A ‘Hotel’ That Comforts Families in Trying Times

When it comes to charitable contributions, many people find that a gift of time is more meaningful and can have a greater impact than a cash contribution. In the coming months, Out & About will continue to profile some of these volunteers, along with the program in which they serve. The series is run in cooperation with the state Office of Volunteerism, and we hope it will show readers how they can improve their communities by volunteering their time and talents. For information about volunteering opportunities throughout the state, visit VolunteerDelaware.org.

Volunteers are essential to Ronald McDonald House as it hosts loved ones of seriously ill children

Sara Funaiock describes the Ronald McDonald House of Delaware as “a very specialized hotel,” and that’s not solely because of its client base, the families of seriously ill children who must go to the Nemours Alfred I. DuPont Children’s Hospital across the street for treatment.

What helps make the 50-room residence special is that it has only seven people employed full-time to keep it running. “Most of the day-to-day operating parts of the house are accomplished by volunteers,” says Pam Cornforth, the organization’s president and CEO.

Volunteers who check in families when they arrive, volunteers who show the families to their rooms, volunteers who answer the phone, make coffee and even bring the food and cook dinner for an average of 85 people every night.

“We couldn’t do what we’re doing without them,” says Funaiock, the house’s volunteer manager. “They’re part of a team that operates in a very special environment.”

The volunteer army is 430 members strong, she says, and they provide “heart and soul, and a lot of things we take for granted that bring comfort to families.”

And there are plenty of families to serve. In 2017, 1,726 families stayed at the house, with the average stay a little over 10 days, Cornforth says. Many families stay a couple of days at a time, while others, depending on their child’s condition, may stay seven or eight months, perhaps longer.

No matter how long a family stays, it’s up to the volunteers to make them comfortable, so they’re rested and ready for whatever the next day brings.

Pamela Cornforth, president and CEO of the Ronald McDonald House of Delaware.

“I’m strictly a kitchen volunteer,” says 54-year-old Gretchen Parisi, a freelance healthcare writer from Kennett Square, Pa. Every other Wednesday morning, she arrives at the house to “clean every nook and cranny, every microwave, every counter. I clean out the refrigerators when a family checks out.”

She says she finds it rewarding “to make families’ time here as pleasant as it can possibly be under the circumstances.”

Able? Then Volunteer

Dawn DeMuth, a 55-year-old from Landenberg, Pa., who, like Parisi, has volunteered at the house for three years after a career of working for nonprofits, shares her colleague’s sentiments. While taking a break from cleaning the kitchen, she asserted that “if you’re able to give, you should volunteer. I’m fortunate that I have the time to be able to help.”

While Parisi and DeMuth are regulars on the cleanup team who pitch in wherever else they’re needed, there’s no telling what Dan Szymanski might be doing on any given day.

Szymanski, 60, from Bellefonte, “is our uber volunteer,” Parisi says.

Indeed, the retired oil refinery equipment operator estimates he now puts in about 750 hours a year at the house—and he started 15 years ago. His service is so valued that last year he was named the winner of the house’s Big Shoes to Fill Award. The recognition includes naming one of the house’s guest rooms in his honor for a year.

“I may be here a lot,” he says, “but I’m not allowed to sleep in it.”

Szymanski is at the house three days a week, sometimes for two or three hours, sometimes for eight. It depends on what’s needed on a particular day.

“He’s great. He knows so many parts of the house,” says Katie Johnson, the operations director.

Cleaning the kitchen, working the front desk, setting up and taking down holiday decorations, helping at special events, driving families to the hospital, the supermarket or the mall, even giving tours—Szymanski can do it all.

“He gives a great tour,” Johnson says, noting that Szymanski’s commentaries have resulted in the recruitment of numerous new volunteers and committee members for the house.

A Life-Changer

Volunteering at the Ronald McDonald House changed his life, Szymanski says, transforming him “from a selfish person to a very giving person.”

