By Bill MacKenzie, SVP Communications Fellow
“What’s wrong with me?” Alex said plaintively to his treasured dog, Shadow. “Why can’t I just be like everyone else?”
In a just-published book, The Boy Who Learned Upside Down (Black Heron Press 2013) Alex is a 3rd grader with learning disabilities who’s ready to give up on school. When he tries to read a book, the letters sprout arms, legs, skateboards – even stiletto heels – and escape off the page. Then something amazing happens. His teacher challenges Alex to do something that seems impossible for a kid like him.
With Shadow at his side, Alex sets off on one adventure after another to achieve his goal. Along the way, he learns to believe in himself. In the end, being different becomes his strength. He invents “Shadow Day” to help other kids like him discover their own hidden strengths and celebrate their accomplishments.
This illustrated children’s book is based on the true story of The Shadow Project, a Portland non-profit that was a three-year investee of Social Venture Partners. The Shadow Project’s founder (and the book’s author) Christy Scattarella was inspired by her son, who has dyslexia and ADD, The Shadow Project began in 1997 as a volunteer “mom’n’pup” operation in two special education classrooms in Duniway and Rigler Elementary schools in Portland.
The Shadow Project is the only nonprofit in the region that teams with teachers to help close the achievement gap that separates children with disabilities from their peers. “School is hard for these children,” said Scattarella. “But the biggest detriment to their success is not their disability, but giving up at a very young age because they believe they don’t have what it takes to succeed. They think there’s something ‘wrong’ with them; they disengage from school and stop trying.” Scattarella said she often hears from teachers and parents about how children describe themselves as “the dumb kid”.
“But if you change your mind about what you think you can accomplish, and you’re not ashamed of what makes you different, but take pride in your difference, there’s nothing that will stop you,” Scattarella said. “And that’s really the story of the Shadow Project.”
The Shadow Project teams with special education teachers to equip children to persevere and achieve academic and social goals. The Shadow Project is about children who, when given a book at the start of school, say to their teacher, “I can’t read, I can’t do this,” but within a few months are working hard to earn a book to bring home to read to their family.
The Shadow Project became a non-profit in 2003 and appeared to have a bright future. As the years passed, however, it became clear that if the organization was going to become a long-term sustainable operation and keep increasing the number of children it served it needed to become more professional. That’s where Social Venture Partners of Portland (SVP) came in.
The SVP Years
In 2007, SVP agreed to fund a three-year capacity-building effort, building on its reputation for transforming organizations through trusted partnerships.
The objective was to analyze The Shadow Project’s operations and then develop an expansion and “replication readiness” plan to strengthen the existing operation and serve additional at-risk children.
Megan Leftwich, who was then President of SVP, took on the job of leading SVP’s partnership with The Shadow Project. At the outset she wasn’t sure how she would help, but she respected the organization’s mission and wanted to make it work. “I’ve seen firsthand in our own extended family what happens when a child with a learning disability fails repeatedly in school and how that sense of failure permeates an adult life,” she said. So she dove in and with the help of other SVP Partners, made a difference.
“We fundamentally changed every aspect of the organization,” Leftwich said. When SVP began its partnership with The Shadow Project, it was run out of Scattarella’s home, had one part-time employee, no formal operating processes, an annual budget of $75,000 and served fewer than 1,000 children.
“SVP insisted that The Shadow Project should be run like a business and helped drive their first strategic and development plans,” Leftwich said. “We helped build their board and made introductions on their behalf in the community to help raise their profile and attract new funding. Most importantly, we imparted a mindset that they needed to think strategically about what they were trying to accomplish and move beyond the day-to-day operational focus.”
“Megan was amazing, (SVP’s Executive Director) Mark Holloway was amazing,” said Scattarella. “We just felt so embraced and supported by Social Venture Partners.”
The Encore Fellows Program hosted by SVP also provided a Fellow to help with marketing.
After SVP’s three-year commitment ended, Leftwich joined The Shadow Project‘s Board of Directors, became Treasurer and on January 1, 2014, will become Board President.
In 2011, The Harvard Business School Association of Oregon chose Shadow as the pro-bono beneficiary of its Community Partners Program. The Association calculated The Shadow Project’s social return on investment, and based on strong results, determined the program merited statewide expansion. The team made recommendations to strengthen and grow the program through collaboration and partnerships.
Shadow has taken critical first steps. This year, Shadow has expanded to four new schools in East Multnomah County in collaboration with the All Hands Raised Partnership. Shadow is also partnering with Portland Public Schools and a handful of local non-profits in the district’s upcoming Early Literacy Project.
Going forward, Leftwich’s goal is for The Shadow Project to attain financial sustainability and provide the opportunity for every learning disabled child in Oregon, and eventually beyond, to benefit from the program.
Leftwich sees similarities between The Shadow Project and a start-up company in that it’s thrilling to be part of building something and there’s no shortage of great ideas, but the resources aren’t always available to follow through. Leftwich figures she wouldn’t have stayed involved if the organization had been satisfied with the status quo. “Instead I’m seeing the vision that we had years ago for the organization start to take shape,” she said.
The Boy Who Learned Upside Down is available at Powell’s Books and other bookstores, as well as on Amazon.com with 100% of the proceeds benefitting The Shadow Project. Copies purchased through SVP will be donated to The Children’s Book Bank.