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by Audrey Partington
The new year is bringing change to the Olney-area youth group known as Project Change, which has served thousands of area youth for more than two decades.
Effective Jan. 1, Project Change combined with So What Else (SWE), a youth empowerment nonprofit organization, which provides free, positive, out-of-school enrichment programs for children ages 5-18 in the Baltimore-Washington area.
“We embrace SWE’s mission as our own,” said Robyn Holstein-Glass, who is stepping down as executive director of Project Change, a position she has held since 2006.
SWE’s mission is “To serve kids, serve the community, and help kids serve the community.”
Nancy Blum, a nonprofit executive in the field of global health, has been appointed interim executive director of Project Change. Blum, along with three Project Change board members, has moved to the Rockville-based So What Else to assist with the transition.
Project Change staff members will have the opportunity to continue facilitating the organization’s signature programs, which focus on community service, leadership development and conflict resolution.
“The call from Nancy about a partnership with Project Change was quite surprising and very flattering and exciting,” said David Silbert, executive director of SWE. “To have a charity that has been around for more than 20 years reach out to us is an honor and a tribute to our dedication to public service.”
Under an agreement between the two organizations, SWE will offer Project Change programs under the Project Change name and logo, thereby replacing SWE’s “Big Idea” program.
“The main goal of the rebranded program is to engage youth in the ‘pay it forward’ concept that has informed our programs,” Holstein-Glass said. “Those programs will have a pathway to reach more youth in the Baltimore-Washington metropolitan area.”
Evolution of an idea
This is not the first time that Project Change has shifted gears to engage youth since its founding in 1998.
That year, Sherwood High School students Anthony DeCicco, Brandon Bryn and Katie Yee participated in a leadership training program sponsored by National Organizations for Youth Safety (NOYS). They were accompanied by Sherwood parent Stephanie Bryn, a captain in the U.S. Public Health Service and a liaison to NOYS.
The program challenged participants to develop and implement projects in their community to address teen health and safety issues. The Sherwood High School students decided to advocate for a teen center to provide local youth with a place to meet and have fun in a drug- and alcohol-free environment.
With support from former Sherwood High School Principal James Fish, the teens launched Project Change and sponsored social events in local venues.
A new generation of Project Change leaders decided to focus on health and safety issues like drunken driving and bullying prevention.
In 2005, they launched a successful anti-bullying program known as You Have the Power! The program was presented in many of the county’s schools, with high school students serving as mentors to the middle-schoolers.
Project Change youth established an after-school service club at Sherwood in 2008 to “give back” to their community. They developed projects to get food, clothing, medicine and books to those in need. The organization began sponsoring service clubs at many other high schools and middle schools in the county.
In the summer of 2009, Project Change launched a week-long Student Leadership Institute (SLI). Led by high school students serving as mentors, middle school participants worked together to develop projects to address needs in their community.
In 2011, Project Change introduced a musical theater program known as “Team of Stars,” which challenges youth to work together to write and perform a show with themes that promote conflict resolution and address social issues in the community.
“I am very excited about Project Change programs being implemented into So What Else,” said Margie Shalgian, a junior at Clarksburg High School. “I look forward to seeing the wonderful Project Change programs continue to grow and succeed.”
Shalgian participated in SLI as a student at Rocky Hill Middle School, and then served as a high school mentor for the program for three summers. She was also a youth member of the Project Change board.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Project Change developed virtual versions of SLI and Team of Stars last summer. During the fall term, the after-school Team of Stars program was offered online, along with the Project Change Service Initiative. Registration is underway for winter sessions of those virtual programs at project-change.jumbula.com.
“I believe Project Change has lasted and succeeded due to its adaptability; its focus on student-led activities and leadership education; and a strong partnership with supportive adults,” Bryn said.
DeCicco agrees that the organization he helped to create has evolved. When he joined the Project Change board in 2015, he went full circle from a youth leader to an adult adviser.
“When we started Project Change in 1998, we focused on a centralized, brick and mortar Olney Teen Center, where we hoped to create a drug- and alcohol-free safe haven for area youth,” DeCicco said. “More than two decades later, Project Change has positively affected the lives of thousands of county youth through its diverse and original programs, community-sponsored events and service projects.”
A meeting of the minds and hearts
When North Potomac residents Robert Schless and David Silbert volunteered to help rebuild New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, they began to wonder what else they could do for the under-served in their area.
In 2009, they joined forces to form So What Else, a nonprofit charity that provides after-school and summer enrichment programs for youth in the Baltimore-Washington area.
The organization’s mantra is “It takes a community to serve a community.” In collaboration with other nonprofit groups and for-profit companies, SWE promotes volunteerism and the “pay it forward” model of community services.
Over the years, the organization has expanded its mission to include providing food assistance to children and families. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the organization not only transitioned its 72 programs to online platforms, but mobilized to provide emergency hunger relief to those most affected by the pandemic.
SWE volunteers operate neighborhood food distribution tables, provide home deliveries and opened a food pantry. The organization serves approximately 85 communities, and has provided more than three million meals over the past year.
“Even in Montgomery County, we have large pockets of in-need areas,” Schless said.
To address needs that exceed available resources, the organization has relied on building partnerships.
“Cheers to a great future ahead and may this coming together of missions serve as a reminder of our strength in commonality and our confidence in youth,” Silbert said.
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