“Community service is something people say they want to do, and it often gets put on the back burner,” he says.  “Then, when I was 43, my parents died, my brother had a brain tumor, I lost my job, I got a divorce, so my whole life collapsed.”

He left a big house in Middletown and was living in a subsidized rental housing unit when he called a friend, Diane Thompson, who was then the house’s operations manager. “I came up here one day, to play my guitar for the kids, not knowing there aren’t too many kids here during the day, and they wouldn’t let me out the door,” says Szymanski. “They heard I could fix things, and they say, ‘before you leave, can you fix this?’ Fifteen years later, I’m still here.”

Working at the house makes Szymanski and other volunteers thankful. “When I first saw boys 8 years old who were excited because they weren’t going to have any more chemo, I started to realize that I would be OK,” he says.

While Szymanski, DeMuth and Parisi may be typical of the house’s volunteers, the program’s support comes in many different ways.

Teen volunteers, many of whom start through a 10-week summer program, are welcomed, especially since many enjoy working on craft projects or playing games with the siblings of children being treated at the hospital.

Groups provide a notable service by cooking dinner each night. Sometimes it’s a business group, or a family, or a social club, or even a team of nurses from the hospital, but it usually takes a team of about 10 people who buy the food, bring it to the house, prepare it in the oversized kitchen and serve an average of 85 people a night. Staff members give the dinner crew serving tips before they arrive and explain the basics of safe food preparation before they start cooking, Funaiock says.

She is proud that the house’s volunteers seem to serve as the program’s greatest ambassadors, often recruiting another family member, a roommate or a friend or neighbor to join the team.

“When they see what our families are going through, they immediately know that they are bringing comfort. It’s not that they’re solving a problem, but they’re going one step toward helping them,” she says. “They know they’re part of something bigger, a community coming together to help these families.”

Seeking Volunteers

The Ronald McDonald House is seeking volunteers who can make a regular commitment to a minimum of two three-hour shifts each month for six months to one year. The house has a particular need for adult volunteers, post-high school, over 18 years old, on weekend shifts, from 6-9 p.m. Friday through 6-9 p.m. Sunday. Enrollment begins March 1 for summer teen volunteers, who are asked to commit to serving one three-hour shift weekly for 10 weeks.

More details are available at the Ronald McDonald House website, rmhde.org, or by contacting Sara Funaiock, s.funaiock@rmhde.org.

Buy a Shamrock Shake, Help Ronald McDonald House

If you stop at a McDonald’s restaurant this month, top off your Big Mac or Happy Meal with a Shamrock Shake. You’ll be helping the Ronald McDonald House. The campaign is the result of a partnership among Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Eagles and McDonald’s that led to the opening of the first Ronald McDonald’s House in Philadelphia in 1974.

Creating High School Entrepreneurs

Using a three-hour-a-week model, Wilmington’s Dual School provides a nourishing environment for young innovators

High school kids going to class in a downtown office building?

It sounds strange, but this is Wilmington, where, in the last four years, charter schools have taken over three former MBNA/Bank of America buildings as well as the onetime headquarters for Blue Cross-Blue Shield of Delaware.

But what’s going on at 1313 Innovation, the business incubator space on the first floor of Hercules Plaza, is quite different from anything tried before in Delaware education.

Called Dual School, the pilot project is being financed by Delaware real estate entrepreneur Paul McConnell, whose business owns and manages Hercules Plaza. Its creators are Catherine Lindroth, the out-of-the-box thinker who developed the Summer Learning Collaborative to elevate educational experiences for low-income kids who spend their summers at community center camps, and Meghan Wallace, a onetime aide to former Gov. Jack Markell. Its entrepreneurial mindset is enhanced by staff and graduates of the University of Delaware’s Horn Program in Entrepreneurship, and its inspiration comes from High Tech High School in Chula Vista, Calif., whose fulltime curriculum Dual School is trying to capture in a three-hour-a-week model.

For the fall semester, 13 students recruited from seven schools—two private Catholic, three charters, one magnet and one traditional high school—left their regular classrooms and headed to 1313 Innovation, where they not only learned how to become entrepreneurs, they also got to work on projects they created for themselves, along the way making valuable contacts with experts in those fields.

