“When How Might We?” Becomes “We Did!”
The last nine months have revealed significant truths about the power of flexible leadership during a period of unknown.
I was named President & CEO of JCC Chicago in September 2018. The first year was blissful—programs were full, the budget delivered a surplus and the future was nothing but bright. Everything we knew changed just three months shy of closing another banner year at the J.
My work style has long been to focus, understand, make a decision and go. This approach kicked in on March 11 when my leadership team hunkered down to figure out how to best communicate a planned two-week closure. It soon became clear that there we were not talking weeks but rather months. I paused (perhaps for the very first time). Managing the unknown would require extreme flexibility, not only in terms of practical next steps but in how we would approach this new challenge as an agency. I have always been guided, often inspired, by three simple words: How Might We? I ask myself this question frequently and I have loved seeing my team adopt the mantra as well. I could never have imagined how important and illuminating these words would prove to be.
Early on, we identified three priorities that have served as a guide for how to navigate the realities of the pandemic.
JCC Chicago is in service to families, children and community members every day. Over 60,000 individuals rely on the J for childcare, preschool, camp, leadership development, skill acquisition, community connection, Jewish learning and Jewish life. Supporting families in ways they need to be supported was an easy decision.
Since March, we have provided thousands of programming hours for free, welcoming the community to a myriad of offerings available on the newly created Channel J. We refunded millions of dollars of camp fees in June and July, within weeks of what would have been the start date of camp. We reopened Early Childhood in June and gratefully provided five weeks of sun-kissed summer camp for over 1600 campers and hundreds of young adult counselors.
And we’re not easing up. January will debut JCC Chicago’s first Parent Survival Guide, a series of programs and support services designed to further help families find a connected community. And then a social justice film series, a new semester of Jewish Student Connection club programs, celebration of Jewish Disabilities, Awareness and Inclusion month and so much more.
If it is possible, we will.
JCC Chicago is a nimble and responsive agency, up for any challenge and passionate about mission and community impact. Was it hard to run summer camp in 2020? Yes. Was it hard to provide programming without revenue? Yes.
At every turn, we acknowledged the challenge and got to work on the “How might we?” Seasoned camp professionals ideated new procedures and new programs. We brokered new partnerships to spread kids out and give the gift of summer to as many as safely possible. We set up temperature check stations outside of preschools, welcoming kids and parents back with bubbles, balloons and huge smiles behind the masks.
The lift to provide online programs for the first time, to reopen under pandemic guidelines for the first time, to be a resource in new ways, has been huge. Of course, there have been disappointments. But the wins for those we serve has far outpaced any challenge and JCC Chicago is delivering big wins every day.
Attitude of Gratitude.
It would have been easy to lament the realities we face. The financial impact is significant. But we have been fortunate to receive relief funding and the generosity of donors throughout Chicagoland and beyond. We are grateful for new and meaningful partners and all that true collaboration makes possible.
Camp is a significant community program, reaching 5,000 campers every summer. It hurt our JCC hearts to cancel overnight camp and limit day camp programming. But when the emails flooded in from grateful families, thankful for the safety measures and in deep acknowledgment of the positive impact for their children, the reality of what we accomplished set it. And it motivated us to do more.
When kids were placed in front of screens instead of in classrooms, we launched a renewed Kindergarten program and are currently staffing Chicago Public Schools Community Childcare programs. These children are supported and thriving with JCC Chicago. Choosing gratitude is how “How might we?” finds it legs, and JCC Chicago has quite a lot for which to be grateful.
The JCC Chicago leadership team has met every day for 290 days and counting. We are focused on problem solving, planning and executing the greatest pivots in the history of the agency. Witnessing the resiliency of children in our programs, we emulate their resourcefulness, innovation, compassion and care.
Nothing is like it was, that much we know. Throughout the JCC Movement, there is thoughtful conversation about how to emerge from the pandemic not as we were but stronger than we have ever been. JCC Chicago is well on its way to realizing that goal, fueled by an impressive and passionate staff and guided by the tenets of flexible leadership.
– Addie Goodman
President & CEO of JCC Chicago