Solar Youth, Inc. was founded in the fall of 2000 to help address the tremendous need for positive youth development opportunities in New Haven’s low-income neighborhoods.
Q&A with Joanne Sciulli, FES ’96, founder and executive director.
Q: What is Solar Youth’s mission?
A: Solar Youth’s mission, developed by founding youth and adults, is to provide opportunities for young people to develop a positive sense of self and connection and commitment to others through programs that incorporate environmental exploration, leadership development and community service.
All Solar Youth programs are based on our unique program model for urban environmental education:
- KIDS EXPLORE! Youth investigate the local ecology of their community through lessons, games and outdoor exploration.
- KIDS DO! Youth then identify environmental issues that affect the health of people and the natural environment, and seek solutions through youth-led Community Service Action Projects (C-SAPs).
- KIDS TEACH! They then teach what they learned and accomplished to others through Public Education Projects (PEPs).
Q: What prompted you to found (or join) the organization?
A: After graduating from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, I saw the amazing potential of the natural and cultural resources of New Haven to be used for education, community service and leadership development. After being awarded a Social Entrepreneurship Fellowship from the Echoing Green Foundation, I developed the mission and program model (Kids Explore! Kids Do! Kids Teach!) that ultimately became the basis for Solar Youth.
Q: How did you set goals for the organization when you founded (or joined) it?
A: At the very beginning, I knew I wanted to address issues at the intersection of the environment, youth and cities. My fellowship from the Echoing Green Foundation allowed me and a group of young people to pilot a program model – Kids Explore! Kids Do! Kids Teach! – that simultaneously advanced positive outcomes for both youth development and the environment in New Haven. Kids Explore! Kids Do! Kids Teach! is still the core program model for Solar Youth today.
Q: How do you measure the impact of programs?
A: Solar Youth uses the Search Institute’s Developmental Asset framework, one of the most widely used approaches to youth development in the U.S., in determining which outcomes we seek for our youth. Developmental Assets are the building blocks of positive youth development, the possession of which has shown to have significant effect on youth’s ability to resist negative influences and achieve success in adult life. The Developmental Assets Solar Youth measures are within the categories of ‘constructive use of time,’ ’empowerment,’ ‘commitment to learning,’ ‘positive values,’ and ‘social competencies.’
Solar Youth also has specific goals for our teenage interns, who co-lead programs with adult staff. We work with teenagers to develop key “soft” employability skills, such as timeliness, public speaking, work ethic and a commitment to excellence. Interns also learn “hard” skills related to their assignments as educators or environmental stewards.
Q: What have been the greatest challenges?
A: We want to offer our pipeline of programs, which we call the Cycle of Stewardship, for youth of all ages in each of our three neighborhood program sites. In progressing through the Cycle, youth build on their experiences, maintain relationships, progressively gain more leadership skills and responsibility, become positive change agents in their communities, and eventually serve as role models for younger children.
However, as a result of occasional funding shortfalls, we haven’t yet been able to offer the full menu of programs that constitutes the Cycle at each of our program sites on a consistent basis. The positive outcomes that the Cycle affords depends on our ability the offer each program consistently. We therefore must find a way to raise sufficient funds on a regular basis.
Q: What are your top fundraising tips?
- Find your sweet spot! Solar Youth always strived to be creative, enthusiastic and appreciative in its communications and our donors have come to recognize those values as a core component of our brand.
- Pound the pavement! The easiest way to attract support is to have as many strategic conversations as possible about the importance of your work, your needs and the challenges you face.
Q: What’s the most critical lesson you’ve learned about nonprofit management?
A: Culture matters. It’s essential to hire the right people for your culture, and create consistent opportunities, whether through regular staff meetings, retreats or celebrations, to cultivate a sense of pride in and commitment to the organization and its mission.
Q: What changes do you anticipate in the nonprofit landscape over the next five to 10 years?
A: Nonprofits will have to embrace doing more with less, while also investing in thoughtful capacity-building measures. Both the competition and need for services will become more pronounced in the next decade and donors and clients will expect more from providers.
Q: How can others help support your organization’s mission?
A: There are three primary ways to support the mission of Solar Youth:
- Make a donation. Funding is always a challenge.
- Give youth feedback on their projects on Solar Youth’s Facebook page. Youth need to hear that others care about their accomplishments
- Volunteer to help with program and administration.
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