Saturday, April 30, 2011

Sisters Give All of $17.43 to Help

A couple weeks ago two sisters, Caity and Sara, ages 7 and 5, decided to set up a lemonade stand at their neighborhood yard sale at Hope Valley Farms. It was a warm day and turnout was good. Sales exceeded expectations. They made a grand total of $17.43, more than enough to buy the latest Fairytopia DVD. Instead, they donated it all to the Volunteer Center of Durham, where I work.

Ok, the girls are friends of my daughters and their mother is familiar with the work I do. I admit I may have had some small influence in the charity for which they decided their little fundraiser would benefit. Nevertheless, it was entirely the girls’ idea to donate their proceeds to a worthy cause, which says a lot about them and their parents.

I’m anxious for the next Triangle Gives Back committee meeting so I can tell them all about Caity and Sara. The committee is exploring the ways in which our community gives. It’s co-chaired by Andrea Bazan, President of the Triangle Community Foundation, and Joan Seifert Rose, General Manager of NC Public Radio Station WUNC.

As far as I know, this is the first time the community has looked at trends in philanthropy this comprehensively. Savvy researchers from UNC ’s Program on Public Life have been furiously gathering data for the project. You’ll hear much more about the findings of the committee in the coming months.

Here’s something I’ve come to realize: Caity and Sara are philanthropists (even if they don’t know what the word means or how to spell it). Of course, every community needs its heavy hitters. Folks like Jim Goodmon, whose reputation for charitable giving in the Triangle is well known.

When I lived in Charlotte, it was a couple of bank CEO’s, Hugh McColl and Ed Crutchfield, whose millions supported the renaissance of Charlotte’s downtown and the arts and any number of human service organizations. The Goodmons and McColls and Crutchfields are driven to make their communities a better place to live.

Of course a vibrant, thriving community is good for business and that’s part of their motivation. But, it’s more than just interest in the bottom line. I’m convinced Jim Goodmon sincerely wants to make a difference and to do good. So do Sara and Caity. Mr. Goodmon has the financial means to make a big difference; all of them have good hearts. Caity and Sara just happen to also have had a bag of lemons.
Part of the task of the committee is to demystify philanthropy. I think a lot of people only think of philanthropy in terms of old men and women writing million dollar checks to the art museum. But, we can all be philanthropists, like Caity and Sara and the scores of volunteers who I’ve come in contact with over the past several months.

Certainly volunteers are philanthropists. The Independent Sector, who makes it their business to track such things, places the value of a volunteer hour at right around $20. On any given day, the Volunteer Center has well over 2,500 registered volunteers. It’s an active group, too. Each month, about 90% of them are logging on to our website and looking for volunteer opportunities in the area. About 700 of them are under the age of 18.

As Summer approaches, one of my favorite programs at the Volunteer Center, the Mayor’s Award, gets into full swing. Students sign up during the Summer and commit to a minimum of 100 hours of volunteer community service before school starts back with one (or more) of the nonprofit agencies registered with us. Last year, over 400 students signed up and about half of them fulfilled their commitment, resulting in about 30,000 hours of community service. Multiply that number by $20 and you begin to understand the philanthropic impact of even our youngest volunteers.

National research shows that two-thirds of active adult volunteers started volunteering as children and that young people who volunteer are twice as likely to be volunteers as adults. We feel like we get kids hooked on community service through programs like Mayor’s Award, that we’re incubating the next generation of civic-minded citizens, activists and philanthropists.

Now back to Caity and Sara Berry, pint-sized philanthropists, lemonade peddlers and all-around awesome kids: on behalf of the board and staff of the Volunteer Center of Durham, I’d like to thank you very much for your generous contribution. Keep up the good work, kids!

Risk Study Underscores Need to Prioritize Our Children

Last week, a number of Durham’s nonprofit and community leaders gathered at Lyon Park Community Center to learn more about the recently published Youth Risk Behavior Study and to brainstorm priorities and strategies.

Findings from the Study are alarming, but the conclusion that can be drawn from it shouldn’t be surprising: our young people are in trouble.

The Study included nearly 900 middle and high school students throughout the Durham Public School system -- mostly 7th, 8th and 9th graders.

Not all of the news coming from the Study is bad. But, as a father of two small children, one of whom begins kindergarten in August, I can tell you there is plenty in the Study to keep you up at night.

Some examples: nearly 3 out of 10 middle school students report that they’ve carried a weapon to school; 11% of high school students say they’ve been raped; 3 in ten had property damaged on school grounds; nearly 4 in 10 were offered, sold or given an illegal drug on school property and more than 45% had been in a physical fight within the last year.

The Study also reveals significant disparities between the overall well-being and school success among white and non-white students. Perhaps the most alarming statistic from the Study was that 32% of Latino/Hispanic students said they have attempted suicide within the past 12 months. And 1 in 4 didn’t go to school in the last 30 days because they felt unsafe.

School superintendent Carl Harris has a number of creative and forward-thinking initiatives in the works that promise positive outcomes for some of our more “at-risk” students. 

But, we’ll all need to pitch in and do our part. The problems that the survey unveils run deep, and solutions aren’t easy. The school system can’t fix the problems in isolation. The good news is that solutions do exist. Pick any issue you’re concerned about and there are a number of effective, results-based interventions throughout the country we can replicate – whether they address gangs, violence, teen pregnancy, obesity, eating disorders, depression.

It comes down to the community at large recognizing that we all stand to gain by prioritizing our children. When the corporate community, the nonprofit sector, local government, educational institutions, the faith community, parents, media and any other enterprise with influence all come together and get focused on a common goal then we can accomplish just about anything.

And therein lies the point of this column: It’s time we did just that. It’s high time we prioritize children. It’s time we approached the condition of children in our community (and throughout the US) as a crisis. It’s time we get our heads out of the sand and wake up to the fact that we’re failing our children. Truth be told, we (grown-ups) should be ashamed of ourselves for letting this happen. We need to fix it. 

Solutions must simultaneously focus on intervention and prevention. We can’t give up on any child, even the ones who seem hopeless and destined for the streets. We do whatever we can to reach them – through mentoring and counseling and effective educational alternatives and trial and error, but don’t give up. 

Much of our focus needs to be on the pre-natal to 3-year-old population. Research in recent years has unveiled a tremendous amount of new information about how young brains develop. We know that morality, conscience-development, impulse control, pro-social coping skills and the building blocks for all future relationships are laid within the first few years of life, long before the child ever sets foot in the classroom. A good gang prevention program starts right there in the home with the toddler crowd. We have to help families with small children who lack the skills or support system or are so overwhelmed by their own life circumstances that they’re not meeting their children’s needs. 

That’s why organizations like Durham’s Partnership for Children are so important. They provide a range of critical services for our youngest, most vulnerable children and their families. And they understand that we don’t wait for children to fall off cliffs before we extend an outreached hand to them.

You don’t need a Ph.D. in child psychology to help. There are many ways to get involved. Dozens of local child and youth-serving nonprofits are registered with the Volunteer Center of Durham and need volunteers in some capacity. That’s a good place to start. There’s a desperate need for good mentors.

