Lori Markowitz: Founding Youth Ambassadors to Enable Youths to Practice Compassion and Serve Their Communities

This is the second part of a series on two outstanding women, Lori and Jessica Markowitz. This post focuses on Lori, Founder and Executive Director of Youth Ambassadors, and Jessica’s mom.

With 18 years of experience with non-governmental organizations (NGOs), including designing and implementing international cross-cultural exchange programs with students from the Middle East and Africa, Jessica’s mother Lori has a wealth of experience and strong credentials to draw from in her own non-profit work with youth—most recently in founding and serving as Executive Director for Youth Ambassadors.

What evolved into the formal Youth Ambassadors organization started in October 2007, when 40 Seattle-area youth from diverse backgrounds were invited to serve as youth ambassadors in Seeds of Compassion, a 5-day event to mark the Dalai Lama’s visit to Seattle. The youth who participated in the event were so energized that they asked Lori, who had been their adult supervisor during the Dalai Lama’s visit, to help them form an organization that would be owned, organized, and operated by young people to serve the community.

Youth Ambassadors: Connecting with Truant Students to Help Them Return to School

Lori was going to let the youths pick a cause that they were passionate about when the group was approached by the King County Prosecutor’s Office because it needed help keeping young people in school. After visiting a truancy workshop, the kids chose truancy prevention as their cause, and 2010, Youth Ambassadors partnered with the Truancy Office of Seattle Public Schools to facilitate truancy workshops designed to return truant students to school before they enter the juvenile justice system. The Youth Ambassadors, who are students from grades eight through twelve, also served as peer-counselors to help truant students develop a plan to return to school.

The results of Youth Ambassadors’ peer-based approach speak for themselves. Following truancy workshops in which Youth Ambassadors participated, approach, 60% of truant students avoid future involvement in the truancy process compared to 25% before Youth Ambassadors became involved. A key factor in this success is the meaningful personal connections that the Youth Ambassadors establish with truant students, which helps provide the truant students with the social support and acceptance that they need to successfully re-enter the mainstream school environment.

Based on this strong success, Seattle Public Schools invited Youth Ambassadors to work further upstream in the process. During the 2011-2012 school year, Youth Ambassadors participated in Seattle Teens Advising Youth (STAY), a program piloted in four Seattle high schools. Under the STAY program, funded by a High School Graduation Initiative federal grant awarded by the Department of Education, select Youth Ambassadors students served as in peer truancy boards. Their responsibilities included: Talking to truant students about alternatives to skipping class, setting up attendance contracts, and meeting with the students regularly as appropriate to provide peer encouragement and support.

Compassion on the Curriculum

In addition to these impressive successes, Lori is excited about another project that is close to her heart and being launched for upcoming academic year: Co-teaching a course on compassion at Cleveland High School. As Lori explains, Cleveland was chosen for this course because “They embraced it.”

According to a Seattle Public Schools School Report for the 2010 – 2011 School Year, 69 percent of the students qualify for free and-reduced-price lunches. Only 38 percent of 10th graders at Cleveland meet or exceed typical growth on the state reading test, a number that has been dropping year to year and is low compared to the 54 percent average for high schools in the same district. Despite these challenges and others that Cleveland faces, Lori has established a strong track record there through the 18 months of work that she and students in Youth Ambassadors have already accomplished at the school. Last year, she visited the school every week. This consistency and dedication were key factors in establishing trust and getting administrative support for adding her course on compassion to the school’s curriculum.

Lori sees great potential in her class, which will be academically rigorous, and she sees great potential in the students. “They are amazing kids, with huge hearts,” Lori says.

What has Lori learned and what advice does she have for other individuals and organizations who want to initiate innovative programs that make a difference? “Start small and focused, and get administrative support. Get the model down and get something you can replicate.”

FAWE-Create-a-Smile-2009_with-Jessica-and-LoriAs she works tirelessly to expand the reach and impact of Youth Ambassadors, Lori also balances that work with her role as a mother. Her daughter Jessica makes it clear the positive impact that Lori has on her life. When asked, Jessica says, “I grew up with someone who creates change, and the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. She’s taught me how to make a difference. I feel like a powerful woman.”

Lori Markowitz, MPA, was the recipient of the 2005 Daniel J. Evans Leadership Award, and is the founder and executive director of Youth Ambassadors. To learn more about Youth Ambassadors, visit http://youthambassadors.net/.

Connie Rock is a writer, photographer, and inveterate traveler who has been to more than 30 countries. She holds a Master’s degree in Journalism from Northwestern University, and will begin studies this fall in the Master of Communication in Digital Media program at the University of Washington. Her blog is at: http://connierock.com/blog/.

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