Lesley-Ann Drake of Path To Shine®
How long have you lived in Atlanta?
I’ve been in Atlanta for 35 years.
Your mission is two-fold: to inspire children to achieve their dreams and to motivate people to volunteer. I think that’s awesome, because many non-profits only focus on the giving instead of a two-way relationship. How did you decide to take this approach?
It came about because when I volunteer — it’s not only about my Christian imperative which speaks to a deep part of me — but when we give back it feeds us in a different way. You don’t have to be Christian or have any faith to volunteer, and if we can get more people involved and more people volunteering then we can help more children. So I want people to have the experience of volunteering, while also being able to have more children served. It feeds itself.
How did you decide to start Path To Shine® in 2010?
I was volunteering at a homeless shelter, and I’d been there two months when a woman walked in with a 4-year-old, an 18-month-old and 5-month-old twins, and she was visibly pregnant with her fifth child. She was only 19, and she was homeless.
Finally, I got to a place where I understood if she had just had some different opportunities presented to her, then perhaps she would have chosen a different path. Unfortunately, when I went back the next week she had already been sent on her way. Because it wasn’t a suitable place for her to stay. So, I don’t know what happened to her, but I do believe that she was simply setting onto the path that was expected for her. The path which had been shown to her when she was growing up.
Part of the Path To Shine® model is to bring in outside speakers and share stories with the children and to hold up different choices and different lifestyles. Different speakers come in. We’ve had school principals, priests, a karate instructor, a woman who owned her own business, policemen, firemen, teachers. It doesn’t really matter who it is. It’s just continuing to hold up different people, and of course all the adults who volunteer all do different things. One of our volunteers is a pilot, another is in the Army Reserves. We had someone come in who hiked the Appalachian Trail by herself. We just keep on showing different models and different life stories for the children, and you never know what’s going to speak to them.
We also do outings, and one of those was to a horse barn. One of the children that I work with is very quiet, and she only speaks when she’s spoken to. As soon as we got to the barn, her whole face lit up. The first step was splitting into two teams, and each team took turns brushing the horse. Then it was time to ride the horse around the ring. Jessica said, “Mrs. Lesley-Ann! Mrs. Lesley-Ann! Can I go first? Can I go first?” I said, “Yes, Jessica!” So she went first, and as soon as she was done she asked if she could go again. As we were leaving, she asked if she could come back, how much does it cost and can my mom bring me here. Clearly, she had a connection with animals that we didn’t even know about until she had that encounter. Who knows what that’s going to inspire her to do. If she can find a job working with animals, it’s going to feed her in a deep way and that’s a wonderful thing.
How did you transition from volunteering to running Path To Shine®?
It was a big leap of faith, because I had a job that I liked at the church. But in order to do Path To Shine® and embrace the vision in the sense of lots of people and lots of programs I quit doing what I was doing. So I had no money, no volunteers, no children and no program — but an idea. That started in May 2010. By January 2011, I was doing Path To Shine® full-time.
What was that six months like between your idea in May and it coming to fruition in January?
It was really scary, and it certainly brings some tension to your home life. It was particularly scary, because we have one daughter in college. It wasn’t as if we could afford for me to be not contributing to the family income. It wasn’t going to go away. I tried to get out of it. I went to visit all sorts of programs, and I made a deal with God that I’ll help someone else. But every program I visited wasn’t the program that I thought we needed. Either they didn’t have insurance. They hadn’t done background checks. The ratios weren’t there. They were getting the children before they got the volunteers. So you had lots of kids and only a few volunteers. I didn’t want to end up in that situation, so I ended up doing my own.
Since you started in 2010, you’ve grown from 1 program to 9 programs. The model is to get the volunteers, and then the children can be served. Has the growth happened organically? How has it grown so fast, so quickly?
Being a part of the Episcopal Church has been part of the growth, because it gives me a network within which to work. By communicating in the publications that the diocese sends out there are avenues to share the news of Path To Shine®.
Some are personal contacts, but it’s really just networking. It’s come about in different ways, but I see it continuing to grow. I got our first out-of-state inquiry a couple of weeks ago. She was the friend of a volunteer at one of our programs. She is wanting to do a program in North Carolina. She thinks it’ll take about a year, but we had a great conversation about the steps that she needs to take. Hopefully, that will work.
In the past few years, what stories of impact have you seen?