I can’t think of anything the entire community could/should rally around that’s any more important than our children. And after reviewing the Study, I’d say anything less than that is unconscionable.

An Invitation to Join the Great Human Race 

Time to start stretching the old quads and taking the stairs instead of the elevator. The Great Human Race, now in its 13th year, is quickly approaching.

You have less than two months to get in good enough shape to run (or walk) the 5K course that winds its way through downtown Durham. 5K is a little more than three miles (for those of you who weren’t paying attention in math class when we were going over metric conversions).

Circle the date on your calendar: March 29, 2008. 

It’s a great race for a great cause. The Volunteer Center of Durham coordinates the race each year as a fundraising opportunity for fellow nonprofits. We know that many of the participating organizations wouldn’t have the resources to put on an event of this magnitude on their own so we take care of all the details. Think of it as the Volunteer Center’s gift to the community.

This year, over 80 agencies have already registered to participate. That’s up from a total of 54 last year when we raised about $100,000. All signs are pointing to this being the biggest and best Great Human Race ever.

You can go to the website:  to find a list of participating nonprofits. I’m sure there’s at least one that you already support or would be willing to.

That’s the great part about the Great Human Race - it positively impacts the entire community. Participating organizations represent every issue and client population imaginable. Like Durham’s Habitat for Humanity, a regular participant in the race. They raised the most money last year. According to Roxanne Little, who serves as special events manager at Habitat, “the race is an incredible way for us to build excitement and raise money and just be part of the larger community… walking alongside all the other nonprofits in the community is just amazing.”

In one sentence, Roxanne perfectly summarizes what the race is trying to accomplish.

The Great Human Race has two parts: a community walk (think walk-a-thon) that organizations use as a fundraiser; and a sanctioned, competitive run (for serious runners). Runner registration fees help defray our costs.

We’re unveiling a new course this year to promote Durham’s recent downtown renovations. We had hoped to run the course last year but there were still a few too many orange barrels and gaping holes in some of the sidewalks to be safe. Downtown is looking spiffy now and we’re excited that the race can help show it off to anyone who hasn’t been down there lately. Opening and closing ceremonies will be at Durham Bulls Athletic Park, where the race starts and ends.

I experienced my first Great Human Race last year. I remember race day being a wonderful experience - from the time we got to the bulls stadium long before sunrise for set-up to the post-race celebration at Mellow Mushroom. It was a lot of fun.

For me, the race symbolized everything I was looking for when I decided to move to Durham from California last year. It’s all about community, giving back, making an impact and camaraderie. Not to get too cheesy, but what a nice little slice of Americana: Wool E. Bull prancing around, the TROSA band booming, pint-sized cheerleaders cheering on the runners. Black and white, young and old. Those who didn’t allow their handicap get in the way of participating. Everybody at the race felt like my friend and neighbor that day. It was reinforcing to me that I’d made the right decision to uproot my family and move them across the country.

But I left Mellow Mushroom thinking that the race had only scratched the surface of its potential. This could be big, I thought. That wasn’t any brilliant insight on my part. Everyone associated with the race was saying the same thing. So we set out to make the Great Human Race the premier fundraising event in the area. We’re getting there.

We have more corporate and media sponsors lined up and better promotions and marketing in place.  There’s already a lot of buzz about town about the race.

What we still need to make the race super successful is more participation from folks in the community. 

There are many ways to get involved in the Great Human Race (even if exercising isn’t your thing).  Feel free to call us at the Volunteer Center at 688-8977 or contact the race coordinator, Tammy Dorfman, by email at . We’ll be happy to answer any question you might have.

Now go find your running shoes. 

It’s Undeniably Christmastime at the Volunteer Center of Durham

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas. That’s certainly true around the office at the Volunteer Center of Durham. You won’t find any mistletoe hanging in the foyer or reindeer snow globes on anyone’s desk, but it’s undeniably Christmastime.

The phones are ringing off the hook (that’s a good thing) in the makeshift office in the small back room that gets magically transformed into ground zero for Share Your Christmas each year.

Tasha Melvin, who runs the program, is bouncing around like a pinball again. Best not to interrupt her. Tasha just wrapped up the Thanksgiving Dinners’ Program last week but there’s no time to rest. Christmastime’s a comin.’

Tasha has some assistants working with her this year, which is a big help. Her elves, I like to think of them (in a nice way). Still, if you need to talk to Tasha about something unrelated, I suppose you’ll just have to wait until next year. I’ve never seen anyone so focused. She’s done this enough times now to know there’s no time to waste.

Jolly Ol’ Saint Nick may be the only one who can completely relate to what she goes through each year. Is it worth it? Ask her on December 26th.

Share Your Christmas is a Durham tradition and one example of what makes this town great. The Volunteer Center has been running the program for three decades. We partner with the Department of Social Services (DSS) and the Herald-Sun each year to brighten the lives of our neighbors who are down on their luck and need a little help to make Christmas merry. DSS refers clients and the newspaper helps us communicate the need to the masses by listing profiles every day throughout the campaign.

Last year, we served over 1,200 families. Most of these families have a number of children so we ended up providing gifts for some 4,400 individuals. When the dust settles, we expect the numbers to be about the same again this year.

There are a lot of logistics to work out and inevitable snags to overcome when a small agency like ours tackles a big project like Share Your Christmas. But amazingly, everything always seems to fall into place. That’s mostly the result of Tasha’s tenacity and attention to the details.

The other amazing part of Share Your Christmas is how the community responds to our pleas for help. All told, volunteers will spend well over $200,000 on their neighbors who are less fortunate in the few short weeks leading up to Christmas. That’s money that goes right back into the local economy, by the way.  

We also know that many sponsors don’t limit their giving to the wish list the families provide. We hear stories all the time about how sponsors get carried away and throw in a few more toys for the kids or a second set of gloves for mom or a few gift cards from the grocery store for good measure and other such untold acts of generosity.  That’s Durham for you. Individuals, families, sororities, civic groups, churches… they all come together for Share Your Christmas.

The best stories that come out of the program are from the parents of small children who simply don’t have extra money for Christmas presents. Knowing that their little ones will still be able to experience the incomparable thrill of presents ‘neath the tree when they wake up on Christmas morning is such a relief to them.

Some families need the basics, school clothes or a coat, and ask for nothing more. 

Needs are great year round, I know. Fortunately our community doesn’t wait until Christmas to give. But there’s something special about reaching out an outstretched hand of kindness this time of year. Not to get preachy, but I can’t think of any better way to honor the one for whom this holiday celebrates than by following his example and tending to the less fortunate among us. Share Your Christmas is one easy way to do just that.

So, once again, I ask for your help. We need more sponsors to serve all the families who were referred to us. If you can pitch in, just call the Share Your Christmas phone line at (919) 680-0140. Volunteers will be staffing the lines until December 18th   and will be able to provide you with details.  Thank you in advance.

And just in case you’re wondering. Yes, I will let Tasha take a little extra time off after Christmas.

