Nonprofit Organizations in Delaware: Public Allies Delaware Prepares Young Adults for Careers at Nonprofits Through Apprenticeships in Services Like Youth Development, Public Health, Community and Economic Development and Housing

Public Allies may be one of the most important nonprofits in the state, and that couldn’t make its participants happier.

Samantha Oppenheimer at the Mary Randall Center. photograph by Jared CastaldiWhen Samantha Oppenheimer was preparing to graduate from the University of Delaware last year, she scheduled an exit interview with her academic adviser for some career guidance in the field of anthropology. The meeting left her feeling lost.

“He told me, ‘You have a beautiful smile and that will get you far,” says the 22-year-old Wilmington native. “That was depressing.”

So she dropped in on another professor, who encouraged her to apply to Public Allies Delaware. Public Allies partners participants with agencies throughout the state to prepare them for careers in the nonprofit world.

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Oppenheimer had always had an interest in helping others. Within two days of speaking with her professor, she found herself competing with more than 180 applicants for one of 30 slots in the class of 2010-2011. She succeeded and matched with her first choice, Meeting Ground, a faith-based organization that helps the homeless in Maryland and Delaware.

“It’s a great work environment for me because my supervisor is really involved in my experience, and I love the people I work with and the work that I’m doing,” she says. “It’s nice to wake up every day and look forward to coming to work.”

Public Allies Delaware is part of the national Public Allies network formed in 1992. It was cited as a model for public service by Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. President Barack Obama was a member of the founding advisory board, and his wife, Michelle, was the founding executive director of Public Allies Chicago.

The program seeks to identify young, talented adults from diverse backgrounds to prepare them for careers in the nonprofit arena.

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They serve 10-month paid apprenticeships at nonprofits throughout the state and participate in creating, improving and expanding services that address a variety of issues, including youth development, public health, community and economic development, and housing.

Allies also participate in weekly training sessions conducted by community leaders and Public Allies staff to improve their skills in areas ranging from public speaking to grant writing to conflict resolution to community development.

What sets Public Allies apart from other service organizations is its commitment to training the next generation of leaders for the nonprofits.

“What I liked about it and still like about it is that it encourages careers,” says Dr. Suzanne Sysko Clough, who founded the Delaware site in 1994. Sysko Clough is now chief medical officer of WellDoc, a Baltimore-based healthcare company she founded, which uses technology to improve disease management and reduce healthcare costs. “It’s not just, ‘Hey come do this one-off, one-year public service project.’ It really gives them skills to find a career filled with passion in the public sector.”

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Sysko Clough postponed entering medical school to create the Delaware site because she wanted to show that Generation Xers were not as disengaged from civic responsibility as experts believed. That commitment to service is evident in Generation Y, as well. In 16 years, Public Allies Delaware has expanded from 17 allies to 30, and it will continue to grow and meet demand from both applicants and agencies, says executive director Christina Garrett-Morrow.

“I think this generation, the Millennials, has grown up with the expectation of service,” Garrett-Morrow says. “Some schools even require it for graduation, so it’s already sort of ingrained in them.”

Applicants are recruited from job fairs, the organization’s Web site and college referrals. Though most Allies hold college degrees, a GED is the only requirement for entering the program. Some Allies bring a wealth of life experience to their work. Some have even spent time in prison.

Garrett-Morrow says the organization is ramping up its recruitment efforts. “We’re getting more into the community because we want Allies that are representatives of the communities that we serve,” she says, “but also we’ve noticed with our team service projects that, when you’re in a local community, you kind of want to help a little bit more.”

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Delaware was the fourth Public Allies site to be set up. Though it may not be the largest of the 21 sites, it has been the most innovative.

“In Delaware, there’s only one degree of separation,” says Regina Alonzo, chair of Public Allies Delaware. (She was executive director from 1996 to 1999.) “Overall, people really want each other to succeed here.”

Delaware was the first site to affiliate with a university. Its partnership with the University of Delaware now serves as a model for the other local organizations. The hands-on experience, skills training and team service projects that focus on long-term social change have proven invaluable to both the students and the university.

“It offers the organization stability and for us a way to give back to the community,” says Steven Peuquet, director of UD’s Center for Community Research & Service, which hosts Public Allies Delaware.

Delaware was also first to establish an alumni council. Last fall the site was one of three programs to receive a $10,500 grant to further alumni participation.

Delaware was also the first to recognize the importance of having an advisory board of directors. “We were very serious about having senior business people involved,” Sysko Clough says. “I think that one of the problems in the nonprofit sector is a lack of good business savvy, and business savvy is a key component.”

Public Allies is for those who are truly dedicated to public service, but sometimes it can show participants that public service is not the career for them, and that’s all right, says Garrett-Morrow, “as long as they remember us when they’re philanthropists.”

For 22-year-old Shefon Taylor of northeast Wilmington, the Allies program offers a chance to use her experience as the child of an incarcerated parent to help others in the same situation. “You always have that feeling of abandonment, that feeling of not really belonging,” says Taylor, who works for the HOPE Commission, an organization that seeks to revitalize Wilmington’s underserved communities. “I live on the front line of it, so it is important for me to give back.”

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Eric Hydeman hopes his tenure at the Delaware Adolescent Program will prepare him for a teaching career. Hydeman, 24, is creating and supporting new mentors and mentees in the program, which affords pregnant teenagers the opportunity to continue their education and to receive prenatal care. He would like to eventually open his own school in an inner city. “The best thing you can give is options,” Hydeman says. “If families have options in schools, they can find one that fits their children’s needs.”

The Allies’ contribution to Delaware has been invaluable. Since 1994, the organization has graduated 255 alumni, served 279,533 Delawareans, performed more than 500,000 hours of service, and partnered with more than 150 nonprofit and government agencies. Its participation has often been the deciding factor as to whether a nonprofit can expand existing programs or offer new services, says John D. Baker, executive director of the Delaware Association of Nonprofit Agencies.

Lucy O’Donnell, executive director of the Delaware Adolescent Program, says expanding the organization’s mentoring services throughout the state would be impossible without Hydeman. “I would never have been able to hire a person to do that at a full rate,” she says. “So because of the cost effectiveness of having a Public Ally and the constant support that they’re getting, it’s a perfect fit.”

In addition to helping the nonprofits, Public Allies helps participants grow professionally and personally. The satisfaction rate of Delaware alumni is 90 percent, compared with a national average of 75 percent, says Garrett-Morrow.

Alfred Lance Jr. says his apprenticeship at the Wilmington Metropolitan Urban League taught him how to reconcile his idealism with the world of work. “It’s OK to be idealistic, but at the end of the day you have to have realistic steps to get to that idealistic conclusion,” says Lance, 30, an alumnus of the class of 2007.

Elizabeth “Tizzy” Lockman credits her Public Allies experience with teaching her how to collaborate with people of different backgrounds. “In my particular class, we had a really diverse group,” says Lockman, 31. An alumna of the class of 2005, she is now program manager of the Hearts and Minds Film Initiative. “We had people who were finishing GEDs all the way to people from Ivy League schools, different racial mixtures and religious backgrounds. We were forced to find common ground because you don’t have any choice but to overcome your differences.”

For others, the impact has been more profound. Founding executive director Tony Allen recalls an experience he had with a single mom in the first Public Allies class. A traumatic personal experience had all but stopped her from communicating until she related the experience at a meeting. “She said, ‘Public Allies gave me my voice back,’” says Allen. “That was 1995, and it’s given the voice back to so many young people. That’s why it’s important.”

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