One of the little children we started with was Luis. When we met him, it was the summer between first and second grade. He had to go to summer school, because he hadn’t done quite well enough to go to second grade. But if he did well enough in summer school, then he could go on up. We didn’t see him that much that summer, but he was able to get into second grade. We started Path To Shine® when he started second grade. He came every single week. He never missed a week. At the end of second grade, he was doing much better and went right into third grade. He didn’t have to do summer school. The same for fourth grade. Sadly, the family had to move. So we lost track of them, but it was clearly someone who’d been impacted in a very positive way.
There was another family whose mother was an addict. The children were all taken by DFACS. We had three of the siblings in the program, and DFACS actually told us and told the foster parents that they had to get the children to Path To Shine® because it was such an important piece and stable influence in their lives. That was a wonderful thing to hear.
Another story is a young man who was in fifth grade and clearly very bright. He has two younger brothers who are still in the program, so we stayed in touch with family. One day I wondered what it would be like if the oldest one, Edward, went to a private school for middle school. He had gone to public school for sixth grade, and I met with him and his mother. I asked them what that would be like, and they were both hugely enthusiastic and wanted to do it. I made an inquiry and got him tested. He flew through the tests, and now he is in his second year at a private school. He got the academic scholarship, but a family like Edward’s can’t afford all the other things that go along with going to a private school. It’s not just the academics, but there’s uniforms, books, trips, school supplies and a whole bunch of other things. All of a sudden a family has extra meal costs, because they’re feeding him breakfast and lunch that he’s not getting at school (Editor’s note: At a public school, he would be receiving free or reduced-lunch). And transportation. This family’s driving 25 miles everyday roundtrip to get him to and from school. There’s no school bus to a private school. We call this “Fund the Gap.” We want to do this for more students. We committed $1,200 to the family last year to help them with these additional expenses, and we’re doing the same again this year. Our goal for 2016 is to expand the program and have children in other Path To Shine® programs be able to apply for this “Fund the Gap” scholarship.
What would you say to someone who is hesitant to volunteer?
One of the things that we learned very early on with Path To Shine® is that volunteers need training. Anyone who is going to volunteer for anything needs tools and needs to feel safe and competent. We do a training that takes 5 hours to get people oriented and to help them feel comfortable. There’s an educator who works with me, and she is retired from education. She brings a lot of classroom experience, and I bring all the stories and why you should do this. Between us, we’ve noticed that when people leave at the end of training that they really do feel empowered and inspired to go forth and do this.
You’re working in small groups, so you’re not by yourself. One of the learnings for me in doing this program that’s very powerful is — for the children it’s helpful for them to see the adults asking questions. Believe it or not, we don’t necessarily know fifth grade language arts because perhaps we didn’t diagram sentences when we were younger. Or we may not know third grade math, but we know the answer’s wrong. But the way they do math these days is not the way we learned it. So to be able say to the child, “I don’t know how you do that. Let’s see if there’s someone else here who knows how to do that.” If there’s an adult, that’s great. If there’s another child, then even better. Because that child that knows how to do the work feels really good about themselves. Plus, you’re modeling the behavior of asking the question.
We make it safe for both the adults and the children to ask questions, because we all learn through asking questions. I think at the end of the day you just have to step off the cliff. You just have to try. If it doesn’t work out, then you can always say sorry — this wasn’t for me. We’ve not had a volunteer, once they started, drop out mid-way through the program. We may find someone after a year of meeting every week decides that it’s too much of a commitment, but the volunteers that show up for the program really love it. They make the connections with the children and want to come back.
What would you say breaks your heart about Atlanta and makes you want to keep coming back to serve people?
The city of Atlanta has so much poverty. In round numbers, one in four children in the state of Georgia are living in poverty. It’s getting very difficult for families living in poverty to break out of that cycle. It’s really close to impossible. I heard someone say the other day that your parents’ mortgage shouldn’t dictate your educational experience. The fact is that these children’s parents don’t even have a mortgage; they’re living in rented accommodations.
We have to provide a decent education for every child, and we don’t. We fail in that. My daughter’s a teacher, and we pay teachers, for the hours that they work, minimum wage. Until we elevate the position of teachers and provide them with more meaningful salaries, then it’s going to be difficult to improve the school system. We see children struggling in school, because the teachers are overworked and underpaid. As soon as they get 3 or 4 years of experience, they leave. Then you have more new teachers. It’s a cycle. That’s the sad part to me — that Path To Shine® has to even exist. If we had strong educational programs for all children, there’d be no need for Path To Shine®.