Project Homeless Connect – One day event step in the right direction to end homelessness

Homeless. What image comes to mind? There’s the dirty old woman in tattered clothes who hunkers down on the sidewalk outside my office. She mumbles unintelligibly to no one in particular and smokes cigarillos. She’s known to verbally assault anyone who makes eye contact, so I don’t.

There’s the self-identified Viet Nam vet on the corner of the Interstate exit ramp holding a handmade sign in one hand and a fifth of Jack Daniels in the other.

Those two are easy to peg as homeless. 

Certainly mental illness and substance abuse play a major role in the issue.  But the truth of the matter is that the homeless come in all packages. Most are hidden from view – in cardboard camps like the one in the woods behind the big box stores out University Drive, otherwise a shining example of capitalism a-flourishing. Or the ones bouncing from one temporary shelter to another or to the houses of classmate to classmate -- perhaps never sleeping out in the cold, but homeless nevertheless.

The ranks of the homeless include hard-working families living paycheck to paycheck when the paychecks stop for some reason. It’s runaway teens, displaced immigrants, and social renegades. It’s battered women and their young children with nowhere to turn. There are those who’ll get their lives back together with a little help and others who will die on the streets. The continuum includes those who find themselves in such dire straits because of a lifetime of bad choices and others through no fault of their own. They all deserve another chance.

This month, the 10-yr. Plan to End Homelessness in Durham is staging an event called Project Homeless Connect that will provide such a chance. I serve on the steering committee, which has been a humbling and eye-opening experience.  

Project Homeless Connect is touted as a one-day, one-stop, on-site event designed to link homeless people with a broad range of needed services.  It’s being held at Urban Ministries on Liberty St. in downtown Durham from 8:30-3:30 on Thursday, Oct. 25th. We’re expecting a minimum of 250 homeless people at the gathering. They’ll be able to take a shower, get a warm meal and some new clothes. Medical and human service professionals will be on hand to provide a range of services: mental health counseling and substance abuse screenings, dental and triage medical care, legal and employment services and much more. One of the goals is to literally take people off the streets and get them into homes that day. So landlords who accept Section-8 applicants will be there as well.

Perhaps the most important objective is to make sure everyone leaves Urban Ministries connected with the human service professionals who can provide follow-up in the weeks and months following the event.  

We’ll need at least 100 volunteers to help out on the project.  One local business has stepped up to the plate in a major way. The American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA), which is headquartered in Durham, is providing a majority of the volunteers. They’ll also be hosting a training session for volunteers the week before.

Tony Pugliese, AICPA’s Senior VP of Finance and Operations, is generously giving employees the day off to volunteer at Project Homeless Connect.

Even with AICPA’s contribution, we’ll need all the volunteers we can get. Go to our website at to sign up.

We all know that a one-day event like this won’t solve the homeless problem in Durham. But it’s a step in the right direction. We’re hoping it will draw attention to the issue and result in a more informed community. A community more motivated to end homelessness. Like most social ills, the issues surrounding homelessness are complex. Solutions aren’t easy to find. But, I believe we have a moral obligation to look harder. 

If we’re truly honest with ourselves – beyond bravado and delusions of invincibility – I think we all can recognize the thin line that separates the strongest among us and the most desperate. We’re all fragile. And we all need an outstretched hand of compassion from time to time.

I’ve made my share of bad choices; fortunately none have caused irrevocable damage. But one thing I know for sure: There but for the grace of God go I.

Nothing has reminded me of this truth more in recent years than my involvement in Project Homeless Connect.

Summertime – A Time of Community Service for Mayor’s Award Youth

When I was a kid, I fully embraced the “summertime and the livin’ is easy” philosophy. I spent many an afternoon sprawled out in front of the TV watching Brady Bunch reruns and sucking down Oreo cookies and Yoo-hoos.

All of which makes me feel just a little guilty when I compare it to the 300 or so local young people who are spending their Summers enrolled in the Mayor’s Award program through the Volunteer Center where I work.

Mayor’s Award participants commit to a minimum of 100 hours of volunteer community service work over the course of the summer. If you do the math, that comes to 30,000 hours of service these students are providing -- to the benefit of dozens of nonprofits across the city.

The program culminates in a nice ceremony in the fall during which Durham Mayor Bill Bell graciously presents certificates and thanks the participants for all their hard work. That’s a lot of hands to shake, even for a politician.

According to data gathered by the Independent Sector, volunteerism among high school students across the US reached a 50-year high recently. If the Mayor’s Award program is any indication, I’d say that’s true here too. Our numbers are way up this year.

The motivation for participating in the program is varied, I’m sure. I imagine some are only in it to boost their college admission applications (which is fine). Some may have been dragged by their parents, insisting they do something more productive than watch TV all summer (also fine).

I’m not really concerned about why these students sign up. The community benefits and I feel confident they’ll all learn a lot from their experience – about Durham and about themselves. My hope is that the experience ignites a life-long passion for community involvement. I hope they all realize that they can, in fact, make a difference in the community in which they live. And in the world.

I tend to be a little on the idealistic side, but I like to believe that we’re helping to shape the next generation of activists and philanthropists and community-minded citizens through this program. One encouraging statistic is that two-thirds of all active adult volunteers say they started volunteering when they were young.

I’d be willing to bet good money that 15-year-old Precious Feely will be a life-long volunteer. She’s participating in the Mayor’s Award program in a major way. When I spoke with her a couple weeks ago, she had already accumulated about 80 hours. She’s splitting her time between the Museum of Life and Science, Caring House for Cancer Patients, the Alase Center for Enrichment, the Arc of Durham and Alterra Woods nursing home. I’m not really sure when she fits in time to eat and sleep.

Precious says she loves listening to the stories of the elderly people at Alterra Woods while she paints their fingernails and brightens their day.

“I’ve been volunteering since I was 11 years old,” she said.  “I enjoy it. It’s just a part of me.” She told me that she wants to be a psychologist some day.

A number of Mayor’s Award participants are no strangers to the Volunteer Center. Many volunteer through our Young Volunteers in Action program (YVA) throughout the year. We have about 700 young people enrolled in that program.

Corinne Everett, our Director of Volunteer Services, heads up YVA and says she continues to be impressed by the level of interest in volunteering among students, especially since most of them are volunteering on top of their already hectic academic demands and extracurricular activities. 

Corinne organized Band Night with the popular local group Luego at Broad Street CafĂ© this past Thursday – a free show for Mayor’s Award participants as her way to say “thanks, keep up the hard work, you’re almost to the finish line.” 

For me, talking to Precious and others involved in the program affirms my faith in the youth of today. The media will continue to remind us about all the trouble our young people are getting into. But for every juvenile delinquent or gang banger out there, there are dozens of Precious Feelys, quietly going about the business of doing the right thing and making a difference in their communities. As long as that’s the case, I think we can all rest assured that the future is bright.

Now, go grab yourself a Yoo-hoo and relax a little, Precious. You’ve earned it.

