Social Impact Heroes: How Dan Kotowski is helping Chicago children and families who are at risk to…

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Social Impact Heroes: How Dan Kotowski is helping Chicago children and families who are at risk to build better lives

Johnny Rivers was living couch-to-couch after his mother died. He found ChildServ’s Emerge program, which provides housing for young people who are at risk of being homeless. Through his resilience, hard work, intelligence, the support of our team, and our partnership with Craig Carlson and Stagehands Local 2, he applied for and secured a full-time job with meaningful wages and benefits building stages at the Lyric Opera. Johnny is now able to provide a decent, quality life for his family. This story illustrates how the difference between a life of success and years of struggle is support from people who care and access to opportunity.

As part of my series about “companies and organizations making an important social impact, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dan Kotowski. Dan is President and CEO of ChildServ, a non-profit organization in Chicago helping children and families who are at risk to build better lives and achieve their potential.

Dan spent much of his early career working with social impact organizations. He served as Vice President of Development and Public Affairs for Uhlich Children’s Advantage Network (UCAN), which helps 10,000 children and their families heal from abuse and trauma. He also served as the Executive Director of the Illinois Council Against Handgun Violence (ICHV), an organization dedicated to protecting people from crime and violence. In both roles, Kotowski worked with business and community leaders to create a safer, more positive environment for every person in Illinois.

Dan brought his passion for improving people’s lives with him when he decided to run for the Illinois State Senate in 2006. He served eight years as State Senator, taking many of Illinois’ most pressing issues head-on. He championed numerous laws to improve the health and safety of children and increase economic opportunities for families, and also led two Senate appropriations committees.

In October of 2015, Kotowski returned to his social impact roots as President and CEO of ChildServ, a human services organization providing counseling, early childhood learning programs, foster care and adoption, residential group homes, and community support to 2,500 children and families in Cook, DuPage, Kane, and Lake Counties each year.

Kotowski’s organization has called upon the public to act now and invest in the promise and well-being of all children so they can achieve their potential and lead in their personal, family and professional lives. In a few short time, ChildServ has made progress on this goal by heightening its impact through a balanced budget, diversified funding and increasing the number of kids and families served.

He currently lives in Park Ridge with his wife, Anne, and their sons, Nate and Cooper.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I was a victim of a robbery in the spring of 1992. It was a frightening experience and it caused me to reexamine the direction of my life. A friend of mine from high school named Phil Andrew, who is a survivor of a mass shooting, encouraged me to get involved with an organization he was heading called the Illinois Council Against Handgun Violence (ICHV). I started to volunteer and became a paid staffer responsible for building and organizing a coalition of over 1,000 advocates from the healthcare, human services, law enforcement and religious fields to advocate for legislative policy change to make our state and communities safer.

Eventually, I became the Executive Director of ICHV and helped pass legislation to protect children from unsecured handguns in the home and women from domestic abusers with guns. This experience with developing relationships to achieve a social benefit has driven everything I have done up until this point, including working at ChildServ with a team of smart and devoted people dedicated to building better lives for children and families who are at risk.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

In the past three years, we have partnered with the Sheilah A. Doyle Foundation on a grief camp that helps 60 kids and teenagers who have lost family members to homicide to heal from their trauma. This camp provides a safe place for young people to share their experiences with other youth who have suffered through a similar experience. This illustrates how we use the strength of ours — clinical engagement and intervention — in a very targeted and supportive way to ensure that young people surviving the horrors of violence are not alone and are equipped with the tools necessary to begin healing and have a productive life.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Because this work is so serious, and we’re working with human beings who face significant, life-threatening challenges, there really isn’t room for mistakes. If they are ever made, we don’t laugh at them, we just work fix them right away.

However, we do make sure that we have fun and celebrate the accomplishments of our team and our kids during their key life moments. From graduations to securing their first jobs, birthdays to developmental milestones, we recognize and honor progress, no matter how significant. It is what keeps us going during the most difficult and trying times.

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

At ChildServ, we support and protect the children and young people in our care as if they were our own family members. ChildServ impacts 2,501 children and families annually, but we are one of the best-kept secrets in Chicago’s social impact sector. As a 125-year-old nonprofit focusing on early childhood, foster care and adoption, and housing for homeless teenagers and young adults, we are large enough to have an impact in four counties (Cook, DuPage, Lake, and Kane) but small enough to innovate and try new, exciting ways to help our children and families build better lives.

Wow! Can you tell me a story about a particular individual who was impacted this cause?

Johnny Rivers was living couch-to-couch after his mother died. He found ChildServ’s Emerge program, which provides housing for young people who are at risk of being homeless. Through his resilience, hard work, intelligence, the support of our team, and our partnership with Craig Carlson and Stagehands Local 2, he applied for and secured a full-time job with meaningful wages and benefits building stages at the Lyric Opera. Johnny is now able to provide a decent, quality life for his family. This story illustrates how the difference between a life of success and years of struggle is support from people who care and access to opportunity.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

1. Invest more funding in the safety and well-being of children and families. Providing more resources at the early stages of a child’s life ensures a better preparation for school, more opportunities for realizing academic and economic potential, and the support necessary to keep families together.

2. Treat gun violence as a public health epidemic. CDC data shows that people of color are on average, eight times more likely to be killed by firearms than those who are white. As a result, there is a whole generation of black and brown children who live in constant danger and are either being injured or killed in record numbers by firearms that are increasingly efficient at killing large numbers of people in a short period of time.

