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Young people find a transformative path in ASU nonprofit program

Apprentices find purpose, motivation with Lodestar Center's Public Allies

May 25, 2018

Just before Beatriz Mendoza graduated from Arizona State University a year ago, she joined her engineering classmates in figuring out where to apply for jobs.

“While everyone else was applying to Honeywell, Intel, Microsoft and Apple, I was applying to nonprofits,” said Mendoza, who graduated with a degree in industrial and organizational psychology with a focus on consumer and human systems engineering.

“I thought, ‘I have to apply to something that means something to me,'" she said.

Mendoza is among 34 young people in Public Allies Arizona, an intense, full-time apprenticeship program that pairs participants with nonprofit organizations. Public Allies is part of the ASU Lodestar Center for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Innovation, in the School of Community Resources and Development.

Mendoza worked with the Million Dollar Teacher Project, a nonprofit that placed her as a technology integration specialist at Granada Primary School in Phoenix. There, she created time-saving student-data spreadsheets for teachers and a simplified progress report for parents.

“I want to have many stories attached to my name and after the first year of working in a nonprofit, I have 40. I have 40 students in the class and that’s the greatest achievement I’ve ever done,” she said.

Mendoza and several other allies described their powerful experiences during “impact presentations” at ASU's Downtown Phoenix campus on Wednesday. They made posters about their accomplishments and several spoke about how the 10 months changed them.

This was the 12th cohort of the program, which pays the allies to work at more than 20 nonprofit organizations in the Phoenix metro area. After completing Public Allies, which is part of the federal AmeriCorps program, the participants receive a $5,800 award to pay for tuition or professional development or to apply toward student-loan debt. More than 250 young adults have participated since the Arizona program was launched in 2006.

Since last fall, the current allies have planted zucchini at an urban farm, taught art to children at a museum, delivered meals to homebound elderly people and helped high school students fill out college applications. They sorted mail and entered data in computers. They overcame their fears of being overwhelmed and underqualified. They learned about teamwork and what it feels like when no one shows up to an event they organized. They had doors slammed in their faces and made someone's day with a few minutes of attention.

The allies come from a wide variety of backgrounds. Some are college students, some have degrees and a few joined right out of high school. One is a single mother who had been out of the workforce. Some chose Public Allies as a deliberate pathway, and for others, it was a miraculous opportunity.

By the time Damonte Johnson came to Phoenix a year ago, he had flunked out of several colleges, derailed from his studies by a series of family traumas.

“I had given up hope completely of ever going back to school. I had chased success as far west as L.A. and as far east as Baltimore,” said Johnson, who found out about Public Allies at a job fair.

He’s worked at two organizations and with both experiences, he helped kids who were like him. At the Creighton Community Foundation, he served after-school meals to children who often did not have food waiting for them at home. He also is a youth outreach coordinator with Opportunities for Youth, a group that connects young people who are neither in school nor employed with resources to move ahead.

“It was exactly where I had been many times in my life,” Johnson said.

Jill Watts, director of capacity building for the Lodestar Center, said that Public Allies aims to be life changing not only for the young people but also for the nonprofits.

“We have a lot of metrics around how the allies advanced the capacity of the organization during their time there,” she said. For example, if the ally is doing volunteer outreach, they have to quantify how many new volunteers they recruited, how many returning volunteers they brought back, how many hours they served and the economic value of the volunteers’ contribution to the organization.

Last year, 90 percent of the organizations reported that the ally improved the nonprofit’s performance, she said.

“We take people you might not expect or who might not look like what you think of as a leader and we engage them in this program,” she said.

“For 10 months, we’ll take them by the hand and we’ll drag them, if we have to, across the finish line and for some of them, it really is a journey getting across the finish line.”

Not everyone makes it, Watts said. A few will leave the program despite all the support. But for most, the practical job experience and sense of accomplishment are transformative.

Taylor Polen joined Public Allies a few months after graduating from high school in 2016. She knew she wanted to go to college but she didn’t have a clear sense of her path.

“I never felt like a doctor. I never felt like a teacher. I never felt like any conventional career that we’re taught growing up,” she said.

When she discovered the program, “It dawned on me that nonprofit work is a career.”

Allies can opt to stay for a second year, which Polen did. She worked as program specialist at the Alzheimer’s Association, where she staffed the helpline, did data entry and helped with the family support groups.

“They helped me to find my direction and opened my eyes to what’s out there,” said Polen, who in the fall will be a freshman at ASU, where she’s been accepted into the Next Generation Service Corps of the Public Service Academy.

At the impact presentation, many of the allies expressed wonder at how far they’ve come in 10 months.

Johnson recalled that as a child, he was enthusiastic and certain that he would be a success, but the struggles of the past few years had dimmed his optimism.

“Public Allies rekindled it. They gave me purpose and they gave me hope and they gave me a way to succeed.”

Top photo: Beatriz Mendoza, a 2017 graduate of ASU, described her work at Granada Primary School at the Public Allies impact presentation on Wednesday at the Downtown Phoenix campus. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now