Father’s Day will be Mix of Joy and Sadness

Father’s Day is coming up soon. If I know my wife and daughters, I can expect a day full of hand-painted cards, tasty treats hot out of the Easy Bake Oven and hundreds of unsolicited hugs. By the end of the day, I will have been adequately reminded that I am the luckiest man in the world.

But it will be bittersweet. My dad passed away last November and this is the first Father’s Day without him. How odd it will be to stroll by the card section at the supermarket and not browse for the perfect card for him. Or to go the entire day without calling him on the telephone to wish him happy Father’s Day.

My father and I represent quite possibly the widest generation gap in history. He remembered life without electricity and running water. Where he grew up in the rural south, the sighting of an automobile was rare. He was a little boy during the Great Depression and as young man he sailed the South Pacific Ocean during World War II. I am the youngest of his seven children. Forty years of important American history separate us.

I was born at the tail end of the baby boom on the cusp of Generation X which ushered in the age of technology and came of age alongside MTV. I never plowed a garden or picked cotton. And he couldn’t have told you the first thing about text messaging or i-pods or Google Searches. Nevertheless, we remained close. We connected around things that really mattered. The same things I hope to instill in my children: the importance of family, the value of reaching out a helping hand to a stranger in need, a love and respect for nature. My father and I didn’t always see eye to eye on politics.  How unimportant that seems now.

I miss my father. Enough time has passed that the sting has faded some but what remains is a persistent sense of loss. Christmas and his birthday and a granddaughter’s wedding have come and gone since he passed away. And now Father’s Day. The world moves on.

As hard as it has been for me and my brothers and sisters, I know that the pain pales in comparison to what my mother is going through. After 62 years of marriage, the man that she loves is gone. She’s left with constant reminders of him: letters that come in the mail still addressed to him, his dress shirts still hanging in the bedroom closet. I wonder if she talks to him when no one else is around.

My dad’s voice still greets callers on the answering machine. My mother is a pragmatic woman. No need to erase the message. But I wonder if she plays it some times -- just to hear his voice.  I admit that I’ve called when I knew no one was there. 

I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be a father. My life has changed in ways that I couldn’t have imagined since the arrival of my daughters. I know I grew closer to my own dad as a result. And other dads. There’s a certain sense of affiliation and fraternity among we fathers. Whatever else may divide us, certain things bind us: the joy, the honor of fatherhood, and the weight of the responsibility that rests on us. You can see it in our faces. The truth of the matter is that it’s not easy being a father.

One of the saddest parts of my father passing away for me is that my children will grow up without him in their lives. My oldest daughter was just crazy about him. My youngest daughter won’t remember him at all. But there are pieces of him that exist in me that I’ll pass on to my daughters. That’s comforting to me. That’s the cycle of life that I could never truly appreciate until now.

So, as Father’s Day approaches, I encourage everyone to celebrate fathers -- the fathers you can call on the phone, the father you strive to be to yourself and the fathers who have gone on before us. If you’re one of the lucky ones whose father is close by, put aside whatever petty differences may seem like a barrier and go give him a big hug. I sure wish I could. 

Kramden Institute: Proud to be Called Geeks

 “If you take two kids and one has a computer at home and the other doesn’t, who do you think is more likely to do better in school?”

That’s the fundamental rhetorical question that Mark Dibner says drives the nonprofit organization he and his son Ned started a few years ago. The organization, Kramden Institute, takes computers that companies and individuals no longer want, refurbish them and then donate them to students who don’t have one. The results have been impressive -- with big plans for major growth on the horizon.

It started out as a fun weekend project in 2003 for the father-son team. Ned was 13 at the time and the two of them decided to build a computer. Neither had ever seen the insides of a computer before, didn’t even know what a mother board was. Fortunately, the project was successful and a lot of fun; otherwise Kramden Institute may have never come to be.

Afterward, Ned suggested to his dad that there were likely dozens of his classmates at Brogden Middle School who didn’t have a computer and could sure use one. They decided to build more and give them away. They asked friends and colleagues if they had any spare computers lying around and the donations started pouring in. The principal at Brogden supported the idea and began identifying good students to refer. They set a goal of a computer for every student on the honor roll.

Word leaked and the old computers kept coming in. It didn’t take long for the Dibner home to be swamped with computer parts – in the basement, in the garage, in the kitchen.

“I have a very understanding wife,” Mark says with a chuckle, remembering the early days.

Soon, the Dibners decided to take legal steps to incorporate as a 501-c-3 organization and the company has grown by leaps and bounds ever since.  Lenovo, an international technology company, came on board as a founding partner and has been instrumental in the organization’s evolution.  Other key partnerships include Cisco, NC School of Science and Math and Habitat for Humanity.

To date, Kramden has given away over 2,300 computers, mostly to deserving students in the Triangle. It now has four paid employees and reliable team of volunteers. Mark has continued to “volunteer” about 25 or 30 hours a week, which he admits has affected his “real” job, President of BioAbility, an RTP-based company he founded. 

Mark, who has a Ph.D. in neurobiology and pharmacology from Cornell University Medical College and an MBA in strategic planning from Widener University, also serves as Kramden’ executive director and board chair.

The Institute’s headquarters is just up the road from BioAbility, at least for now. They have to move this summer and are looking for space. They hope to remain in the Park, since a lot of their volunteers (lovingly referred to as “geeks” by Dibner) work nearby.

Earlier this month, Mark and his crew completed their 14th Geek-a-Thon, this one at the Emily Krzyzewski Center in downtown Durham. Geek-A-Thons (which Dibner has trademarked, by the way) are weekend-long events during which “geeks” gather to assemble computers.

“It’s a lot of fun,” according to Dibner. Volunteers are donned with brightly colored “geek” t-shirts, music blares. About 30 or so geeks work furiously in four-hour shifts. Results at Emily K. were typical: at the end of the Geek-A-Thon, 250 refurbished computers were available to deserving students. About 140 volunteers contributed.

The organization is constantly looking for meaningful ways to make an impact where it’s most needed. Some examples: last September, Kramden coordinated a special Geek-A-Thon at Ft. Bragg, resulting in 225 sons and daughters of military men and women serving in Afghanistan and Iraq receiving computers. They’re also partnering with Habitat for Humanity to make sure every home built for families who have school-aged children has a computer. To date, that includes more than 90 local Habitat homes.

Kramden Institute is positioned to go national, according to Dibner.

“We want to be the Habitat for Humanity of computers” he says. He has a solid working model, which is portable and can be easily replicated. Mark is willing to provide training and technical assistance for communities across the country.

The only thing standing in the way is funding. He says he needs to raise between $250 – 300,000 to make it work. He’s actively pursuing donors, investors, partners and funders.

Courage to Reveal, Courage to Heal
Threshold’s Wall of Hope

Andria Linn is doing her part to improve the looks of downtown. At the same, the talented local artist is raising awareness of mental illness in our community and those among us who deal with it with courage and tenacity every day.

