When Jim and I first hatched the idea for LEO, the biggest unknown was whether there was demand among service providers for the evidence we hoped to generate. To help reduce this uncertainty, before we launched, we ran a two-day “get to know you” session where leaders from six Catholic Charities and the same number of academics met at Notre Dame. The social service agencies outlined their signature programs and the academics discussed how evaluations are done and suggested how they might be welded into their programs. Our fear was that over the two days the two groups would have little in common and awkward silence would prevail. To our delight, the conversation was active, exciting, and in the end, four projects were in the works allowing LEO to launch.
As we approach the 10th anniversary, I am constantly reminded that the most rewarding component of my work with LEO is the same today as it was back in that pre-launch conference–our interactions with our service provider partners. Their passion for their work and their devotion to helping their clients find a way to a better future is humbling. Truly poverty’s fiercest adversaries and their creativity in solving problems, ability to stretch limited resources, and their desire to make systemic change in a sometimes-stagnant system provides fuel for our incredible staff.
My delight in working with our partners is no more evident than when we conduct a partner site visit. On these trips we get to see programs in action and chat with clients about their experiences. These visits are important because we can get more done in a day and a half in person than in eight weeks over zoom video conferences. Unfortunately, over the past two and a half years, COVID has made most of our interactions with our partners virtual. Thankfully, this summer, we’ve had the opportunity to return to these visits and I’ve made trips to projects in Dallas, Detroit, Chicago, Columbus, Dayton, Cincinnati, Hagerstown, Phoenix, and West Virginia. The life stories of clients are at one time heart wrenching in that many did not start life with the resources or love that my family provided me. At the same time, there is the uplifting aspect of hearing how a program can alter the trajectory of someone’s life.
Maybe the most impressive aspect about our partners is that they think broadly. It’s not only about their little corner of the world. They understand that the evidence from their community can potentially change lives elsewhere. Many of you that I’ve talked to about LEO know that one of my favorite partnerships is with Uplifting Parents (UP) run by Catholic Social Services in Rapid City, South Dakota. UP provides trauma-informed case management and financial assistance for single parents hoping to complete a college degree. We’ve completed recruitment into the experiment and are waiting as the evaluation participants move through their schooling. The interim results we’ve generated are very encouraging that the program is having a tremendous impact on increasing college completion. When I relayed these early estimates to the creator of the program, it was certainly time to do a little endzone dance or celebrate with a nice bottle of wine. In contrast, her response was to say she would not celebrate until the 100th site of UP was opened. Another example of how our social service partners drive loudly echoes the Notre Dame call to be a force for good in the world. It’s a privilege for us at LEO to use our research skills to put some empirical content on the great work they do.