Reading Aces would be absolutely nothing without volunteers. Their commitment has been incredible, and they usually go to the same locations each week, so it’s great to see them build relationships with kids. There’s a face to the work that they’re doing, and I think they even start to feel an obligation to go, because they know they’ll be letting these kids down if they don’t.
Each of our sites also has what we call a site coordinator, and that is a leader that I have appointed to run the site and make sure volunteers are coming and make sure everyone’s staying focused and on track. It’s a great opportunity for teens to get leadership experience.
I recently appointed a few new people, too. We’ve always had site coordinators, but since I got to business school, I’ve learned how important it is to collaborate and learn from others. We have a new head of recruitment and a social media coordinator, and we’re all working to ensure the longevity of this program. Because it’s so simple and effective, I really think it can be expanded to any city, and hopefully all over the nation.
We’re going into our sixth year now, and it’s really important to think of this nonprofit as a business. We have to make sure that everyone who’s a part of the organization works toward a common goal, and that we market it with a common goal in mind. In business school, I’m learning ways to make people see the value in Reading Aces and want to participate.
Beyond going into business, I’m actually still uncertain about what I want to do professionally. I know that by studying business, I am getting the foundation to succeed in virtually any area, and while there were a couple of things that influenced me to go into it, Reading Aces was definitely one of them. It’s so exciting to launch an organization and to work with people—especially on the marketing side.
I only applied to two colleges, to be honest, and I applied to UT early. I loved Austin, and McCombs obviously has very high rankings. I’d heard amazing things about the school, and so far McCombs has taught me a lot that I’ve applied to Reading Aces, especially in terms of building connections. I used to feel like if I just did things myself they’d get done faster, but that is a horrible way to think. When you get to work with other people and hear their input—and it’s not always students leaders, but also various professors and professionals who come and speak with us—you realize that it’s all about collaboration.
Being, naturally, a bit of a control freak, letting go was definitely one of the harder parts of running Reading Aces. But I have to always remember that the site coordinators are people I appointed because I trust them, and trust their leadership abilities. It’s really just a matter of staying in communication and constantly checking in to make sure they have the tools they need to succeed. It’s also important to be constantly talking to the volunteers and seeing how they’re responding to their site coordinators—just making sure I’m giving the site coordinators the opportunities to be leaders while making sure everyone is staying on track and staying in communication.
I’m in the McCombs leadership program, and there’s a big focus on getting feedback. We’ve actually started to implement that by sending out feedback surveys to our volunteers and seeing what we can do to be more organized and make this a worthwhile experience for everyone.
The hardest part about sustaining Reading Aces is attracting volunteers. In the beginning of the semester, it’s always really easy to get people to volunteer, because it’s a great opportunity. People love it, but then it’s hard to do it every week. As the semester goes on, people start fading—you know, school. So now, we’re going to implement a new contract system to make people feel more obligated to show up. The contract commits them to 10 of the 15 weeks each semester, which is realistic, because we know that people have tests and things like that. It’s just a way for me to ensure that people stay committed. I feel like I’m wording it badly; when they come, they really do enjoy it. They have fun once they’re there. But as with any volunteer opportunity, it’s sometimes easier to say, “Well, I could go… or I could stay home.”
One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever heard, as corny as it might seem, is this old African proverb: “If you want to go fast, go alone, and if you want to go far, go together.” That’s the whole point of collaborating and being able to ask for help: making partnerships and forming relationships that are going to help take us to the next level. With Reading Aces, I’ve reached out to several organizations, and the responses and support have been overwhelming. I think that might be one of the reasons Reading Aces has been so successful. There’s actually an SAT prep group called Cram Crew, and when kids volunteer with Reading Aces, they get discounts there. I’m also meeting with the Barbara Bush Foundation For Family Literacy and talking about developing a partnership with them. Reaching out and stepping outside your comfort zone and talking to people is important, because people are generous and willing to help. You just have to ask.
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