Later this month, be on the lookout for her mural to go up on the south side of the Ninth Street Bakery (which of course is on E. Chapel Hill St. near the downtown Marriott and not on Ninth Street). Better yet, come out on Sunday, May 18 and help her put finishing touches on the mural. To underscore the idea that we are walking together on this path of life, Ms. Linn and the organizers of the project are inviting everyone to come out and put their footprints on a connective ribbon that she’s incorporated into the design.

It sounds like a lot of fun. The TROSA band will play. The Scrap Exchange will have an art-making booth. Several artists will be selling their work.

Festivities actually kick off the night before with a reception at Parker and Otis (112 S. Duke St. near Brightleaf Square) from 6-8. Tickets cost $40.

Proceeds benefit Threshold, the local nonprofit organization that is behind the mural project. According to Marya McNeish, Thresholds’ development director, the point of the project is to “raise awareness of the positive contributions of adults with severe mental illness.” She describes Threshold as a place of support and an anchor for the 60 or so members who come to the clubhouse everyday who she describes as “courageous.”

“Threshold provides support… in good times and bad,” she said.

Threshold, which has been in operation since the mid-1980’s, is one of 8 clubhouses for persons with persistent mental illnesses across the state that follows the Fountain House Model. There are about 400 throughout the world.

Staff members work side by side with members at Threshold. The clubhouse is deliberately understaffed so that members are involved in all aspects of running it and that members feel “wanted and needed,” said McNeish.

The clubhouse is open 365 days a year. Staff provide structured pre-vocational, vocational, social and educational opportunities. Members consist of adults over age 18, almost equally male and female, white and African-American. All have a diagnosis of severe and persistent mental illness with a psychotic element, including schizophrenia, schizo-affective disorder, bi-polar disorder and major depression.

About a quarter of the members work in Threshold’s Transitional Employment Program. The agency has long-standing relationships with a number of local businesses that hire Threshold members. Threshold staff provides training and support which usually results in a solid employee and a satisfied employer. Some of the local businesses include Ninth St. Bakery, Timmons Fabrication and Marshall’s.

Is Threshold effective? One telling statistic is that the hospitalization rate for persons who joined Threshold over a three-year period declined by 67%.

Not only is Threshold interested in raising awareness, but it also needs to raise funds. Federal and state Medicaid changes have recently resulted in decreased funding.  As a result, Threshold’s budget has taken a hit. Currently, about 60% of its operating budget comes from Medicaid, but it needs to grow its funding from other sources in order to maximize it’s potential. 

In any given year, Threshold serves about 130 members, but it could serve more. It’s estimated that there are about 3,000 adults in Durham County potentially eligible for Threshold. Nationally, it’s estimated that six percent (or 1 in 17 people) suffer from severe mental illness. For the first time in its 23-year history, the clubhouse is having to turn some referrals away. More funding would help.

One way the community can help out is by attending the events this month. You’ll be able to meet the artist at the reception at Parker and Otis. You can also find her jazz series on display at the Durham mayor’s office or you can check out her website at She worked closely with the members at the clubhouse on the project, making sure she listened to their input and suggestions about the message they wanted the mural to send.

When asked what she wanted to come from the mural, Ms. Linn said this: “I want this to create a stronger awareness of mental illness, so people understand that it’s not a disease that needs running from, but a disease that needs to be addressed and embraced and understood.”

Transforming a blank wall in a busy intersection downtown into an inspirational work of art seems like a nice way to go about doing just that.

April is Child Abuse Prevention Month

April is Child Abuse Prevention month. Blue ribbons will be popping up like dandelions as a way to bring attention to this important issue. 

The Blue Ribbon Campaign goes back a ways. In the spring of 1989, a Virginia grandmother started it as a tribute to her three-year-old grandson who died at the hands of his mother’s abusive boyfriend.  Since that time, concerned citizens all over the country have worn the blue ribbon as a symbol of the need to prevent child abuse and neglect. 

According to printed information distributed by Prevent Child Abuse North Carolina, “Child maltreatment is a devastating problem affecting tens of thousands of children in North Carolina. ” In fact, just last year, over 100,000 children were reported to Child Protected Services as alleged victims of child abuse or neglect. And it is generally accepted that actual cases far outnumber reported ones.

Young children are at greatest risk of severe injury or death from abuse. In 2003, children younger than 4 years accounted for nearly 4 out of 5 child maltreatment fatalities, with infants under 1 year accounting for 44% of deaths. Throughout the state, a child dies due to maltreatment about every two weeks.

Durham’s Partnership for Children is one local agency that makes it their business to look after the well-being of our youngest, most vulnerable little ones.

“Despite fewer resources since 2000, we have worked diligently to make sure Durham County has a comprehensive system of care for children birth to age five,” says the Partnership’s Executive Director Marsha Basloe.

“Our network of funded programs support the early care and education, family involvement, social, emotional and physical health of thousands of young children across Durham County,” Basloe added.

Focusing prevention and intervention efforts on our youngest children makes sense. Not only are young children at greatest risk for maltreatment, but the impact of trauma and violence on a young child’s emotional, cognitive and social development can have long-lasting, devastating effects. 

Research in recent years has unveiled a tremendous amount of new information about how young brains develop. As a result, groups like Basloe’s are in a better position to guide new parents and also help child-serving professionals mitigate damage when abuse does occur to a young child.

Not all news is bad.  Local trends are heading in the right direction, it seems. According to data reported in the Durham County Community Health Assessment, compiled by the Partnership for a Healthy Durham, the number of cases of child abuse and neglect confirmed by the Department of Social Services dropped from 22.5 per 1,000 children in 2000 to 7.5 per 1,000 children in 2006. Still, any abuse is too much and efforts to eliminate all child maltreatment should be among our community’s top priorities.

Parenting is challenging. Most parents are well-meaning and cross the line when they’re at their wit’s end. Child abuse crosses all socio-economic, ethnic and racial lines. Unrealistic expectations, poor stress and anger management skills, lack of a support system, inexperience as a parent and crises (such as the stresses and strains of living in abject poverty) seem to contribute to its likelihood.

The good news is that there are a number of programs and initiatives that have proven to be successful in preventing abuse, such as the Welcome Baby program, one of the programs that the Partnership funds. Welcome Baby provides education and in-home support for parents and guardians of young children, beginning with the program’s Newborn Support component.

In order to reduce child maltreatment rates, it’s important that everyone understand the underlying issues that contribute to its occurrence and know where to turn for guidance and more information. Durham’s Partnership for Children is a good place to start. Our goal should be a healthy, safe, nurturing environment for every child.

Everyone can contribute. You can start by wearing a blue ribbon this month.  

Durham’s Partnership for Children works collaboratively throughout Durham County to identify needs of young children and their families. The Partnership also designs and funds model programs to ensure children and their families have the resources they need. Funded programs focus on early childhood education, child health care, early intervention, parenting education and family support.

To learn more about the Partnership and its funded programs visit
To order blue ribbons and learn about other ways to participate in the Blue Ribbon Campaign, go to or call 1-800-CHILDEN.

