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Storytelling

Project Rousseau’s Founder, Andrew Heinrich, was looking for a way to share the inspiring stories of some of the organization’s most accomplished students. Capturing powerful stories would help spread the word about the organization’s work and promote future initiatives.

The Challenge

The Project Rousseau staff is proud of their students, and wants to tell the world about all they have accomplished. Highlighting the progress and maturation processes that take place, along with spotlighting the services and opportunities they offer students only furthers the organization’s work, but Andrew doesn’t have the bandwidth or storytelling background to execute a project of the sort.

Objectives

  • Capture the stories of Project Rousseau’s students in an inspirational way.
  • Use these stories to demonstrate impact, reinforce emotional connection with supporters, engage potential donors and use in marketing materials.

The match

“The Project Rousseau mission aligned with my interest in supporting education, particularly for the underserved. I’m interested in leveling the playing field and believe, like Project Rousseau, that many kids are simply deprived of the exposure to mentors, behaviors and pathways that would make them academically successful. Plus, after I’d spoken with Andrew Heinrich, I was captivated by his commitment and dedication to these kids. He is simply amazing.” -Kathleen

The solution

  • In their first meeting, Andrew explains that Project Rousseau needs to capture its successes with individual students for several reasons: to use for fundraising, to recruit college student mentors, and to recruit high school “mentees.” If the high school students could see themselves in a Project Rousseau student, they’d be more likely to join and commit to the study groups and mentoring.
  • Kathleen interviews three sets of mentors and their mentees about their experiences with the program.
  • Over the next weeks, she develops 1-2 page stories – including how the mentors/mentees came to Project Rousseau, what their goals are, what they’ve achieved, how they work together, what challenges they’ve faced.
  • Kathleen presents the final stories to Project Rousseau.

The Result

The three stories Kathleen wrote are now included in Project Rousseau’s annual report, used in materials for the organization’s many fundraisers and displayed on the organization’s social media and website. You can read the stories at the end of this case study.

“Kathleen has gone above and beyond for us. She wrote engaging stories, both those requested through the project and additional stories as well. It is easy to see how passionate she was about our cause in her stories. She cared deeply about our students who she wrote about and helped us show just how outstanding our students are. On top of that, she left us with a skill set that we could use to write our own stories. She is the type of person who has helped us whenever we need. Project Rousseau knows that we can always count on Kathleen.”
— Andrew

The impact

Kathleen’s stories provided Project Rousseau with engaging communications materials. By sharing the student’s stories, Kathleen helped to give each student a new-found confidence, something to be proud of and an extra piece of motivation to move forward.

“Project Rousseau has shown me the power of stepping up and doing something to make a difference. It was a WONDERFUL experience! For a writer mired in marketing communications for technology companies, it was a breath of delightfully fresh air to talk with dedicated teens and their committed mentors, selfless young people who are really making a difference in the world. It is great that Catchafire not only facilitates, but motivates, the connections between working professionals and the nonprofits who can benefit from their skills.”
— Kathleen

First Story: Rapping Talents to Raise Self-Sufficiency

When you ask Gabriel Calderin or his Project Rousseau mentor, Tyler Feely, about Gabriel’s future, they both tell you it’s limitless. A 15-year-old entering his junior year at Central Park East High School in East Harlem, Gabriel has boundless energy and enthusiasm for many passions, from creative writing to music to a public access television program he works on.

“I do want to graduate from high school, go to a high-ranking college, get a job and live in Prospect Park – I love Prospect Park,” says Gabriel. “I have a mentality for the future. Everything is specific; everything except the job. I don’t know yet what I want to do.”
He does know that Project Rousseau will help him define, plan for and achieve future goals, whatever they may be.

“Now that I’m with Project Rousseau, I am trying to aim higher,” Gabriel says. “Thanks to this project and Tyler’s help, I’m attempting to reach for extremely high grades. Before, I didn’t think I could do the work. I felt I had some sort of disease. That has been disproven.”

Today, Gabriel is working with Tyler to score well enough on his PSATs to become a National Merit Scholar. Their weekly mentoring sessions have steadily increased Gabriel’s GPA, and his goal for junior year is a 95% average in all his classes. Gabriel and Tyler like to set “ridiculous” goals in order to keep improving and get closer to achieving them. Gabriel plans to apply to Columbia, New York University, Syracuse, the University of Rochester and the State University of New York at Purchase.

At a time when he had a low GPA and a tendency for procrastination, Gabriel agreed to accept a Project Rousseau mentor at the beginning of his sophomore year mostly because he’s “not a person to just say no to things.” He recalls being skeptical and reluctant to give up his afternoons doing whatever he wanted at home. Working with Tyler and being involved with various Project Rousseau programs have shown Gabriel that “after school activities are much better.” He seems almost mystified that he was once satisfied with his old approach to life and school.

“For me, the biggest accomplishment I see in Gabriel is that he sees a future for himself,” says Tyler, a rising junior at Columbia University who studies political science, with a concentration in psychology. “There’s a shift in his confidence. He knows what he’s capable of, that he can push himself and not settle.”

