Says Joe Maddon: “The volunteers are the unsung heroes. Without them, none of our efforts occur.” Every month, the Respect 90 Foundation will salute a distinguished volunteer from the communities of Tampa Bay, Chicago, Mesa, Arizona or Hazleton, Pennsylvania. Respect 90 will present a $1,000 grant to that volunteer’s charity. Should you have someone who is deserving, please let us know.
Carol Valentino-Barry – Harbor Light Salvation Army, Chicago
As a little girl in the seventies in Northwest Chicago, Carol Valentino-Barry used to love to look at things upside down.
“There are pictures of me as a little girl hanging upside down,” she laughs. “My father told me I always did that. He said it was my thing.”
That may help explain why today, she could be a copywriter for the messaging on Joe Maddon’s brilliantly inspiring T-shirts with a slightly different point of view.
Like the one that says it is OK to be uncomfortable.
“A lot of times we back away from what is uncomfortable,” opines the petite, energetic, community leader. “When you are uncomfortable, that’s when growth happens.”
And Valentino-Barry knows about growth. As the communications and community outreach director at Ridgewood High School, located less than 10 miles from Wrigley Field, her conversations are dominated by words like transition and understanding.
It’s her mentorship and leadership program at Ridgewood that has been recognized nationally. In 2015, the program won the Points of Light Award, an honor established under President George H. W. Bush. The award was no accident.
“We wrote a dual credit college class for seniors in the mentoring program using Harvard Business cases at a graduate school level,” says Valentino-Barry. “Was it uncomfortable for them? You bet it was.”.
The centerpiece of that program is her partnership with The Salvation Army’s Harbor Light Center, located in one of Chicago’s most troubled areas.
“The Salvation Army was already mentoring our students and I asked them ‘How can we work more with you guys?” she recalls.
At first, she arranged for her students to help Salvation Army staff and volunteers make sandwiches for distribution in underserved communities.
“But then,” Carol realized, “I didn’t want the students just making sandwiches, I wanted them to be out on the streets, to have the full experience of the project. I wanted it to be scaffolded. Salvation Army felt comfortable with that and allows us to go with them. Now we also include the mentors and parents. It has been really beautiful.
“Before we go, we explain why we are doing this, who is out on the street and why they are out there.”
Says Linda Reiter, the Salvation Army’s Volunteer Resource Manager: “Carol and her students are truly making a difference in the lives of those they have helped. Her students have a better understanding of homelessness and what they can do to help because of her passion for volunteering with us. We are grateful to Carol and her students for being part The Salvation Army’s mission to Do the Most Good.”
She also has her Ridgewood students involved with Sarah’s Circle (a Chicago refuge for homeless women) and Project Happiness (a national program to help children find their own lasting happiness). And, she returns to volunteer at Salvation Army on her own time.
Valentino-Barry’s motivation isn’t complicated.
“It’s really all about giving them love. That’s all it is. It’s pretty simple. When I see someone living under a viaduct, I feel no separation, I don’t feel like oh, the poor thing. Instead, I feel like that is me. I’m you. If you’re suffering, I’m suffering. There’s not a feeling of judgement. There are no levels.”
Born and raised in Chicago, Valentino-Barry went to Madonna High School before heading down state to the University of Illinois. She went on to earn a master’s degree in business, but soon found herself dissatisfied.
While her mother, father and an aunt were teachers (her husband currently teaches philosophy and civics at Evanston Township High school) she never really wanted to teach. Nonetheless, she returned to school and earned a master’s in education.
“So, I ended up going into teaching, but that wasn’t really the fit,” she says. “I kept thinking what’s the endgame here? I never understood how it works. Why you go to school from kindergarten, you make it through eighth grade all the way to12th grade and you sort of end up on a conveyor belt. You get dumped off and it’s all right, now figure it out.
“Go to college, I don’t know how that’s going to work for you but we’ll figure it out, your job, what you’re going to do for the rest of your life, we’ll figure it out. I felt like we are getting sold on some idea that it will all work out, but there are people who have been there before, they can help you, they can tell you, this is what I did.”
For Carol, it was always about the transition process.
As a result, her mentoring program grew out of need to involve a community with its students and to help the students transition into high school and then beyond.
She laughs, then turns serious when she says: “It’s a bizarre outreach of my life experiences as a person going to school believing the whole school thing all the way through two masters degrees, yet still scratching my head that there has to be an easier way to figure out what one wants to do with one’s life. So, with my background I have been using different skill sets from those two arenas. I was able to see that here were so many assets in the business community that were not being touched.”
She also eschews the traditional mentor role.
“It never made sense to me that there was a mentor and a mentee. Don’t we learn from children? Shouldn’t we be on the same level? Even when they are little you learn so much from them, right? What better way to make people feel on the same team.”
“Transition in any part of life has lots of pieces. One piece is changing levels. In high school it’s independent learning. Transition at any point in a life span is a big deal and there is a lot of attrition. When you have your older parents going off to the nursing home, that’s transition. Getting into kindergarten is transition. I think we should always be supporting transition. For some reason, it doesn’t always happen. In the mentoring program we have focused on transitioning into and out of high school. Both ends. Constantly bringing back who mentor the freshman, they can mentor sophomores, junior and senior year. Keep repeating the process, keep making it sticky.”
The idea is to support the students in terms of executive functioning skills, organizational skills, time management, decision making and goal setting. Valentino-Barry has brought in mayors and other community leaders to interact with her students.
Often, mentors offer the students in the program jobs and internships in transitioning to life after high school.
Somehow, Carol has found time to become a yoga instructor and a marathoner. In fact, she raised more than $3,000 for Chicago’s Mercy Homes by completing the 2014 and 2016 Chicago Marathons. Next up is the Boston Marathon.
Part of her training includes runs with the group, Back on My Feet, a running organization with a unique mission. Three mornings a week the club encourages homeless and those in shelters to set goals and experience the feeling of accomplishment that comes with completing a run. Valentino-Barry makes sure the group stretches properly.
“No matter who it is, we keep reflecting each other, she summarizes. “I know this world can’t be limited to what we see. We have so much greatness in ourselves, so much greatness in these students.”
– Rick Vaughn | Executive Director, Respect 90 Foundation