24 May Nonprofit Spotlight: Side by Side Kids
May’s interview is with Piccola Dorsey,
the Volunteer and Intern Coordinator of Side by Side Kids in Austin, TX.
Secret Sauce Ingredients
- Willingness to Learn from Clients
- Intentional Times of Reflection
- Reliance on Prayer
- Constant Reinforcement of Mission
- Risking Failure In Order to Innovate
What does Side by Side Kids seek to accomplish in the community?
SBSK’s mission is “to inspire and equip kids in East Austin to be excellent students, make wise choices, and follow Christ.” This mission is pursued along four different dimensions: Faith Development, Academic Enrichment, Character Formation, and Empowerment. During the school year, the organization hosts a variety of after-school activities on partnered elementary school campuses every afternoon Monday-Thursday for roughly four hours each day. Each day, students receive snacks and socialize with peers, volunteers, and their teachers in an informal setting; receive homework help from their After-school Teachers (as well as a volunteer if present in the classroom); participate in “Crew Time” during which students “learn about who Jesus is and how the Gospel impacts their lives today;” and participate in structured recreational time to promote friendship and teamwork.
Today, Side by Side Kids services 280 unique students every week at six different elementary schools. Nearly all (96 percent) of families served are economically disadvantaged, and 95 percent of all participating children are Hispanic. More than half (58 percent) are involved in an English as a Second Language (ESL) program. As SBSK has grown, the number of staff members has also increased dramatically, tripling between 2014 and 2018 to roughly 60 employees. About 50 volunteers serve weekly in classrooms across the east and southwest Austin.
How does the staff encourage, support, and motivate one another to serve more faithfully?
According to Piccola, many staff members start at SBSK with the “work is work” mentality and may feel the need to check all of their problems and struggles at the door in order to succeed in the workplace. “At SBSK, it’s okay not to have your best day,” she said. “We make sure to care for the whole person. There is space to stop and pray together if that’s what is needed.” She says that while the organization is purpose-driven and has goals“that demand a lot of focus and excellence,” “we’re fun…that’s one thing that’s incredibly distinct about us. We have a dart board in our office, celebrate birthdays, and make sure our team is cared for.” Prayer meetings are also held with the leadership team and Site Coordinators every Wednesday morning during which the staff prays for the kids and the program in general. Members of the team are also encouraged to write personal notes of appreciation to one another as reminders that their work is seen and valued by others.
What are some of the largest challenges faced by SBSK? How do you fight through them?
Piccola noted that while Austin is seen by many as a city of prosperity, wealth, and comfort, this is not a reality for thousands of residents that live in the shadows and on the margins. “People just don’t know the issues our community faces,” she said. “In Austin, you have certain expectations – people think everyone is covered and good to go. There are pockets of this town that really need help and support…Communicating our message confidently is critical.”
As a faith-based organization, SBSK staff members lean into their faith and trust that God will provide for their needs. “I am learning to trust that the right people are going to come at the right time. I do my best to communicate the needs that we have as an organization, but it ultimately comes down to leaning on Him to bring these people.”
“In Austin, you have certain expectations – people think everyone is covered and good to go. There are pockets of this town that really need help and support…Confidently communicating our message of both need and hope is critical.”
What gets you up in the morning to do this job? What inspired you to join Side by Side Kids?
“I just love people. I’ve tried working in a world where I just get my check every week and I can’t do it…I have to be working in a position where I’m making a real impact,” Piccola noted. “Here, I can see that happening.” She also stressed the importance of those in administrative positions taking the time to visit the field or remain aware of the work being done by direct service providers. Without these testimonials from the front lines, it can be easy for nonprofit leaders to lose sight of the progress being made. Piccola shared that “even on days where I have to send a lot of emails, I try to get to the [elementary school] campuses for 5-10 minutes just to see the impact.”
What have you learned from the people your organization serves? How has this changed the way you approach serving that population?
The children served by Side by Side Kids frequently remind Piccola that everyone has something to bring to the table, regardless of their socioeconomic status or background. They have also demonstrated to her what it looks like to be truly generous and affirm the intrinsic dignity every person has as a bearer of God’s image. “Last year, one of the students brought me a toy and I put it as the screensaver on my phone. She still comes back to me from time to time and asks whether I still have that picture of her. Even though her family doesn’t have a lot of money, she saw that I had worth and was selfless enough to give her toy away. She was incredibly thoughtful and wanted to constantly reaffirm to me that I’m someone that has value to her. Never assume that you’re the only person that has something to offer.”
“[That student] was incredibly thoughtful and wanted to constantly reaffirm to me that I’m someone that has value to her. Never assume that you’re the only person that has something to offer.”
What advice/encouragement would you give to those that are also passionate about this line of work and want to see communities restored?
The social sector is infamous for its long hours, difficult work, and low levels of financial compensation. Because of these reasons, it is clear that many drawn to nonprofit work do so because they believe in the organization’s mission and are passionate about the populations being served. However, it is easy to lose sight of this larger narrative in the midst of frustration, grief, and burnout. “The first piece of advice I have is to keep your purpose and mission in front of you,” Piccola advised. “Remember why you said yes to something. There will be days when you ask why you’re doing some random thing, and if you can connect to the why, you’ll keep going.”
“Keep your purpose and mission in front of you. Remember why you said yes to something. There will be days when you ask why you’re doing some random thing, and if you can connect to the why, you’ll keep going.”
Piccola also noted the importance of recognizing and celebrating the small wins in an organization. Community change is difficult to measure and takes years – if not decades – to see play out on a large scale. This means that commitment to the community and the people that reside there is critical. In most cases, no quick fixes exist and restoration only occurs over time through unwavering perseverance and dedication to building relationships. “Look for progress,” she noted. “It’ll give you enough courage to keep moving forward.”
She also mentioned that no nonprofit does things perfectly, and unreasonably high expectations can exacerbate burnout and fatigue. The fear of failing can keep nonprofits from trying innovative approaches to problem-solving or better serving their clients. “Give yourself space to fail,” Piccola suggested. “If you’re too afraid to hear something different or fail, you won’t grow. Something could pan out if you can dream a little bigger.”