The Great Human Race Holds Personal Stories

This is several stories of hope and courage all folded into one.  We’ll start in the 1970’s when Noelle Broyles remembers life as a high school senior being carefree and fun. Tan and pretty with Peggy Lipton long blonde hair, Noelle spent her free time hanging out with friends on the beaches of Florida where she lived with her grandparents. Already Noelle had overcome great tragedy in her life. Both of her parents died when she was little. But she was 17 and headed to Florida State in the Fall and life was full of hope and promise.

Just a few weeks before graduation, though, she found out she had cancer in her right leg. College was put on hold. What would have been her freshman year at FSU turned into a year filled with surgeries and rounds of chemotherapy at Massachusetts General Hospital instead. Finally, when a complicated bone transplant failed, all hope for saving her leg was lost. It was amputated.

Noelle moved on with her life. She was fitted with a prosthesis and headed back to Florida to start her career in nursing.

It was at the University of Florida where she was working as a pediatric nurse that Noelle met a young doctor, Kevin Broyles, with whom she fell in love and married. Not long after the wedding, Kevin landed a residency in Family Medicine at Duke Hospital and the young couple moved to North Carolina. They’ve been here more than 20 years now. Kevin is currently the Director of Urgent Care at Duke. Noelle worked at Duke for a while too, but has spent the past several year focused on raising their two teenage daughters.

Noelle’s nursing skills do come in handy, however, on her trips o Kenya, which she has made several times on behalf of a relief effort called KenyaKids.

KenyaKids is an affiliate of Hope Worldwide and is sponsored through the Triangle Church where the Broyles attend. The organization provides basic necessities to orphans and vulnerable school-aged children in Nairobi, the capital city of Kenya. It’s a cause that Noelle and Kevin have put their hearts into. The Broyles are part of a large contingency of Duke medical professionals committed to the global health initiative, which has focused much of its work in Kenya.

The African country has been ravaged in recent decades by armed conflicts and disease, the casualties of which include scores of young orphans and a depth of poverty that most of us can’t imagine. No one is sure how many children live on the streets of this city of 3 million people, but they certainly number in the tens of thousands. Many have lost parents to AIDS and other diseases. Some have been cast out of their homes. Many are runaways.

Noelle says that $30 a month will cover basic school supplies, medical care, maze and flour, mosquito nets and a mat to sleep on (since many of the children sleep on dirt floors on the streets) for one child. She speaks of the Kenyan people with great respect and reverence. “They’re amazing people,” she says.

Noelle took a group of more than 30 people on a mission trip to Nairobi last summer. She was hoping to return in a few months but fears the violent upheaval surrounding the recently disputed presidential election results may cause her to postpone the trip.  

Noelle is quite sure where she’ll be on the morning of March 29th, however. For the third year in a row, she will be walking in the Great Human Race in downtown Durham as a way to raise money for KenyaKids. The program hopes to raise $10,000 this year.

Noelle will be walking the 5K fundraiser on crutches, which she says is easier than with the prosthesis.  She sets a personal goal of one hour to finish the walk and laughs when she says that she talks about how she’ll be “a little beaten and bruised” by the end of the run. 

The Great Human Race is a 5Kcommunity walk/run that benefits the local nonprofit community. Last year, over 1,000 runners and walkers participated in the event and raised over $100,000 for 54 nonprofits. This year, organizers of the event expect it to be bigger and better than ever. About 85 nonprofits are already registered, including KenyaKids and its sister group, KenyaKids – Durham Academy, a small but dedicated group of students raising money for the same effort.

Noelle says she loves participating in the Great Human Race. “Just to feel the energy of all those people who come out because they care about our community and want to do something positive,” she says, “it’s reaffirming.”

One thing is sure: great stories come out of the Great Human Race each year. Noelle Broyles is one of the better ones. 

Ronald McDonald House of Durham – the “House that Love Built” Serves 700 Families a Year

Take a tour of the Ronald McDonald House of Durham and a couple things become immediately obvious. One, it’s a special place. Two, it’s a little cramped.

The house, located on Alexander Ave. near Duke’s main campus, was built in 1962 and has seen a number of additions and renovations through the years. Yes, they could use some more space, but the magic that takes place there, regardless of cramped quarters, is palpable.

Ronald McDonald House presently serves more than 700 families a year. Families come from all over the world and stay at the house while their sick child gets needed medical treatment at the pediatric unit at Duke University Hospital.

Diagnoses vary, but cancer patients are common, as are critically premature babies, bone marrow transplants and young patients suffering from heart disease, for example. Some families stay for a few days, some for years.

It’s home. That’s the way Noreen Strong, who has served as the organization’s executive director for the past 14 years, describes it. Staff try to stay out of the way as much as possible. Families set their own schedules and come and go as they need. They shower, prepare meals, check their internet, make friends and have plenty of sympathetic shoulders to cry on as needed.

Like most homes, the kitchen, which is sprawling and well-stocked, is the hub of activity. It’s hard to have much regularity around meals. MRIs can be scheduled any time of the day or night. Kids get the munchies at two in the morning. The kitchen stays open 24/7. The dining room is one of the more recent additions. Its walls are lined with windows, which lets in lots of sunlight. Colorful hand painted tiles, made by the children, line the ceilings throughout the house.

It’s respite. A haven. A place of normalcy when your life has thrown you a curveball. Strong bonds are made among the families, many of whom keep in touch with each other and staff for years.

“Staying at the Ronald McDonald House made the time with my very sick son a time of love and happiness instead of a time of worry. Staying there is like having a big family,” wrote one parent in a journal she kept while living at the house. “All the other families there have sick children like you do so they can relate to what you’re going through…”

Unfortunately, the need at Ronald McDonald House is far greater than the availability. According to Ms. Strong, for every family who gets served at the Ronald McDonald House, there’s one more on the waiting list that’s denied. All that stands in the way of serving those families is space.

If she has her way, that will all change within the next couple years, as plans are underway to build a new 70-bedroom house.  That’s more than three times as many bedrooms as they have now.   

If that goal is to be reached, it’s going to take a lot of community support. And, with all due respect to their very popular slogan, it will, in fact, take more than love to build the house. It will take a lot of cash, hard work and resolve.

Ms. Strong is convinced that anyone who spends a little time at the house will want to do whatever they can to help out. Tours are encouraged.

On a tour you’re likely to see a lot children – some who have lost their hair, some who are so busy being a kid you would never guess they were sick, some too sick to do much more than curl up in their Mother’s lap. Look deep into the eyes of these brave little ones and you’ll understand what the Ronald McDonald House is really all about. Noreen Strong is right. You’ll want to do everything you can to help out. 

To make a donation to Ronald McDonald House of Durham, please send a check to RMHD 506 Alexander Ave. Durham, NC 27705 or on-line at To volunteer, schedule a tour or for more information call 919-286-7605.

Mentoring Works – Just Ask Dellah Owens at Durham Companions

By Stephen Raburn

It’s a time for celebration at Durham Companions, a local nonprofit mentoring organization. Dellah Owens and her staff are busy planning activities to capitalize on National Mentoring Month, held each January. Last month, the organization celebrated their 25th anniversary.