To understand Dual School and what’s behind it, start with McConnell, who has been promoting entrepreneurial ventures at Hercules Plaza for at least five years and who has supported unconventional ventures on behalf of low-income kids, like Nativity Prep, the tuition-free private middle school for boys on the city’s West Side.

McConnell firmly believes a strong education system is essential to successful economic development. “Cities and states where education and economic development are connected are the ones that are flourishing,” but it’s not happening yet in Delaware, he says.

Plug-In Program

Dual School could be a first step toward making that happen.

From its modest start in September, McConnell and Lindroth hope that the Dual School concept can be refined as it expands. Their goal is to create what’s known as a “plug-in” program—an academic component created by an outside entity that can plug into the established curriculum at any high school that wants to use it.

Michael Wiciak’s rotorless drone prototype was developed at Dual School.

The first test of the plug-in approach is now under way. In addition to having a second group of students meeting at 1313 Innovation for the spring semester, Dual School is piloting its offering with a class at William Penn High School in New Castle.

Dual School’s approach provides students with both motivation—by letting them pick their own projects—and challenge—by giving them control over how the work gets done.

Zach Jones, a 2017 UD Horn graduate who is serving as Dual School’s interim executive director, says there are three ingredients to the school’s “secret sauce”: students work together on projects they really care about; they make connections with professionals who are experts in their project area; and they learn how to rapidly make prototypes, and revise them on the fly, as they move forward with their projects.

Take, for example, Salesianum School senior Michael Wiciak, who read about a toddler who lost an eye in November 2015 when the child’s retina was sliced by a drone’s propeller blades. He spent the semester trying to build a rotorless drone that uses indirect propulsion, hiding the motors and propellers inside the frame to create a device that is safer for its users.

Through his project mentor and connections at High Tech High, whose staff members served as consultants on Dual School development, Wiciak hooked up with Tom Ayling, a director at Aerial Applications, a drone manufacturer and service provider in Philadelphia. “I had the best phone call ever with him as he told me to keep going because of the potential my project has, and he has put me in contact with some top engineers around the area,” Wiciak says.

Student Miracle Olatunji and her project were featured on a Forbes magazine website.

By late January, Wiciak had developed a prototype for his drone, which was on display at Dual School’s semester-ending Discovery Day in the atrium at Hercules Plaza.

Solving “Adults’ Problems”

Wiciak’s work is an example of what McConnell sees as students “trying to solve what I would call ‘the adults’ problems.’”

New Castle County Executive Matt Meyer dropped in on the Discovery Day program and made a related observation. “This is the future,” Meyer said after checking out the projects. “Business leaders should be looking at their ideas.”

Several other Dual School participants developed projects that, while not necessarily tackling “adults’ problems,” addressed issues that adults would like to see the education system solve.

Siawaa Antwi, a junior at Freire Charter School, recognizing the problems her mother and others in lower-income families had paying their bills, developed a financial literacy class for low-income youth.

“There is so much to learn,” she says, mentioning “checking accounts, investing, bitcoins,” and pledging to spend her spring refining her prototype, making the curriculum less of a lecture and more of a conversation.

Miracle Olatunji, a senior at the Charter School of Wilmington, addressed an issue that has long challenged students and their parents: identifying the summer experiences, internships and scholarships that best fit a student’s talents and aspirations. She has created a newsletter for her project, called OpportuniMe. It already has more than 230 subscribers and she is now building a website to expand its reach. What started as a project focused on New Castle County could have relevance throughout the region, and perhaps from coast to coast, she says. Olatunji’s initiative and creativity led to a profile on a Forbes magazine website in January.

“I started small. Now I’m able to think bigger,” she says. She talks confidently about value propositions, efficiency, quality and accessibility. “I want to turn this into a mission-driven company,” she adds. Her next step: writing a business plan.

