In 1984, Michael Halpern was already a volunteer. He had a weekly position as a "hand holder" in the Surgical Emergency Clinic of Atlanta's Grady Memorial Hospital. He would offer whatever non-medical help and encouragement he could to the people in distress that lined the corridors – standing, slumped in chairs or lying on stretchers.
It was through this weekly volunteer experience that he would get involved with YES!Atlanta, a deep relationship and commitment that would enable him to have a positive impact beyond what he could have possibly imagined.
During the late hours of one sultry summer night during his shift at the Clinic, he came upon a good-looking black teenager on a gurney in a corner. His feet were shackled and he wore an orange jump suit stamped "Prisoner."
Michael could see no blood or bandages on the young man, but with a glance at his routing sheet Michael learned that he had broken a bottle in his cell and swallowed some glass fragments. He had been examined by a doctor, was luckily in no danger, and would soon be returned to the jail.
When Michael told him this, the young man just looked at him and said, "Why bother? I'll be dead soon, I know it."
The thought flashed through Michael's mind: suppose this young man was his own son? What could he say to him that could possibly make a difference in the face of this hopelessness? Michael's usual words of encouragement seemed hollow, for he knew it indeed was likely, given his situation, that the young man would be unemployed, on drugs, in jail or dead by his mid-twenties.
This stark question stayed with Michael for the rest of his shift – and beyond. A few weeks later at a seminar he heard about a novel long-term mentoring program coming to Atlanta based on the premise that changing the mindset of kids on the "mean streets" requires much more than a "weekend workshop" approach.
Michael realized that working with this program might help him find an answer to the question that had stayed with him – how to help these troubled teenagers. Michael became involved with YES!Atlanta, and when they needed a leader, he quickly raised his hand and became their first Executive Director.
At the time, Michael was a homebuilder and designer with a degree in Chemical Engineering from MIT – none of which prepared him for leading a nonprofit mentoring program focused on changing the lives of at-risk inner city youth. But working with the program was compelling for him, as the memory of the "kid in the orange jump suit" was always present.
During the 1990 recession his business was slow, anyway, so he was able to devote a lot of time to his volunteering. "While designing and building houses was very satisfying," says Michael, "working with YES!Atlanta was more emotionally enriching. I discovered that I had talents in fundraising and team building of which I was not aware."
One of the big projects Michael worked on as Executive Director at YES!Atlanta was the Rising Star program. The program is a comprehensive mentoring system for participants ages 13-17 who are at serious risk of dropping out of high school.
By setting personal goals and receiving one-on-one support from mentors and peers, the participants are empowered to push through their difficulties and succeed. YES!Atlanta has used VolunteerMatch to recruit a substantial number of mentors and tutors for the Rising Star program.
Michael remembers one mentee he had in Rising Star: a 14 year-old named Cherise who had a temper. She told me, some time after her participation in the program, that she happened to be in an argument with someone that threatened to escalate into violence. A friend stepped up to her and said "You're a Rising Star - you don't have to behave like this." Cherise said this immediately cooled her off -- which she very much appreciated. "This was the first time it really hit me that we were making a difference," says Michael.
Of course, volunteering doesn't pay the bills. When after a couple of years, the building business revived, Michael had to step down as Executive Director of YES!Atlanta. But this was by no means the end of his involvement with the organization. He has served on YES!Atlanta's Board in various capacities ever since, first as Treasurer, Webmaster, Vice-Chairman, and now as Assistant Treasurer and Bookkeeper.
When asked why he's stayed so closely involved with YES!Atlanta all these years, he responds that he simply enjoys the work, which is so different from sitting for hours in front of his CAD system and his spreadsheets, and overseeing the work of subcontractors. "I also believe," he says, "that even in a small way, I am making a positive contribution to good in the world."
Indeed, President George H.W. Bush named YES!Atlanta the nation's 1003rd "Point of Light." They have worked closely with hundreds of teens, supporting then to stay in school and out of trouble with the law, and teaching them how to take responsibility for their future.
Recently, Michael happened to meet a graduate of Rising Star I - he's now in his mid '30's. Through him he contacted other Rising Star graduates, and has begun collecting stories of what being a Rising Star has meant to them as they grow into adulthood. Michael's goal is to post these on YES!Atlanta's Facebook page and on the website, to demonstrate the impact of the program on the entire lives of the participants.
Michael has given his time substantially over the years, in good times and bad. The stark question raised that night at the Emergency Clinic still motivates him. "If YES!Atlanta were simply 'a good cause', of which there are many, I would not be so committed, he says. "I stay on because, if fate had decreed otherwise, one of my sons might have been that kid in the orange jump suit."