Partnership for At-Risk Youth Seen as Symbiotic

Photo courtesy Diana Ramirez
Two nonprofit organizations, led by Give-Mentor-Love Foundation founder Donna Pierson (left) and Learning Works Charter School founder/CEO Mikala Rahn, have forged a partnership this year that is seen strengthening educational support for at-risk youth after high school.

Amid the unprecedented hardships and tragedies due to the peripheral pandemic fallout this past year, Pasadena’s nonprofit organizations have been seen rallying in creative and unusual ways to help fill the gap and heightened need.
While some organizations have worked around the clock to provide food, shelter or healthcare, others have pivoted to offer different services to meet their clients’ changing needs.
Others, meanwhile — such as Give-Mentor-Love Foundation and Learning Works Charter School — have dug deep to forge a new partnership to improve their core mission: serving Los Angeles County at-risk youths and young adults who are in crises, help them achieve high school diplomas and set them on a path to success.
The two nonprofits, while serving different branches of youths and young adults, hit upon a common crossover when working with at-risk, foster care youth and victims of human trafficking: Education — how to get them in it, through it and beyond it.
“These kids have been shoved from one motion to the next motion their whole lives; if they’re in a group home, they’re told, ‘Here, take this, eat. Take this, get dressed. Go to school. Go to therapy,’” said Give-Mentor-Love Foundation founder Donna Pierson. “Then, the court changes course and tells them to go to a different home and do things a different way. So they’re just being bounced from place to place and, of course, education suffers in the worst way.”
Meanwhile, Pierson learned, Learning Works Charter School was turning high school dropouts into high school graduates for more than a decade. As an alternative charter school, Learning Works developed a program that offers a “fresh start,” supported by a curriculum built on relationships, rigor and relevance.
“High-risk kids for me are gun carrying, drug carrying, baby carrying kids. Our kids are seriously in trouble in some way,” said founder/CEO Mikala Rahn. “How do you get kids back in school when schools don’t want them?”
For more than a decade, Rahn has developed a multi-tiered educational model that combines academic intervention and tutoring, with wrap-around social support services. Those supports may include evaluations, case management, counseling, supplemental food and clothing services — and when possible, housing.
Now, the two powerhouse nonprofit leaders may have hit upon a new wave of advocacy in their partnership: fighting for transitional education.
“In my world, I’ve been trying to convince these kids that if they get a high school diploma, they’re in better shape than if they don’t. But I’m on long-term outcomes, not on short-term outcomes, and I see education as a long-term outcome; it’s going to pay off,” Rahn said. “In the short term, they get self-esteem — they learn time management, they earned and achieved something.”
While Learning Works has long been vying to help its graduates enroll in community college and beyond, Give-Mentor-Love saw the need to help its clients after high school. They needed more workable goals, Pierson noted, they needed the guidance and mentorship a parent would offer their child, whether the next step might be college, a trade school or jumping into the workforce.
“The issue we were seeing is that, even after high school — even though they’re deemed adults, right? — these kids were still making really bad choices,” Pierson said. “They’re all afraid, and they panic and they might choose something that really isn’t the right move for them, like taking on debt for programs they don’t need or that won’t really get them anywhere.”
By creating a new community service role, the foundation is expanding on its mission to provide guidance, support and leadership to area youth, in partnership with Learning Works.
Led by director Kathy Lee, the role, developed as part-college guidance counselor and part-cheerleader, has thus far been deemed a big success. In just six months, Lee has helped organize financial aid and continuing education, as well as locating potential internships and apprentice opportunities.
She’s placed two women in medical assistant roles, with tuition covered 100% by financial aid, and helped another young woman enroll in the U.S. Navy. She’s helping another young man work through the lengthy process of becoming a paramedic.
“So far, everyone is doing great in their programs … not one student is in over their head,” said Lee, who is in constant communication with the students to make sure they’re on track and have access to tutors or support if they need it.
Working with at-risk youth can be a daunting task, Lee admitted, but she puts her heart where the work is, and doesn’t give up.
“I can’t say that I’ve had a crazy background or misfortunes or trauma like they’ve had, not at all. But my passion is helping kids — I feel a strong pull to help youth in need. And I just feel a really strong connection with the kids once I start working with them. Plus I’ve got this incredible team at Learning Works, so I’m just pretty much riding on the coattails of [their] staff’s credibility and trust with these kids,” she added.

‘DREAM TEAM’ PARTNERSHIP

For Pierson and Rahn, working together has fit as smoothly as putting together a puzzle.
Though they knew of each other’s nonprofit work peripherally, once they saw each other in action, it was like recognizing a kindred spirit, the two women recalled.
“Donna is the real deal, man, she walks the talk,” Rahn said, remembering as she observed Pierson visit Learning Works and was warmly greeted by kids who knew her well. “She does the work. She puts in the time. And you know, she’s an amazing person who attracts amazing people. She basically has a magnetic force that attracts other people who want to be doing something good. And that’s what it takes to make change happen.”
Pierson, meanwhile, learned about Learning Works from her foundation’s mentored girls, who gave it high praise. The alternative school was offering meals, one-on-one tutoring and even free day care for the girls with babies, in a room with a glass partition so they could even observe them while studying. The nonprofit’s well-known “chaser” program especially impressed her, she said. The chasers act as a buffer between the student and teacher, but also are seen as parenting substitutes: they literally chase down the students to get them to class, and do everything necessary along the way to make that happen.
“When I saw what Learning Works was doing I was literally blown away. If that’s not school done right for at-risk kids, nothing is. It’s just the most brilliant program,” Pierson said. “I adore the ground Mikala walks on because I don’t think anybody has been as creative as an educator as she has been, and that’s what blew me away.”
Laughing at their mutual affection, the two came to a compromise to surmise their partnership.
“I think what binds us together is we’re both looking for creative solutions. We’re tired of this,” Rahn said, with Pierson adding, “We want solutions to not just help kids get from point A to point B, but to give them tools to get much further.”

TRANSITIONAL EDUCATION

Few programs, federal or otherwise, are advocating for job development or transitional education, the two women lamented.
Even for middle-class children, the path to four-year college — or community college and then-bachelor degree — is often the only one pushed early on, and students who don’t fit into that model are largely ignored.
For at-risk youth, getting them a high school degree should be just the starting point to success. Trade schools can also turn out lucrative and satisfying careers, and should be more accessible, they said.
“Schools aren’t paid to be on transition, that’s the challenge. Basically, as a society, we have ignored the kids that don’t go into a four-year institution,” Rahn said, noting that the partnership is trying to drum up ways to find funding for at-risk youth after high school, who are still in transition to adulthood.
“What is that transition like for high-risk youth that finally graduate but still have an unfunded future? How can we find strategies to get them to the next point? … No one is pushing schools to develop for key industries here; everyone has failed on workforce development.”
An optimist at heart, Rahn believes it is a fundable venture, and one worth the investment.
In the meantime, she and Pierson will keep “kicking the can” down the road, helping the youth they love, and improving society along the way.
“Everything is like a piece of a puzzle. What Mikala does is a very big piece of the puzzle, and so is what Kathy is doing. So if we can all put these pieces of the puzzle together in just the right way, we’ve made a person whole and they become a bigger piece of society’s puzzle for success,” Pierson concluded. “So that’s all we’re doing, trying to put puzzles together.”

The Give-Mentor-Love Foundation and Learning Works are seeking volunteers, donations and creative solutions. To learn more, visit givementorlove.org.