Like most of her Dual School peers, Antwi says what she appreciated most was the opportunity to work on her own project while being surrounded by supportive mentors and peers. “You care more, you do more, if it’s yours,” she says, adding, “they don’t put pressure on you. They support you.”
At the start, no one was quite sure what they were getting into.

Thirteen students from seven schools are currently attending Dual School.

“For the first five weeks, I had no idea where the program was going,” says Dorcas Olatunji, Miracle’s younger sister and a sophomore at the Charter School of Wilmington, “but I knew I was surrounded by people who would help me get there.” Her project started out as an examination of issues related to prejudice but morphed into the development of a series of activities that could be used during school homeroom periods to break down communications barriers between different groups of students.

Parents felt the same way. “At the first parent meeting—the only parent meeting—we had, it was really nebulous. It seemed like it was not very well designed,” said Tammy Rossi, Noah’s mother. “It was fascinating to watch” her son move forward with his project, she said. “It was an amazing experience, something he wouldn’t have gotten in school.”

Benefits Outweigh Fears

Officials at the participating students’ schools had some concerns when they first learned about Dual School. Afterward, they indicated that the benefits outweighed any fears they might have had.

Ryan Mitchell, director of college guidance at Newark Charter School, said he worried that students would miss regular class time for an entire afternoon one day a week. But he found that the students learned differently—and may have learned more—in the nontraditional, off-campus setting.

“They connect to visionary thinkers and gain new levels of insights. They learn how to get big-time projects off the ground,” he says. And, as it turned out, the students were responsible enough to make up any missed classwork with no negative impact on their grades.

“It might not work for all schools,” says Eric Anderson, vice president (the equivalent of principal) at the Charter School of Wilmington, “but every school has a population that would benefit from it.”

Erin McNichol, who has been teaching innovation and creativity classes at Ursuline Academy for two years, served on the Dual School planning team and has continued with the program as a mentor.

Dual School provides a strong complement to Ursuline’s current offerings, she says, and has the added benefit of “getting kids outside the classroom” as part of their learning experience.

Dual School, says Lindroth, is “fundamentally transforming, an extremely powerful tool that districts and schools can use to bring their curriculum and experiences into the 21st century.”

For now, the project faces two interrelated challenges: securing corporate and foundation support to grow the program and proving to the state’s education community that its model is workable—both in terms of fitting into school schedules and demonstrating that it merits becoming a class for which students gain credit toward graduation. That could take a couple of years.

If Dual School successfully makes its case, its leadership team —Lindroth, Wallace and Jones—sees multiple paths forward. The program could continue to operate as it has at 1313 Innovation, but with multiple groups of students meeting there each week. Or it could assemble a cadre of teachers who could move from school to school, teaching several classes a week. A third option would be for Dual School to become a teacher-training organization, providing professional development and mentoring to teachers working at area high schools. And, they say, developing a variety of classes, all with entrepreneurship at their core, is also possible.

However it develops, McConnell insists that the program will do all it can to meet the needs of low-income students who are seldom exposed to entrepreneurial opportunities. “We need to put these kids into the right environment with the right opportunities,” he says. “They’re just as smart as anyone else.”

And if it works…well, the idea of promoting economic development by creating a school project in a corner of a high-rise office building won’t seem strange at all.


Volunteering Made Easy

The state Office of Volunteerism plays matchmaker for worthy causes and Delawareans who want to donate their time

When it comes to charitable contributions, many people find that a gift of their time is more meaningful and can have a greater impact on their communities than a cash contribution. In the coming months, Out & About will profile some of these volunteers, along with the programs in which they serve. The series is being developed in cooperation with the state Office of Volunteerism, which is the subject of our first installment.

As State Volunteer Services Coordinator, Clare Garrison has learned that little things—like a cookie—can mean a lot.

That was brought home to her not long ago when she participated in the annual “Bake the Night Away” event at Delcastle Technical High School. Now in its 10th year, the Christmas holiday event brings together culinary arts students and adults from the community to bake dozens of cookies, package them and deliver them to police stations around the state. It’s a small gesture, a way of thanking the men and women whose duty is to keep us safe.

