Three Who Point the Way

Caitlin Johnson
November 30, 2001

Community heroes are not born, they're made—often by turning personal adversity into action on behalf of friends, neighbors, even people they've never met. Every day, Connect for Kids celebrates community activism on our site. This week, we're highlighting three ordinary people who did extraordinary things for families in their hometowns. We hope their stories and advice will be helpful.

Phoenix, Arizona: Hope for Families With Special Needs
Just after Denise Resnik's son Matthew turned one, his parents began to suspect something was wrong. Gradually, Matthew stopped responding to his name, stopped meeting his parents' eyes and started losing the speech he was developing.

ResnikAt 2, Matthew was diagnosed with autism, an incurable developmental disorder. "We poured ourselves into learning as much as we could about the disorder, and the therapeutic interventions," says Resnik. "We connected with other parents to share information and help find answers. But every time we found answers, we had more questions."

"When Matthew was diagnosed," says Resnik, "two in 10,000 kids were diagnosed autistic. Now, eight years later, it's one child in 250."

Despite the growing prevalence of autism, the Resniks found few places to go for help in their Phoenix community, so they and several other parents of autistic children formed a support group, meeting once a month in local restaurants.

Pretty soon, it was clear they needed more than just a monthly meeting. In 1997, Resnik teamed with Dr. Cindy Schneider, mother of two autistic children, and Dr. Raun Melmed, Matthew's developmental pediatrician, to form the Southwest Autism Research Center (SARC).

SARC hosts a resource library and supports families through outreach and information sessions on, for example, working with state agencies, insurance companies and schools; workshops for siblings; and a summer camp for the whole family. There are eight full- and part-time staff, and over 100 volunteers.

Resnik, who runs a marketing and PR firm, used her expertise in planning special events to put together fundraisers and get the word out about SARC. During the first year, the group held dinners and raised about $38,000. This year, they raised $1.7 million to support the cause.

Best Lesson Learned?
Take a look at your talents and skills and see what you can do to support your cause, says Resnik. "I never thought I could be one of those parents who could get involved in autism because it was so close to home and it was so painful to me," she says. "But each one of us has something to contribute, and the ability to make a difference. Focus, enthusiasm and a heartfelt cause are the best ingredients to inspire others to want to get involved."

Most of all, she says, don't go it alone. "We've grown because of our valuable collaborations with already established organizations and emerging organizations in the community. Collaboration in the nonprofit world is a key ingredient. ? As soon as you start thinking you're all alone, it can be overwhelming and paralyzing."

Want to learn more? Contact SARC executive director Emily Chappell by e-mail to, or visit the Southwest Autism Research Center Web site.

San Francisco, California: A Neighborhood Beacon
In 1993, San Francisco's Sunset District had no youth centers or nonprofit groups working with kids. There was a "sense that there wasn't much need" for services for children and families in this largely middle-class neighborhood, says Michael Funk.

Some of the needs were hidden from view: immigrant and low-income families living in one of the three local housing projects faced hunger and homelessness; teens faced boredom and scrapes with the law. Throughout the community, kids with working parents sought a place to go after school with access to computers.

Funk, a pastor at a local church, saw the need for family services�and with the help of two adults and about 30 kids, began rallying community support.

Soon, Funk and the others formed a nonprofit youth group and a coalition to advocate for services in their neighborhood. From there, the Sunset Neighborhood Beacon Center (SNBC) was born. In the A.P. Giannini Middle School and a nearby store-front community center, SNBC offers arts instruction, after-school tutoring, support groups for girls and onsite juvenile justice case managers.

At each site, there's also a state-of-the-art PowerUp computer lab, an artist in residence and independent filmmakers to teach kids' everything from arts technique to digital filmmaking.

Getting started wasn't easy, says Funk. "We had no money, and people weren't convinced of the need for this. We all worked different jobs to pay the rent, and we didn't have a building." But they stuck with it, determined to connect their community with services it needed.

Best Lesson Learned?
The best lesson Funk learned, he says, is that building relationships within the community is the key to sustainability. "Rather than starting a program, our emphasis was always on building relationships with kids, families, schools and community leaders. [With this] we've survived the early days and ebbs and flows of funding for programs. Whenever we lost funding, those relationships didn't disappear, and people came to the table with even more resolve to work together to do something sustainable."

From the beginning, SNBC members teamed with local businesses, merchant associations and community groups. "It's important to get out there, go places, meet people. Find out when a group is meeting and show up and introduce yourself," he says. "It's not about having a specific idea to pitch, but just being there and saying, 'Lets work together.'"

Want to learn more? Contact Michael Funk by e-mail or visit the Sunset Neighborhood Beacon Web site.

OriginalRead the Connect for Kids' article on the SNBC, Sunset Neighborhood Beacon Center Looks for the Truth in Youth.

Washington, DC: Turning the Page
Turning the Page is a Washington, DC organization that helps bring communities and public schools together through volunteerism, or donations of money, books and services. The group holds regular Community Nights at local elementary schools, to bridge the gaps between parents, adults and schools.

KingAs a Georgetown Law School student, founder Jason King participated in a program to teach law in DC high schools. "I had 11th and 12th graders, many of them very bright, but most of them were not prepared for high school or college," he says. "Beyond a one- or two-page paper, they couldn't really write anything. They never thought anyone gave them opportunities or trusted them to succeed."

After graduation, King and a few fellow Georgetown Law School alums organized a fundraiser to stock DC school libraries with books. When they realized that wasn't enough, they decided to form a nonprofit. "We realized there wasn't a lot of coordination between schools and the community, and that family involvement was lacking so we set out to improve schools and children's performance," he says.

It's now an incorporated nonprofit with three full-time staff and more than 150 volunteers.

Tips on Becoming Incorporated
King, now 29, and his friends had a leg up: as lawyers, they found it easier than most to file the paperwork to become an official nonprofit. But anyone can do it with the help of a good book or guide.

King advises applicants for nonprofit status to make it as easy as possible for the IRS to review the application. "As lawyers, we knew to give the IRS reviewers all the info they needed, even more than [required by the] application. We added a three-page defense comparing ourselves to other groups that had received nonprofit status, and letting them know why our group was similar. We organized the application, added a table of contents and this three-page cover letter. That's a good idea, to help make it easy for them."

Best lesson learned?
"Patience. I think things take time," says King. "Also, persistence. Every day, try to accomplish something and keep it moving forward. We've had a number of accomplishments and we need to talk about it more, because the overall challenge of helping fix DC schools and education in general is so daunting that you have to learn to enjoy accomplishments along the way."

Want to know more? Contact Jason by e-mail or visit Turning the Page online.

OriginalRead the Connect for Kids article on Turning the Page, From Practicing Law to Promoting Literacy.

More Resources For Activists

  • Looking for a good idea? Find tips and inspiration in our Profiles in Action section.

  • Visit our Volunteer for links to groups that can help you get involved.

  • Let us know what you're doing in your area to build better communities for kids and families. Send a note