Teen Services Program Gets Spotlight Attention

Teen Services
Program Gets Spotlight Attention
Impact100 Sonoma
grant fuels success.

In the world of nonprofit grantmaking, a gift is always a gamble. And often, the bigger the gift, the bigger the gamble.
Nonprofit organizations, especially startups, are frequently founded and run by people with big hearts, bright ideas and little management or fundraising experience.
That said, in 2011, Impact100 Sonoma made a gamble with a $100,000 gift to Teen Services Sonoma (TSS), a virtual startup with two part-time employees, a newly formed board, no real track record, one powerful vision and a lot of passion. Venture capitalists in Silicon Valley might have given the investment a 5 percent chance of success, if any of them would have touched it to begin with.
But Impact100 is a unique giving model, now active in more than 40 locations around the country, organized by women in “giving circles” who commit to annually raising at least $100,000 to benefit a single nonprofit recipient. Impact100 Sonoma was the 17th location to launch.
And unlike some grantmaking organizations, Impact100 Sonoma tracks the progress of grant recipients to see how well their investments pay off. With Teen Services they hit the bull’s-eye. Over the five years since receiving the grant, the Sonoma Valley organization grew from a struggling, under-funded, fledgling effort into a community powerhouse that is changing the lives of local youth. And it ended up in a national spotlight, about which more later.
The focus of the grant? A “soft skills” program that recognizes not all teens are headed to college, that some need to go beyond traditional job training to learn skills that can be transferred to any job in any industry. The proposed Skills for Life program was designed to provide local youth, ages 12 to 23, with basic employment skills, including work readiness, résumé development, mock interviews, financial literacy and opportunities for internships and job placement.
Teen Services executive director Cristin Felso says receiving the grant “was revolutionary for this organization. We were an unlikely candidate for the grant.
“Here’s this little grassroots organization that is limping along, trying to figure out how to keep the doors open with two part-time staff.”
Yet TSS gave it a shot because they knew Skills for Life would help an underserved segment of youth, and the organization’s small grassroots stature would allow flexibility to evolve the program based on direct local feedback. Impact100 Sonoma members, impressed by the grant proposal and wowed during a site visit, voted to take a risk on TSS’s exciting but untested concept.
What began as two courses serving 36 youth has today evolved into TSS’s Ready to Work program, serving 139 youth in 2015-16, and offered twice a year at three different locations. Free to students, each course comprises six two-hour, highly interactive workshops taught by industry professionals.
Topics range from general employment behavior to advanced networking skills. Workshop graduates are eligible to attend three hospitality courses. TSS’s three micro-businesses­—No Name Café, Lovin’ Oven and Operation Bicycle—offer on-the-job training leading to internships and job placement with local businesses.
Norma Martinez, now a busy senior at Sonoma Valley High School, graduated from TSS’s program as a sophomore and credits it with preparing her for the real world and getting her first important job. “I know what to emphasize in a résumé, how to feel more confident for interviews, how to reach out to an employer. The little things are very important: how to dress, to conduct phone calls, to follow up and not to use slang! The impression you give is so important—that you are careful and prepared.”
The workshops have a range of benefits. Follow-up reports show teens who participate become more engaged in learning, and that translates into better performance in school. Participation in TSS programs has changed the way many youth see their path to the future. Of 91 graduates in the 2015-16 Ready to Work program, 21 are enrolled in post-secondary education. Felso says, “I know for a fact that a number of those youth were not planning on going to college and got inspired, mostly by being involved in our micro-businesses.”
“One of the things I feel very strongly about,” Cristin says, “is to bring people in the community into the classroom and to bring youth out into the community to meet with business owners—getting them plugged in and feeling that they are recognized, that they have value and they can contribute.” Because Ready to Work teachers live and work in the Valley, that’s exactly what’s happening. The strategy has fostered increased participation by the community in TSS programs—as mentors, teachers, job coaches and employers. It’s a win-win scenario. Local business leaders support the program and, in return, they have a pool of mature, trained youth to hire.
According to Felso, the Impact Grant signaled to the larger community that TSS is a viable, valuable and legitimate organization. Since receiving the grant, a larger donor base has enabled TSS to expand its programs to reach more youth and increase its staff. Significantly, Impact100 Sonoma members have stepped up individually as donors, boardmembers and volunteers.
And Norma Martinez has discovered her passion—helping young children. She hopes to become a social worker and is awaiting acceptance letters from four-year colleges.
TSS continues to hone the Ready to Work curriculum and to modernize and expand their in-house employment opportunities. Since the 2011 Impact Grant, the women’s giving circle has awarded TSS two Community Grants: In 2014, $15,000 to purchase a professional walk-in refrigerator for Lovin’ Oven; and in 2016, $15,000 to help fund a Vocational Training Welding Program in partnership with Hanna Boy’s Center.
But that’s not the end of the story. Impact100 Sonoma has announced it is receiving the 2017 Spotlight Award from the Women’s Collective Giving Grantmakers Network for being the catalyst for Teen Services’ transformation. Which just proves that good investments make everyone a winner.  

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