As one baking and packaging session wrapped up, a Delcastle student turned to Garrison and said, “You know, I never realized that a cookie could mean so much.”

That’s just one example of why Garrison takes pride in her work at the New Castle County office on Du Pont Highway. During her 20 years there, the Newark resident has handled a variety of duties in an operation whose focus is matchmaking—helping people who want to help find a program or an organization that’s looking for helpers.

“You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to be a volunteer,” says Tara Wiggins, program officer for AmeriCorps, the national service program that operates in Delaware through the Office of Volunteerism.

Ananya Singh, a volunteer with Global Youth H.E.L.P. Inc., winner of the 2017 Governor’s Youth Volunteer Service Awards in the Community Service Category. Photo courtesty of the State Office of Volunteerism

Young or merely young in spirit, skilled or simply eager, volunteers can find ways to help just about anywhere in the state—and with good reason.

Delaware’s nonprofit organizations have been squeezed from all directions. A state revenue shortfall last year resulted in a 20 percent cut in grant-in-aid funding to nonprofits, not to mention other reductions in contracted services these agencies provide to the state. The shrinkage of big businesses and the departure of headquarters operations have trimmed corporate philanthropy. And the recent changes in federal tax laws are expected to reduce the number of Delawareans who itemize deductions, leaving nonprofits fearful that individuals won’t give, or will give less, if they can’t write off the contribution on their taxes.

In this environment, it’s increasingly important for Delawareans to do what they can to help nonprofit organizations meet their critical needs.

Easy-to-use website

That’s where the state Office of Volunteerism comes in.

With a staff of 21 people, the agency performs yeoman’s work, work that has been made much easier in recent years through development of an easy-to-use interactive website, VolunteerDelaware.org and the Volunteer Delaware page on Facebook.

Years ago, Garrison says, people interested in volunteering would call the office, answer questions from the staff about their interests and then have to wait a week or so while a staffer checked a database for suitable opportunities. “By the time we got back to them, many of them had moved on” and found other things to do with their time, she says.

Now, finding a volunteer match is just a few clicks away.

Would you like to help a child learn to read? Deliver meals to the elderly? Clean up a park? Guide tours at a museum? Opportunities like these—and hundreds more—are easy to find at VolunteerDelaware.org.

Organizations seeking volunteer help need only log on to the site, create an account, and fill out a form. Once the office verifies that the organization is a legitimate nonprofit, it can start posting its volunteer needs on the site, says Deborah Tokarski, the state’s volunteer services administrator for marketing.

As of mid-January, there were 885 organizations using the site and more than 4,200 volunteer opportunities posted, Wiggins says. “And we’re looking for more agencies to use our service,” she adds.

Prospective volunteers can browse the website to search for opportunities. Plugging in a keyword, like “reading” or “museum,” can simplify the search. Entering the days you’re available and your ZIP Code can narrow opportunities to those that fit your schedule and are easily accessible.

Once you identify opportunities you like, you will have to create an account on the site so the agencies can be notified of your interest.

Prospective volunteers who aren’t tech savvy, or who don’t have access to a computer, may call the Office of Volunteerism to ask about opportunities.  In New Castle County, call Garrison at 255-9899.

Organizations seeking volunteers have varying requirements, Garrison says. Some of the details are described on links from the website, and others you’ll find out about when the organization contacts you.

For example, some organizations look for volunteers with specific skills, while others require participation in a few hours of training or orientation before you can start serving.

In recent years, Wiggins says, there have been changes in how organizations seek out volunteers. “We suggest that they seek out skilled volunteers and use them for purposes that match their skills,” she says. “If you can recruit an accountant, do you want to have them stuffing envelopes?”

It is often preferable, she says, “to ask what this person can do for you, rather than to have canned opportunities.”

Flexible scheduling

Volunteering doesn’t have to take a lot of time, and the office encourages organizations to tailor their opportunities to the availability of the people who are eager to help.

