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Susan Sullivan: King County’s Youth Connector

Posted by seattle

“We thought you dodged the education bullet,” Susan Sullivan’s dad joked over the phone.

It’s true.  Susan’s parents spent their entire working careers in education (her father as a school principal and her mother as a teacher). Susan, however, chose a different path – getting a marketing degree at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and eventually landing a project management job at Microsoft.

The closest Susan got to teaching was in 2002, when she and her husband Bill Henningsgaard decided to take a year on the road with their three kids who were in 1st, 3rd, and 5th grades.  Piling into a bus-sized RV, the family explored North America.  The trip was unforgettable, and the parks they visited – spectacular.  The teaching?

“Home schooling was hell,” Susan says with a laugh.  At least on the humanities end.  The math curriculum, which Bill was in charge of, was pretty straight forward.   Each child had a text book to get through by the end of the year, and every problem had a solution.  Teaching things like history and how to write a cohesive paragraph on the road, however, turned out to be quite a challenge.

“It really made me appreciate teachers,” says Susan.

After that trip, if someone had told Susan that one day she’d be gearing up to engage 250 teenagers in an all-day summit, she probably wouldn’t have believed them. But then life has a funny way of coming full-circle sometimes.

When Susan and Bill joined SVP, she wanted to volunteer, but couldn’t find a good fit.  SVP focuses on strengthening nonprofits in areas like board development, technology, human resources, leadership, and so forth.  Susan didn’t feel she had the right expertise to volunteer in these areas, and so she held off, focusing on her family.

Once her children had “outgrown the sports [she] liked,” however, Susan found herself with energy to burn.  Taking over the facilitator’s role with Social Venture Kids (SVP’s youth philanthropy group) seemed like a great opportunity, and a way to share her values with her children and their peers.

It was through her work with SVK that Susan slowly built connections with youth development programs across King County, and soon discovered that she spoke their language.  “It’s a culture I’m very familiar with,” says Susan.  “In my parent’s house there was always a focus on education and growing kids.”

Combine that natural inclination with a killer set of project management and networking skills, an insatiable desire to learn, and buckets of energy and suddenly Susan had expanded her work beyond SVK.

In 2009, Susan teamed up with The Seattle Foundation’s Youth Grantmaking Advisory Board and held a Youth Philanthropy Summit for 20 teen philanthropists.  The following year the Summit changed and expanded to include 11 different youth activist organizations, and more than 60 kids.

At the close of the 2010 Summit, Susan remembers teens coming up to her and saying things like: “This was so cool.  Can I be on the committee next year?”  So despite the fact that her own kids were no longer involved in SVK or other related youth programs, Susan dove into planning the 2011 Summit, which has (in collaboration with the Summit Advisory Group) grown and evolved again.

Susan and her team realized that the 2009 and 2010 summits, though successful, were not reaching the kids who really needed help.  As Susan points out, one of the big challenges in youth development is that a small percentage of youth are involved in multiple programs, while a large percentage of youth are not involved at all.

The King County Youth Summit aims to address this with a “bring a friend” campaign.  Since the kids they can reach easily are already engaged in youth programs, they’re incentivizing participants (with raffle prizes like an Xbox Kinect) to bring a friend who might not yet be plugged into a youth program.

To that end, the Summit essentially acts as a bridge between teens wanting to get involved and actually jumping in, with people and organizations that can show them how.

Set for March 19th at Cleveland High School, the Summit will bring together 250 youth in grades 8‐12 throughout King County. Participants will connect with teens from different schools and cities while engaging in topics ranging from social justice to financial literacy to international education opportunities.  Through workshops (some of which are youth-led), roundtable discussions, and a resource fair, teens will get the chance to learn about and plug into organizations that can help provide opportunities that would not otherwise be accessible.

Susan is particularly excited about the number of youth programs that have stepped up, and the diversity of workshops they’ll provide – many of which were inspired by the youth advisory board.  For instance, the teens on the board wanted to know how to make a career out of sports when you can’t break into the impossibly competitive world of professional players.  Thus, one panel will include (among others): sports administrators for the Seahawks and the Storm, a professional blogger for the Steelers and sbnation.com, and a former professional baseball player.

Planning an event of this size (even with a committee that includes logistics wiz Marlene Rapues) and facilitating SVK is a fulltime job and then some, but it’s surprising to note that Susan isn’t interested in pursuing a paid career in the field.   She sees value in her unique role as a volunteer “youth connector” – someone just outside the sector, with a view of the forest through the trees, allowing her to act as a convener for all the different youth groups and programs.

Even so, it seems that despite her detour into the business realm, Susan has returned to her family’s roots.   She’ll be the first to tell you that she still has tons to learn, but she is quickly becoming a leader in the youth development community.

It’s one bullet we’re all happy she didn’t dodge.