Ms. Owens has been involved with the organization for many of those years, first as a volunteer mentor, then as a board member, and now as its executive director. If you ask her why, she’ll provide you with a very clear, passionate answer: “because I believe in it… mentoring works.”

That’s what former Governor Jim Hunt was banking on back in the early 1980’s when he initiated the Governor’s One-on-One Program as a way help prevent kids from ending up in training schools -- the most secure, punitive placement a judge can sentence a juvenile.

Durham Companions was one of the charter members and one of 42 similar programs across the state. Most of their funds still come from the NC Dept. of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. Like most small nonprofits, though, they always need more revenue and rely on the generosity of the local community to keep their programs going. 

Mostly, they depend on the community to volunteer as mentors. Ms. Owens will be the first to tell you that mentoring with Durham Companions isn’t for everyone. Her clients can be challenging. The goal is to take some of our most “at-risk” young people and get them headed in the right direction. Most of the referrals come from juvenile court. Some others from schools, the Department of Social Services or mental health organizations. The common thread that ties her clients is an urgent need for a strong, positive adult role model who can take them under their wing and say to him or her, “I’m just not going to let you fail… you are too valuable.”   

The organization serves children ages 6-17, although most of the clients tend to be in their early teens.

Ms. Owens doesn’t apologize for her passion. The way she sees it, her mentors are saving lives. Most of the children her organization serve are teetering on the brink of disaster – at high risk of becoming another statistic: school drop out, teen parent, juvenile delinquent, gang member or any other number of undesirable adjectives we use to describe the children we’ve failed.

But, she’s not looking for super heroes. What she is looking for are everyday folks who care about kids and have a few extra hours a week to spend with a young person who desperately needs them. It’s an amazingly simple and effective solution with impressive results. Approximately 95% of the youth involved with Durham Companions have refrained from illegal activities after being matched for one year.  

National data indicates that youth who have mentors have better attendance and attitude toward school, have less drug and alcohol use, have more trusting relationships and better communication with parents and caregivers, have a better chance of going on to higher education, are less likely to have a second pregnancy among other such positive outcomes.

Some of the positive results of the program are more difficult to track, but are easy to spot. Owens describes a transformation that takes place when a kid recognizes that there’s actually someone in his or her corner. “They come to life,” she says.

Durham Companions provides training, matching, and on-going support for its mentors. In other words, mentors aren’t in it alone. When the going gets tough, Dellah and her staff are available to help them get through it. Prospective mentors are required to undergo a comprehensive background check and are expected to commit to at least one year with the child. 

Durham Companions is one of several mentoring organizations in the community, each of which is trying to fill a particular niche. There is great variety in terms of mentor expectations, client populations served and desired outcomes among the various programs.

According to Emily Znamierowski who heads the Greater Durham Mentoring Alliance for the Volunteer Center of Durham, “every mentoring organization I know of has a waiting list. We simply need more mentors.”

Across the US, it is estimated that less than 15% of the young people who could benefit from a mentor actually have one. It’s unknown what the ratio is here in Durham, but Ms. Znamierowski and Ms. Owens both emphasize that the demand for mentors far exceeds the present supply.

Some of the reasons people give for not mentoring a child are based on misinformation. For example, it’s a myth that mentors need to spend a lot of money with their mentees. In fact, Owens advises against ever going down that path. Instead, it’s all about building relationships, based on shared interests, which is why she spends a lot of time and energy on the matching process.

Currently, Durham Companions has a waiting list of nearly 25 young people. It’s not unheard of for someone to stay on that list for months. Unfortunately, a few months can sometimes make all the difference in the world.

For more information about becoming a mentor with Durham Companions, call 919-956-9466 or visit the website at For information about other mentoring programs in Durham and to learn more about the Greater Durham Mentoring Alliance, go to or call Emily at 919-688-8977.

Got Mitzvah?

It’s an old stereotype that one local group is trying to change.

The Durham-Chapel Hill Jewish Federation is spearheading the second annual Mitzvah Day as a way to engage in something more meaningful than Chinese takeout and a movie on Christmas Day. 

Mitzvah means “good deed” in Hebrew. This Christmas, the Jewish Federation will sponsor a day of good deeds throughout the community -- in conjunction with a number of Jewish synagogues, schools and organizations.

According to organizers of the event, the purpose of Mitzvah Day is to promote volunteerism, community activism and unity.

Last year, the results exceeded expectations: approximately 20 local charitable organizations benefited from Mitzvah Day. Over 200 volunteers spread good cheer as well as warm blankets and hardy meals to residents at homeless shelters; sang Christmas carols and visited with the elderly at nursing homes; prepared and delivered “Welcome Home” baskets for Habitat for Humanity; cleaned animal pens at the animal shelter; visited patients in the pediatric ward; and much more.

Now they’re gearing up for year two. Susan Springer, who chairs the Mitzvah Day committee, says she expects similar results this year. In fact, most of the same organizations will benefit. And most of last year’s volunteers are getting ready to roll up their sleeves and get to work again.

“It’s not our holiday,” Ms. Springer says, “but it’s a day to give back to the larger community in which we live.” A way to reach out a helping hand of kindness for those whose Christmas may not otherwise be merry.

Springer added that the volunteer activities are “kid-friendly” and deliberately inclusive of all generations.

“We have grandparents and small children working side-by-side making blankets for the homeless,” Springer says. Children also paint flowerpots and plant seeds and deliver them to assisted living facilities.

The projects vary in nature, but all of them are efforts to serve less fortunate individuals in the community. A secondary benefit of the event is the impact that it has on volunteers. Predictably, at the end of the day, volunteers get as much out of Mitzvah Day as those for whom the charity was intended.

Ms. Springer talked about the reaction of some of the younger volunteers who delivered blankets to the homeless shelter as one example. Long after the event, children still talked about the reaction of the residents, how they embraced the warm blankets and held onto them like it they were precious and how they delighted in the sparkly fabric on one side of them. There were lessons learned about gratitude and humility that aren’t always easy to teach. Children came away from the experience understanding that they, too, can make a difference in people’s lives. And that sometimes it’s the little gifts in life that matter the most. Gifts like your time and a friendly smile and a hand-made, sparkly blanket.

Perhaps the greatest good that comes from Mitzvah Day is the wonderful example of individuals of different faiths and backgrounds coming together to help one another, an important part of the Jewish heritage, according to Ziva Starr Raney, Associate Executive Director at the Jewish Federation.

The fact that Mitzvah Day occurs on Christmas, when most of us take off from work, but only the Christian faith celebrates, makes sense for pragmatic reasons. But it’s also an important symbolic gesture in terms of breaking down whatever barriers may exist between religions.

Ms. Raney explained that the Hebrew word Tzedakah literally translates to “righteousness” and is often associated with acts of charity. She emphasized that Tzedakah is a fundamental tradition in the Jewish faith and the inspiration for Mitzvah Day.

Seems like Tzedakah is an ideal all of us, whatever our religion, should strive toward.