Tyler, the punter and kicker for Columbia’s football team, certainly pushes Gabriel. They rarely use their mentoring sessions to complete homework. Instead, Tyler gives Gabriel opportunities for critical thinking that will be important in college, from reading and analyzing essays that Tyler has written for college to a month-long project analyzing lyrics and themes on a collection of songs he complied.

Gabriel meets Tyler on the Columbia campus for their mentoring sessions. They share a meal in a dining hall, spending about 30 minutes catching up and talking about life in general. The next 75 minutes are devoted to tutoring and SAT preparation – typically reviewing what Gabriel learns in his Project Rousseau SAT classes. The focus here is share new study methods and strategies that help Gabriel to succeed in class. The last 15 minutes are Gabriel’s favorite; Tyler takes out his iPad and they play games, explore new music or watch YouTube videos.

Now convinced of his intellect, Gabriel concedes that procrastination is the next disease to cure. Unlike a classroom teacher, Tyler doesn’t lower grades or refuse to accept a late assignment. “Despite it being summer vacation, he’s still expecting it,” Gabriel says of the overdue lyrics projects. “I don’t feel good about missing an assignment and I know the purpose of these projects is to get me ready for college work. So I appreciate what Tyler is teaching me.”

Project Rousseau helps Gabriel prepare for college in other important ways. He interns for the non-profit organization, performing administrative duties that earn him money that will help him pay for college tuition, and he participates in community service activities that many colleges look for in candidates. Service to others expands Gabriel’s world view and develops a sense of others, not just self. He and Tyler have joined other Project Rousseau mentors and mentees to volunteer on Sunday mornings at a local homeless shelter preparing and serving food.

“My Sundays were nothing, and when I volunteer it feels good,” says Gabriel. “We learn to work with others, to interact with others.”

“We want to instill a sense of service in them,” Tyler says of the students. “Many of them want to become mentors themselves. They are so thankful for the opportunities given to them. They can see how much their lives have improved because of Project Rousseau. It can turn into a never-ending cycle of students helping students.”

Second Story: Empowering change from within

Before Fatima Keita, 17, joined Project Rousseau, her dream was to go to college and maybe medical school. The problem was that she was struggling in school and had no idea how to go about getting into a great college. Then she met Project Rousseau founder Andrew Heinrich, who introduced her to mentor Heather Braunagel. Now, for the first time, Fatima feels empowered to change her life. She knows what she needs to do to and is working hard to make her dream a reality.

“Being involved with Project Rousseau, they try to get you to reach your goals,” Fatima says. “They ask me if I want to work in a hospital or meet doctors they know…trying to push me toward my goals.”
Heather, who has mentored Fatima since October 2011, says they are working hard on getting Fatima to see how what she does – or doesn’t do – today impacts her overall goal to attend college and work in the healthcare industry.

“She wants it,” Heather says. “I just don’t think she knew how to get to it.”

Less than nine months after first meeting Heather, Fatima has significantly raised her grades, passed her New York State Regent exams and wants to pursue an advanced Regents diploma. After a difficult start to high school – in her first two years she dealt with a death in the family and missed some school due to illness – Fatima has caught up on her schoolwork and earned As and Bs in her junior year. She also received a “most improved” award in her U.S. History class after improving her average from 20% to 95%.

“Her confidence has really soared since that first day,” Heather says proudly of Fatima. “Overall, she just needed somebody to believe in her and to encourage and support her. Then the rest would come. And it has.”

Fatima was matched with Heather in the fall of her junior year at Central Park East High School in East Harlem, when Heather was a junior at Columbia University. By matching mentors and mentees in the same year of college and high school, Project Rousseau enables the teams to work together until each graduates. The mentor’s volunteer job is to serve as friend, tutor and role model for underprivileged, talented high school students who want to pursue a college education.

Fatima’s curiosity about college has led Heather to tour her around the Columbia campus and take her to a class. “I experience a lot with Heather,” Fatima says. “We talk about my college goals and what it’s like for her to be in college.”

As a role model, Heather sets a high standard. Project Rousseau recruits some of the hardest working, intelligent and productive college students at various universities across the U.S. to serve as mentors. Heather studies sustainable development, maintains a high GPA and plays volleyball for Columbia, all while mentoring Fatima once a week for an hour or two.

For Fatima’s senior year, the pair will work toward Fatima’s graduation, reinforce the Project Rousseau SAT preparation classes she takes after school, improve her note-taking skills and reading comprehension, and continue building her confidence – all in preparation for college-level work.

They meet at least once a week and review material introduced in school that Fatima doesn’t quite understand. Heather gives her advice and tips to help with reviewing, organizing and digesting information.

“First we work on whatever I’m struggling with together, and then Heather lets me do it on my own and then I’m able to improve on it by myself so I don’t need to always depend on her,” Fatima says. “When we first met, I was really struggling and now I feel like I’m doing much better in class.”

“You are doing much better,” Heather adds.