What excites you most about Path To Shine®?
What excites me is seeing the program grow and knowing that although we started with one program, now we’re at nine. We’re working with other groups, so we hope that it’ll continue to grow. The more programs there are, the more people getting involved and the more children being helped. Sometimes you don’t know where volunteering will lead you. One volunteer, Lindsey, ended up after a year-and-a-half with the program realized she was wanting to be a teacher. She moved up to Boston and started working at a charter school. She decided that was not what she wanted to do. So she went back to Pennsylvania to college and got her Masters of Education. That was totally life-changing for her, just because she decided she was going to volunteer with some children. Exciting things like that happen, and I believe that as people volunteer maybe they’ll find that it speaks to them in other ways. Who knows what other people may find as a different passion and a different calling, because they decided to volunteer. It’s fascinating to see how the people who are involved at the coordinator level and leading the programs have such a sense of joy in doing this. It’s wonderful to see people who take a leap and are trying something and are trusting that it’ll work out just fine and seeing that it works out more than fine. It works out really well.
Anyone can volunteer to help a child. If there’s not a program near you or a program that you feel comfortable with, I’m happy to come and help you start a Path To Shine® program and give you all the tools and resources you need for that. But if that’s not what you want to do, go to the local school and ask if you could be a reader once a week. Or if you could come in and read stories at library time. That’s where it has to start. If children can’t read, and they don’t learn to like reading and to love reading then they’re not going to learn. It’s really important early-on that children hear stories. The child doesn’t have to read to you. You can read to the child. That’s just as important, because then you’re going to be reading at a higher-level than that child can read themselves. They’re going to hear vocabulary that they wouldn’t hear otherwise. They can practice comprehension and listening skills while you’re reading to them. There’s tremendous amounts you can do just by reading a story to a child.
There’s a huge deficit for children living in poverty just being exposed to vocabulary. Children who are growing up in families where English is not spoken as the primary language at home come to school having a handful of words in English. Suddenly they’re not only learning their ABCs, but they’re learning words. So they have this huge deficit. Many of them end up being completely bilingual which is an enormous gift. But to start off in kindergarten is really hard.
What would you say is your greatest need at Path To Shine® today?
Our greatest need is just more people to help more children.
Part of the model of Path To Shine® is lots of small programs. Although it’s tempting to go out and grab hundreds of children and try to serve them all, I’m very clear that lots of smaller programs are more beneficial than one big program. With smaller programs you get to know the children and the children get to know the volunteers. You get to know the families. There is a level of deeper connection, and you build trust. Once that trust is there, there’s a chance to have more meaningful conversations. It allows us to have a conversation with a parent to remind them that reading’s important. They might not hear that if we didn’t have a connection.
Smaller programs are more likely to be sustainable. If you have 200 children, you have to go and find a big building. If you’re going to feed them, that’s a lot of food. Whereas if you keep the groups to perhaps 20 children at a time with 10 or 11 adults, it’s a lot easier to keep that going. The consistency and continuity of the program I believe is far more important than doing something for 6 months, and then it falling apart because it was too big and too much.
Is there anything else that you’d like to share?
At the end of the day people just have to take a step. It may not be the right one, but until you try it you don’t know whether it’s the right one or not. And you don’t know where it’s going to lead. There’s a wonderful author, Parker Palmer, and he talks about doors closing behind us. I think our invitations as human beings, whether we’re spiritual people or not, is to walk through doors, to seize opportunities which are presented to us. Just to try things. If they work out, that’s great and wonderful and who knows where they’ll lead.
I had no idea that I’d end up doing anything like this. I spent 19 years in the travel industry. I went to college for business, and what’s that got to do with this? But at the end of the day, there are skills and gifts that I had and learned that did apply to starting a non-profit. I used to have employees, now I have volunteers. They’re still human beings. They still need relationships and tools to be able to do their job even though that job is very different.
But I think just stepping into the opportunity and seeing what that presents us with will enrich our lives and reward us in ways that we may not understand right now. But it will become more evident as we go through our lives.
As told to Kristen Green on September 10, 2015.