Five Questions With: Jonny Skye

Executive director of RISE talks about the work of the organization, which helps children of incarcerated parents. More

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Five Questions With: Jonny Skye

"We have more than 600 RISE alumni. The alumni network is in its infancy."
Posted 11/1/13

Jonny Skye is the executive director of RISE, a Providence-based organization dedicated to improving life outcomes for children of incarcerated parents, and a seasoned advocate for high quality, accessible and equitable education.

Skye has held this post for a year since returning to Rhode Island after four years with her family in The Gambia, West Africa. She was formerly the district reform facilitator at the Providence School Department, the founder and director of USE, a social issues media company, and a consultant with the Annenberg Institute for School Reform and the Nellie Mae Education Foundation.

Prior to her work in education reform, Skye taught visual arts in the Providence public schools and directed programs at the Rhode Island School of Design Museum and City Arts. She moved to Rhode Island from Oregon to attend Brown University in 1987, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in Visual Arts and in 1996. She also earned an MAT in Art Education from RISD.

PBN: The scholarships and mentoring RISE provides to children of currently and formerly incarcerated parents is intended to help break the cycle of poverty, crime and addiction that threatens them. How do you select candidates and determine which mentors to pair them with?

SKYE: Children are referred to RISE for mentoring by members of their families, schools, health professionals, and social service agencies. We work to match each child with a volunteer mentor whom we recruit, screen and train. Matching is based on interests, personality, and the needs of the mentee. Eighth grade students who want to attend a private or parochial high school apply for scholarship assistance in February of each year.

Applying families must provide proof of parental incarceration and economic need. Students submit an essay describing how the imprisonment of one or both of their parents has motivated them to pursue their education and why a private or parochial school experience would help them be more successful. We award tuition assistance to students who demonstrate a passion and commitment to learning, with preference to those who would be the first in their family to graduate high school or college. In truth, this past spring we could easily have offered 10 additional scholarships based on these criteria, but were unfortunately limited by resources.

PBN: Founders Tim Flanigan and Kevin Vigilante, both doctors, and Kristen Haffenreffer Moran, who had helped grow the organization, have taken seats on the Boards of Directors. What have they indicated their priorities will be in helping guide the board and how will their return influence the direction of the organization?

SKYE: It is an incredible endorsement of the importance of our work for the three founders to re-commit to RISE as board members. They share the priorities of ensuring the effectiveness of the RISE model as well as the health and sustainability of the organization. They are eager to help us create the financial platform that will enable us to fund every child that has a passion to overcome obstacles, break the intergenerational cycle of poverty that threatens them, and achieve success. The founders also provide a great deal of insight into the history of RISE programs, families and infrastructure. They have been joined by seven other new members, making this an exciting time for the organization. The energy is compelling right now.

PBN: Cite an example of a child or teen that turned his or her life around because of this program. What made the difference and what is that person doing today?

SKYE: I recently had lunch with a RISE alumnus who is currently attending law school. He had both a RISE mentor and scholarship and reflected honestly about the impact on his life. He confessed he did not really understand as a child what the RISE affiliation meant, but on reflection knows it provided him a vista – a broader view of possibilities that his family and community context could not provide. Through his relationship with his mentor and his schooling opportunity, he not only had the idea to reach beyond what seemed possible, he also gained the skills to manifest his own unique pathway. He spoke about not having a model in his family of educational determination or success and a family lifestyle riddled with inconsistency and struggle. He expressed feeling it was having that “Wait, I can see it can be another way” set of experiences that compelled him to make the choices he has and continues to make with his life. He is recently married and looking forward to fatherhood as well as a satisfying and productive career.

I also can think of a young lady that started with the program in grammar school. Her mom was a lifelong addict, was in and out of prison multiple times and recently died under suspicious circumstances. This young lady has benefitted from a wonderful mentor and committed schools and educators, who even provided housing for her in a particular period of crisis. She successfully graduated from LaSalle High School several years ago and earned a scholarship to attend to LaSalle College where she is in her junior year, and aspires to go to law school. She is the only person her family to graduate from high school – never mind college. It is certain that this would not have been possible without her determination and the support of RISE.

In both of these cases, the social costs of crime, addiction, incarceration, welfare have all been avoided – a cost of millions of dollars over a lifetime. This makes the investment in RISE incredibly cost effective: something we have found the business community has really grasped and why they have supported us for years.

PBN: What role do volunteers play at RISE and how do you train them?

SKYE: Our main cadres of volunteers are Mentors. Volunteer mentors are incredible capital for RISE and essential to our work. Mentors go through an extensive vetting process and have an initial training session before being matched. Mentors and mentees make a one-year commitment to spend at least six hours each month together engaged in community-based activities. They might visit museums and zoos; attend theater and sporting events; go ice skating, kayaking, or walking through the park.

Last year, we collaborated with AS220 Youth and Foster Forward to provide ongoing issue-based training through the year and intend to maintain that model. We also want to institute more mentor gatherings to socialize around the mentoring work and create opportunities for interested folks to learn more about RISE and join our community. Currently, we have a RISE parent who helps us with the phones and interns from Brown University, Rhode Island College, and the MET that help us with a variety of office management needs, outreach, and events.

PBN: How many alumni do you have that could contribute to an alumni network? How is that project coming along?

SKYE: We have more than 600 RISE alumni. The alumni network is in its infancy. It is an idea that sprung from a clear notion – the best people to speak on our work are the ones who have been impacted by it. It is a way for us to support RISE alumni as well as build a structure for them to support each other. We also will have a powerful new set of mentors once organized and certainly more persuasive testimony to convince others to invest in RISE and the children we serve.

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