Fatima likes having a college student mentor “who knows what you’re going through because it’s not so long since they went through it. It’s not like they’re an adult, because they’re close to your age so you feel more comfortable.” She describes Heather as “a mentor, a friend, and a tutor all in one.”

Having a Project Rousseau mentor enables Fatima to plan for her future with confidence. She says she has learned important things from Heather, like goal-setting and how her everyday attitude and actions help her achieve her goals. Project Rousseau also creates opportunities for Fatima she most likely would not otherwise have – from attending a class at Columbia with Heather to invitations to meet healthcare professionals that Andrew knows who can talk to her about career options.

“I really like all the help that I get,” Fatima says. “When I’m struggling, I can reach out to Andrew or Heather and it’s nice to have somebody there.”

Third Story: Cultivating Untapped Potential

Project Rousseau founder Andrew Heinrich firmly believes that “academic problems rarely have academic causes.” Allyson Chavez, a junior at Central Park East High School in East Harlem, stands as a perfect example of that thinking. Bright, ambitious and eager, Allyson had found herself struggling after missing some school due to a stressful family situation. Acknowledging that sometimes her pride got the better of her, Allyson found it easier to give up than to be embarrassed about catching up or not knowing something.

“If it was really hard for me, I gave up,” Allyson recalls of her former self. “I have learned that’s not healthy. I have learned to put pride aside and ask for help.”

Allyson asked Andrew for help in the middle of her sophomore year, when she returned to school and the SAT prep classes she was taking through Project Rousseau. She had fallen far behind, her grades had dropped precipitously and she felt overwhelmed. With her frustration and her determination both evident to him, Andrew spent two hours talking with Allyson about her future, her goals, her challenges and how a Project Rousseau mentor could help her get back on track toward college. That left a strong impression on her.

“This guy just met me and he’s willing to take his own time and help me,” she recalls of the day she asked Andrew to become her mentor. “I saw he was really serious about his work and that he really cares. That’s hard to find and that’s why I wanted to work with him.”

Andrew founded Project Rousseau, a New York City-based nonprofit, in January 2011 to help talented but underprivileged high school students achieve the dream of attending college by matching them, one-to-one, with a college student who acts as mentor, tutor, role model and friend through graduation. Despite his studies at Columbia University in political science and French, playing college football and running Project Rousseau, Andrew agreed to mentor Allyson because he saw in her vast untapped potential.

“There’s an analogy I use with Allyson, and that is a gas tank as a metaphor for her potential,” says Andrew, adding that Allyson’s tank “was nowhere near as full as she could be. You can tell when you meet her that she has special intellect. She just needs support to make it happen.”

Support comes in the form of weekly mentoring sessions with Andrew, as well as Project Rousseau classes she takes for SAT prep, a political science class taught by Andrew and French. This is in addition to a full school day. Andrew works with Allyson to tap into her strengths, introduce her to new study methods and develop strategies to help her succeed, whether at Central Park East, on the SATs, in college or in life. Andrew is there to encourage Allyson, provide direction and then watch her bloom.

She’s more confident in her ability to attend Harvard or become Secretary of State – a long-held dream – since joining Project Rousseau. Andrew taps into a fascination with the Kennedy political dynasty to inspire her studies, or uses the soap operatic tales of Russian tzars as a “dynamic family story” that keeps Allyson intrigued with history. His style of mentoring has so influenced Allyson that she tutored two of her classmates before they took the New York State Global History Regent exam. “She was using methods that Project Rousseau uses, taking from our playbook and I loved it,” Andrew says.

For her own “Regents madness,” a week of standardized testing, Allyson says the skills she learned from Andrew helped her score in the high 80s and high 90s out of 100. Andrew calls her success “off the chart” because of the socio-economic challenges that Allyson faces and a low PSAT score from before she enrolled in Project Rousseau’s mentoring program and classes.

Determined to achieve her goals – whether attending Harvard or landing a presidential cabinet appointment – Allyson is grateful for all that Project Rousseau has taught her. “Now I know what I have to do to get where I want to be,” she says. “Andrew has really high expectations for all of us. He thinks that we can achieve his expectations and he’s right. We can. I’m feeling pretty confident because I know I’m going to work for it.”

Kathleen’s 20 hour project resulted in $3K saved for Project Rousseau.

The Organization
Project Rousseau’s mission is to provide talented, underprivileged high school students with the opportunity to reach their full potential. The organization recognizes that this requires a holistic approach, and therefore provides comprehensive tutoring and mentoring to the students throughout their entire high school career. Students are matched one-to-one to a mentor for their entire high school career. The goal of the program is to maximize high school students’ potential to thrive in a college environment; we strive to give every mentee the opportunity of a college education.
The Volunteer
Kathleen is a copywriter with 20+ years of experience in the journalism, PR, marketing, and communications industry. She is an expert at honing messaging and delivering copy that motivates an audience. She spends a lot of time writing about technology and hopes that Catchafire projects will add more meaning to her work, interesting people to her network and cool projects to have in her portfolio.