make them. 

How do we move our young organization to a business model that foundations would still fund and private donors would still find acceptable? One that would impress them both with our financial acumen and ways of making it work - especially in this particular market and economic environment. And, how do we, an NPO barely scraping by, get the right kind of advice and mentorship that could mean success and a viable future for our organization so that we can continue with our mission of quality, inclusive informal-education programming for children and teens with special needs?

Here's a great closing story that makes me feel like a real Vermonter, given that at Shutaf we're quite careful with every shekel. Christopher Kimball from Cooks' Illustrated wrote recently (sorry, couldn't find the original)..

I leave you with yet another story from Allen R. Foley, who wrote The Old-Timer Talks Back. It was foliage season and a tourist cruising the back roads felt an immediate need to visit toilet facilities, so he stopped at a farm. The lady of the house directed him to the privy out back. On arriving there, he was embarrassed to find it already occupied by the farmer.
“No bother,” said the farmer. “This is a two-holer, so come on in.”
Later, as the farmer was leaving, a dime fell out of his pants and slipped down the hole. The farmer got out his leather wallet, removed a $5 bill, and tossed it down the hole.
“What in the world did you do that for?” exclaimed the visitor.
“Mister,” said the farmer, “you don’t think, do you, that I would climb down in there for just a dime?”