Note: Donations of books, canned goods and cash are needed for Mitzvah Day to reach its potential. For more information, contact Mandy Summerson, Program Manager at the Jewish Federation at (919) 489-5335 or email her at

Volunteering: One Way to Impact Change in Community

April is National Volunteer Appreciation Month, which is a busy time for us at the Volunteer Center of Durham, where I work.

One of the highlights this month is our annual Volunteer Appreciation Ceremony scheduled for April 23rd at the Durham Hilton. It’s our way of honoring hundreds of volunteers who serve dozens of different nonprofit organizations throughout the city.  Volunteers of the Year in a number of categories will be awarded. We’re expecting a big crowd this year. For more information about the ceremony feel free to call us at the Volunteer Center.

We realize that a swanky luncheon once a year isn’t nearly enough. We wish we could do more. Our volunteers exemplify the kind of community-minded spirit that makes Durham great: everyday citizens who care enough to reach out a helping hand to their neighbors in need.

Through our Share Your Christmas program, for example, nearly 1,400 Durham families received presents from their wish list last year; that comes to over $200,000 spent (and put back in the local economy) by community volunteers for our neighbors who are less fortunate or down on their luck -- just in the month of December.

Another example: 460 dinners were prepared and delivered in November through our Thanksgiving Dinners program, an increase of more than 100 from the previous year.

Volunteering isn’t just for grownups. In fact, we have about 700 local students involved in our youth volunteering program called Student Action Corps. And each summer, about 200 students put in over 20,000 hours of community service through our Mayor’s Award program.

The Volunteer spirit was alive and well last weekend at the Great Human Race where over 1,000 people showed up to run and walk for their favorite local charities. The Volunteer Center coordinates the race each year and invites local organizations to use it as a fundraiser. Nearly 70 organizations signed up this year. The energy at Bulls stadium where the race started then winded about town was amazing.  Cheerleaders cheered on the runners, the TROSA band boomed a medley of soulful hits from the stadium balcony while Wool E. Bull boogied below. It was a lot of fun. Now, we need to harness that energy and keep it going for the rest of the year.

About 400 local and regional organizations and thousands of volunteers in the community use our services. But, we need more volunteers. If you’re interested in giving back to the community, we can help. We make it easy.  Our new volunteer management software can be accessed through our website ( It’s user-friendly and packed with opportunities. Our strength is our flexibility. We have something for everyone: large corporations looking for meaningful community service projects to boost morale among their employees, students looking to beef up their resume while improving their communities, sororities and fraternities, busy adults looking for a one-time project, etc. Whatever your area of interest: children, the elderly, animals, the environment, hunger, literacy, homelessness… I can almost guarantee you that we have meaningful volunteer opportunities for you.

Durham has a lot going for it. It’s a city that seems to have turned the corner and be headed for its glory days. But, like most cities across the country, the needs are great. The public sector can’t meet all the needs alone. And so it comes down to everyday folks like you and me rolling up our sleeves and doing our part if Durham is going to reach its potential.

When my wife and I decided to move from California last year, we were looking for some place that felt like community. We wanted to feel like we part of something bigger than ourselves. A place that we could invest in and impact, for ourselves and for our two little girls.

We decided on Durham for many reasons and six months later, I can honestly report that we have not been disappointed.  There’s a can-do spirit here and a sense that something big is about to happen. And a real interest among the various spheres of influence -- local government, the business community, educational institutions and the nonprofit sector -- to tear down artificial boundaries and work collaboratively to make Durham a great place to live and work. It’s exciting to be a small part of that movement.

I’m biased, but I believe that the Volunteer Center is at the center of that movement. If you haven’t checked us out in a while, I encourage you to do so now.

Mentors Can Make a Big Difference in the Lives of Young People

The challenges that many young people face these days are well known. The truth of the matter is that it's tough being a kid. Add a few unfortunate circumstances to the equation, or "risk factors" as we call them in the human services field, such as living in poverty or growing up in an abusive home, and the odds for success become even steeper.

But, it's not all bad news. Every day, children who are "at-risk" of succumbing to any number of social ills find that spark within themselves and figure out a way to buck the trend. Children are amazingly resilient.

I've spent most of my career working with children and have come to the realization that the most effective way for wounded children to heal is through the power of relationships. What many of our vulnerable children need most is some responsible adult in their lives who can send this message loud and clear: "I'm just not going to let you fail."

Preferably from someone who isn't paid to be there, like a volunteer mentor. Mary Scott, who teaches at NCCU, referred to such people as "angels on assignment" when she spoke at the Volunteer Center's Mentor Appreciation Ceremony last Saturday.

It's been estimated there are 17.6 million young people in the United States who could benefit from a one-on-one mentoring relationship, but only 2.5 million have one (less than 15 percent). I don't know what the ratio is here in Durham, but I'd be willing to bet it's about the same. We need more mentors. Toward that end, the Volunteer Center will be launching a new program this spring: the Greater Durham Mentoring Alliance.
The Alliance evolved as a result of last year's "state of the city" address by Mayor Bill Bell, who articulated the need for a more comprehensive strategy for meeting the mentoring needs of Durham youth. From there, a small work group began meeting at the Chamber of Commerce to explore solutions. One result was the Alliance.

The purpose of the Alliance is to bring the approximately 50 identified programs in Durham that utilize mentors under one umbrella in the interest of sharing resources, maximizing efficiency and identifying gaps in service.

The Alliance will offer a one-stop portal of entry for volunteers so that anyone interested in mentoring will be able to call one number or visit one Web site and be matched with a program.

Another function of the Alliance will be to promote and publicize the need for mentors. The desired outcome is a highly qualified, well-trained, well-screened, well-supported mentor for every Durham youth who needs one.

The benefits of mentoring are irrefutable: youth with mentors have better attendance and attitude toward school, have less drug and alcohol use, have more trusting relationships and better communication with parents and caregivers, are less violent, have a better chance of going on to higher education and are less likely to have a second pregnancy, to name a few. The impact of spending an hour or so a week with a child can be tremendous.

Ask Durham City Councilman Mike Woodard. Years ago, Mike mentored a young boy who was failing miserably in school. Mike noticed that he had real artistic talent and enrolled him in a series of classes at the Durham Arts Council. Almost immediately, his outlook improved. His grades got better and he was less of a disturbance. He graduated from high school and enrolled in a community college to pursue a degree in commercial art. Who knows what path he would have taken if not for Mike?

Or ask Tasha Melvin, who runs mentoring programs at the Volunteer Center. At age 6, Tasha and her twin sister were matched with a mentor, Jane Gallagher, whom Tasha claims "transformed" their lives. When Tasha talks about Jane, with a quiver in her voice and a tear in her eye, there becomes little doubt about the value of mentors. Tasha has gone on to dedicate herself to helping young people like her who had a rough start in life.

Undeniably, too many of our children are in trouble. But solutions exist. And almost everyone can contribute in some way. Perhaps mentoring a young child who needs a positive, adult role model in their lives can be your contribution. Maybe you can be an angel on assignment.