By Edward Henderson
When was the last time you saw a statistic which effected your community and it inspired you to take action to change it? Statistics are powerful tools. They provide abstract images of demographics, epidemics, and can even inject hope into a community. Gerald McFadden, President and CEO of Volunteers of America Southwest, used a statistic he saw regarding African American males and education over 40 years ago to find a passion for service and change. Behind his leadership, Volunteers of America has opened two charter schools focusing on the arts, science and technology in Southern California with one more coming in 2018.
Volunteers of America is a non-profit organization that provides services in San Diego, Imperial, Riverside, San Bernardino and Orange Counties. These services focus around the education and social development of young children, behavioral-health services for individual adults that have addiction and mental health challenges, as well as services for the elderly and care givers.
On Thursday, April 20th, Volunteers of America will observe their 121st anniversary at the Coronado Community Center on 1845 Strand Way beginning at 5:30pm. The event will celebrate the work that has been done to transform the lives of vulnerable individuals into vibrant lives. McFadden is a stellar example of setting the foundation for youth to be ready for this type of transformation. But like many of us, it took some soul searching for him to work up the inspiration to turn thought into action.
“When I graduated college in 1970, I came across an article that stated that African American boys by the time they reach the 3rd Grade were already two grade levels behind,” said McFadden.
“At that time I said ‘wow, isn’t that a shame’ and I moved forward with trying to build a career for myself. In 2004, I had been in the social service sector and a leadership role for a number of years. I began to really focus on the fact that in 34 years, nothing had changed significantly that nothing had changed. I then questioned myself with regard to I could no longer say ‘isn’t that too bad’. The challenge was that something had to be done.”
McFadden and Volunteers of America went to work on brainstorming solutions. In what became a four year process from thought to action, Ballington Academy for the Arts and Sciences was launched in Imperial Valley. At the time, the area was ranked 48th out of the 54 lowest performing schools.
“We started with the creation of a charter school that would focus on developing exciting educational strategies to engage children to provide them with an exemplary education experience. We wanted to make school an exciting place for children to come to, a welcoming place for parents and we wanted to use educational strategies that really allowed our students to excel in an exemplary fashion.”
Based on the success of the first Ballington Academy, McFadden spearheaded the creation of a second charter school for K-6 in San Bernardino. In 2018, a third is coming in Orange County.
“I think it’s important to understand the seriousness of building the right fundamentals for our young children so that they can navigate the path of a successful academic career. Every year, over 1.2 million students drop out of high school in the US. That’s about a student every 26 seconds. We realize that if we are not able to graduate our students, then we sentence them to a life of poverty and underperformance as far of the quality of life.”
McFadden, a Washington D.C. native, came to the west coast after achieving his undergraduate degree at Syracuse University for the weather and the desire to get to know the lifestyle that existed in the Southern California environment. He went on to garner two masters’ degrees from Pepperdine University in Urban & Reginal Planning and Business Administration.
His journey with Volunteers of America started 33 years ago to live out his passion for service to others. McFadden then matriculated through the organization eventually becoming Vice President of Marketing and Development for the Los Angeles branch, President of the Oregon branch, and in 1998, he became President of the Southwest California branch here in San Diego.
“I look at myself as a brother who got a break. That came because of individuals who came throughout my life’s journey extending their hand to me and helping to lift me up. I felt it was absolutely vital that I did the same. Extend my hand, my talent, my experience to be able to lift up others who crossed my path and to make a difference in the lives of not only individuals but of communities where I have had the good fortune of living and working within.”
For more information on Volunteers of America’s 121st Anniversary Party on the 20th of April, call 619-228-2048 or visit their website at voasw.org