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Travel Journals: On the Road with a Program Officer

2014 - June 11
by Nick Randell, Program Officer

Because we are based in Buffalo, NY, I generally gang together site visits to Massachusetts grantees in three or four road trips a year.  These trips are mostly about making vital face-to-face connections with our grantees and their work, though we also sprinkle in meetings with other agencies and community leaders that we feel we should get to know.  For me, these trips are also a little bit about finding fresh local oysters, after five o'clock rolls around.   So, in an attempt to offer a taste of a program officer's life on the road, I offer this road journal, chronicling this April's trip to eastern Massachusetts.

It all starts with early Tuesday evening flight to Boston, and a forty-minute drive by rental car to Salem.  Salem is a good base of operations for Essex County site visits, offering a reasonably central location.  After a day of driving, you can ditch the car and walk to a variety of restaurants.  On my first trip to Salem, expecting just a handful of witch-themed shops, I couldn't get over the degree to which the town embraces its infamous past.  But the tacky mixes with the thoughtful; there are real lessons to be drawn from the quite moving witch trials memorial, a quiet courtyard with carved stone seats commemorating each victim.

But I digress already.  The travel goes smoothly and I am at my hotel by nine.  Still time for a burger at one of my preferred spots just across the street from the hotel.

Day 1: Lawrence and Beverly

The day starts with a drive up Route 28 to Lawrence.  I gradually readjust to the different traffic norms (yellow blinking light?  we don't really do those in Western New York).  My first appointment is with a grantee that is running a therapeutic mentoring program for youth.  Things are going well.  A little more than a year in, they have worked with 18 young people, retaining most of them through a full mentoring course.  Four mentors are in place and the agency is about to interview a fifth.  They have secured approval from two of the three insurers that reimburse for this particular mentoring model, and feel that they are close to securing approval from the third.

My next appointment is right across the Merrimack River.  This site visit is for a grant that supports a series of workshops for parents of kids with disabilities.  The workshops focus on issues confronting families as their children transition to adulthood (and into new service models).  Given Lawrence's large Latino population, the workshops are offered in English and Spanish.  This is early in the grant - the first workshop is actually tonight.  So this visit is more about getting to know people in the agency.  I also get a tour of their day program for adults with intellectual disabilities, housed in a huge but welcoming space in one Lawrence's repurposed textile mills.

The afternoon's appointment is in Beverly.  One grantee, but they have two grants that I monitor.  One is about to wrap up, the other about a year in to a three-year program. The former created a trauma-informed culture for youth residential facilities, the latter is a fairly broad-based substance abuse prevention initiative that builds internal screening capacity and has a community outreach/education component.  There is plenty to talk about.  Both programs have had to weather some challenges (staff turnover, for example), though the grantee's commitment to their success has not wavered.

Late afternoon, I am back in Salem where I hit the hotel fitness room (without much enthusiasm), stroll the streets for a while, then grab a bite.  The evening's choice is a shepherd's pie at a cozy pub near Salem Common.

Day 2: Lynn to Lincoln

After breakfast in the hotel, I pack up and check out.  Tonight I will end up in the Cape Cod area.

Today's first visit is to a community college campus in Lynn where Tower supports a program offering a college experience for young adults with autism and other intellectual disabilities.  For two semesters, the students take classes that help them explore personal interests, discuss current events, write poetry, and gain confidence navigating the post-high school world.  Now, the grantee is adding a vocational component to the program.   Beginning in the fall of 2014 students will be able to take a sequence of courses in three tracks: canine/feline care, horticulture, arts management.  For this effort, the college is partnering with a community provider with expertise supporting young people with disabilities who want to develop job skills.   A couple of years back, Tower staff suggested (gently!) that these two organizations might explore ways to work together.  Glad to see that it has happened.  And it happened, not right away, but when both parties were good and ready to collaborate.  [Editorial aside: foundations probably need to acknowledge that partnerships have a better chance of succeeding when given some room to evolve on their own.]

I meet with the teams for both the initial college program and the vocationally-focused extended program.  Good discussions.  There is a lot of excitement for this work.  After lunch I get to sit in on a class from cohort number two of our initial grant.  It's a lively bunch; they are practicing ways to calculate a tip at restaurants and figure out what 30% off at Target really gets you.

My next stop is in Lincoln, Massachusetts, at an independent middle school for kids with learning challenges, most commonly dyslexia.  Lincoln technically falls outside our geographical funding area in Massachusetts.  But there is a long-standing relationship in place between the school and the Tower family.  It is one of only two institutions with "grandfathered" eligibility for Tower funding.

The grant in Lincoln supports a research collaboration with MIT.  Students take a battery of tests that create a profile of their relative strengths in terms of fluency and working memory (measures of the ease and mechanics of deciphering written texts).  These profiles suggest reading interventions and exercises that are best suited to each student.  The exciting thing about this project is that the kids will have pre- and post- fMRI brain imaging completed at MIT labs to see if they are getting better at activating the neural pathways that are believed to support improved reading and comprehension. This is work that is likely to get more attention.

That wraps up the day's visits.  I head on to the Cape via the town of Fall River.  An Austin, Texas band that I enjoy but have never seen live is playing there.    They play two great sets in an intimate little arts center, part of yet another repurposed Massachusetts textile mill.  These site visit trips are generally rewarding from a program officer's perspective.  Spicing up the evenings a bit when you can, makes them a little more fun.

One mildly amusing life-imitates-art moment closes out the evening.  As I drive the 20 or so miles to New Bedford and my hotel, it occurs to me, only fleetingly, that New Bedford, Massachusetts is where Ishmael begins his voyage in Moby Dick, but not before he has to share a hotel room -- and bed -- with a South Seas harpooner ("Queequeg," for you non-English majors).  So what does the desk clerk at the Hampton Inn tell me when I arrive a little after 11?  "Mr. Randell, the computer says that someone has already checked into your room."  I assured her that it wasn't me, nor was I expecting a roomie.  She goes up to the room with me, knocks, then opens the door with a master key.  No harpooner in residence.  A computer glitch.  I keep the chain on just in case.

Day 3:  Hyannis

The last day of the trip starts at an upper Cape Cod public school.  Our grant to the district has a number of separate components:  behavioral screening  (and, where indicated, a targeted intervention) for every kindergarten student in the district, professional development for staff to support this, a series of community forums around mental health and substance abuse issues, and on-site counseling for high school students (some self-referrals, some who have run afoul of school drug and alcohol policy).  The work is on track.   A student-produced video on drug and alcohol issues is in the works.  I watch clips of interviews with the district attorney and substance abuse counselors.  Look for links to it on our website, possibly in the fall.

Late morning I meet with the director of a suicide prevention initiative.  Not a current grantee, but important work in a community with about 30 youth suicides a year.  The prevention project, currently funded through the fall of 2015, works to train any and all professionals that work with youth in several evidence-based practices around recognizing signs of suicide and providing rapid intervention.

I rarely leave Cape Cod without downing a plate of locally-farmed oysters (a personal indulgence that I do not expense, by the way).  But my second meeting ran long and I had a 4:30 flight out of Boston to get to.   A review of Quivet Necks and Wellfleets will have to wait for another blog.  The trade-off was getting home in time for dinner.


Image Credit:  Photo by Mitchell Joyce
(Flickr: HckySo) Creative Commons 2.0 License

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