Due to this daily trauma, the survivors of this constant horror are feeling more hopeless and distraught, and dying from more self-inflicted gunshot wounds than ever before. In fact, the United States, in a 2016 global American Medical Association report, had the highest rate of firearm-related suicides in the world. Just like with a disease, we need to isolate the cause, which is the easy access of illegal guns, stop it, and move these children — because kids are kids, no matter what they look like or where they are from — from these threatening and unsafe environments.

3. Reduce the wait time for mental health treatment. In some of the communities we serve, children and families wait four or more months for critical mental health services. According to Linda Rosenberg, President, and CEO of the National Council for Behavioral Health, “For every one day of wait time you lose one percent of the patients — so if you have a 21-day wait, 21 percent of the patients seeking care just will give up and not show up.” This is a recipe for disaster, especially in situations where a mother endured domestic violence, in a home where a child suffered from physical abuse, or in a family with a father struggling with depression. Not addressing this crisis of care can only lead to devastating results and perpetuating cycles of mental illness.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

At our agency, whether you’re in management or direct service, we are all directly involved in the lives of the children and families we serve. Our leadership culture is making sure that people in management and supervisory positions are prepared to do what they ask those in direct service to do. This can be anything from calling a college on behalf of a client who might be struggling with financial aid, helping to pick up donations made to the agency for our young people, or working directly with local law enforcement on behalf of children who have been victimized. We all have roles to play and our success is not defined by titles held. It is defined by how we work together and what we accomplish.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

That life is a marathon, not a sprint. After working with me for 11 years, Tom VandenBerk, my boss, mentor, and an innovative nonprofit leader, gave me this advice when I started working at UCAN, an organization dedicated to helping youth who’ve suffered trauma to become future leaders. This insight would have helped me to take more time earlier in my career to reflect, take better care of myself, and not feel like I have to accomplish everything at once.

Tom also taught me a very valuable lesson when he once made a mistake and quickly apologized, taking immediate ownership of his actions. He said, “It costs nothing to say you are sorry.” It is true. It costs absolutely nothing. I wish I had known this earlier in my career. It helps to keep essential relationships strong and productive.

The third piece of wisdom I wish someone had shared with me centers around reminding me to “pause and take a deep breath.” There have been so many times during the course of my career as a public servant and a team member in the social impact sector that if I had just taken a deep breath, I would have been able to develop a more thoughtful, effective response and been able to separate out what is essential from what is a distraction.

A fourth would have been around listening. I wish someone had told me that the most important way to build solid, lasting relationships with people is by showing interest in and asking questions about their lives, their professions, their concerns, their wishes and dreams, and paying attention to their words and feelings. This is probably the single greatest way to demonstrate to people that you actually care about them, which in turn builds trust and leads to their wanting to work together with you. I have seen how this approach has worked in organizing and convincing people to change social policy, and in securing resources to ensure that young people living in poverty have what they need to reach developmental milestones.

The last is around the importance of expressing gratitude as it relates to personal and professional success. Knowing what I know now, I would have thanked a lot more people for the role that they had in my development and their impact in the public and social impact sectors. I would have also taken more time to write personal notes and made more phone calls just to express gratitude. These expressions of appreciation are extremely helpful in keeping relationships close and positive, especially relating to volunteers and donors that make a difference in the lives of children and young people.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

The movement would be to recognize that there is a generation of young people that don’t have the resources and support in place to live a long, productive life. This movement would be to recognize and target investment in communities that are impacted by poverty and violence. We need to tell the stories of these young people and who they are.

All things being equal if they’re given an opportunity to succeed, they will. The challenge for so many kids their opportunities are limited and they live in dangerous environments. When they die tragically, within a couple of days, it’s as if they were never there because media doesn’t report on their lives and policymakers, in general, do not pay attention to the mark that these kids left on this world. To say that this is a travesty is a severe understatement. To push and manifest change, we need to shine a bright and piercing light on problems that people have not experienced or do not want to see.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not: nothing is more common than unsuccessful men and women with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not: the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.” — Calvin Coolidge

There are all kinds of people in the world that are smarter than you and have more resources, but you have to put the work in. Hard work and effort make a difference. You control the amount of work that goes into your mission and goals. At ChildServ we recognize that this is a mission and a marathon and we’re in it for the long haul. Persistence and determination will win out, and they do, every day, with the work that we do and the impact we have.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Dr. Bessel van der Kolk. He’s done very innovative and life-changing work when it comes to helping people recover from trauma. He wrote a book called “The Body Keeps the Score” and it shows how people in America who have been victims of trauma are falling short because we have not found alternative ways to treat them, such as yoga, meditation, art and drama therapy. We need to give kids other tools to express the pain and suffering that they’ve endured so they can be transformed and healed.

I would like to talk to him about his work and what has been most effective. I’m so drawn to him because he’s doing things that most families would do for their own kids. Any of us who are parents, or guardians, we’ll do whatever it takes if there is a problem with a child in our family. We want to help them to overcome whatever it is. I would like to see what has worked the best and how we can communicate this to policymakers to ensure that the right investment is made in these young people to ensure they can have a better life.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

For readers interested in getting involved with ChildServ and helping children who are at risk to reach their potential, I would encourage you to follow our social accounts Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, and YouTube.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much!

Social Impact Heroes: How Dan Kotowski is helping Chicago children and families who are at risk to… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.