“We encourage agencies to be flexible,” Tokarski says. “Some people want to go to Florida in the winter, or to the beach in the summer, or they want something they can do at their convenience, for one day a week, or two days a week, or even from their homes.”

Venessa Lundy works on one of the Habitat for Humanity houses on 11th Street in Wilmington. Photo Don Blake

The Office of Volunteerism also provides a gateway to a pair of programs aimed primarily at the state’s 50-plus demographic.

One of them, aptly named Volunteer Delaware 50+, places volunteers in that age group with agencies that agree to keep track of the hours volunteers put in. Participants qualify for recognition events and other awards based on hours and years of service. About 200 agencies are linked to the 50+ program, which had nearly 1,500 active volunteers last year.

The other, Foster Grandparents, places individuals 55 and older with limited incomes in assignments supporting young children at daycare centers, Head Start programs, schools and youth and family service centers for 15 to 40 hours a week. Participants receive a non-taxable hourly stipend, monthly training, an annual physical exam and other benefits. Last year, Foster Grandparents attracted 184 volunteers statewide, who served more than 192,000 hours and assisted more than 1,100 children.

AmeriCorps members, who typically serve for a year or more, clean parks and trails or participate in financial literacy, housing and job training programs. Members receive health insurance, childcare assistance if necessary and eligible, and student loan deferment (for eligible loans). And upon successful completion of their term of service, members receive an education award that can be used to repay qualified student loans or put toward future education endeavors, along with personal and professional development opportunities including professional certifications. Last year, Delaware had 138 AmeriCorps members.

In addition, the office administers the Delaware Volunteer Credit program, which enables high school students to earn one credit toward graduation by devoting 90 hours to community service during the school year.

While volunteers get involved because of their desire to support their communities, their service warrants public recognition, Tokarski says, and it is provided through annual awards. Last year, the programs recognized 14 individuals, 13 groups and three others for lifetime achievement as well as 13 youths and five youth groups.

Volunteering, Tokarski and Garrison say, can benefit participants as well as the agencies they serve. It can be a step toward a new career or a rewarding activity in retirement, an opportunity to meet new people, make friends or broaden horizons.

And, like the high school student Garrison enjoys talking about, it’s a way to do something little that has a way of making a big impact.

Banking on Change

Starting with 100 properties priced from $2,000 to $5,000, the Wilmington Land Bank is hoping to transform blocks, even neighborhoods, that have seen better days

More than 40 years ago, Wilmington stepped forward as a national leader in creating initiatives to decrease the number of tax-delinquent properties in urban areas.

In 1973, Mayor Thomas C. Maloney and City Council established an urban homesteading program that awarded properties to qualified buyers who pledged to fix them up and make them their homes. The price: one dollar.

At the start, the program proved so popular that a lottery was held in 1974 to choose the winners of the first available houses. A DuPont Co. attorney, Daniel S. Frawley, was the first name selected. He chose and rehabbed a home at 801 W. 10th St., triggering a revival of the now popular Trinity Vicinity neighborhood. Frawley went on to become a member of the Wilmington Board of Education, a member of City Council and, finally, the city’s mayor from 1985 to 1993. (Frawley died of a heart attack during a basketball game in 1994 at the age of 50.)

Over time, the homesteading program fell by the wayside, and the problem of blighted and tax-delinquent properties endured. Currently there are about 1,400 vacant and blighted parcels in Wilmington.

So the city has turned to a new mechanism, the Wilmington Neighborhood Conservancy Land Bank, to take on the challenge of transforming blocks, and even neighborhoods, that have fallen on hard times.

As the new year began, the land bank had assembled an inventory of about 100 properties and was getting ready to offer them to interested buyers, most likely by the end of January.

The purchase price will be more than the single dollar that Dan Frawley and the other early homesteaders paid, “but it will be relatively low,” on the order of $2,000 to $5,000, says Christian Willauer, the land bank’s executive director.

But the expectation, Willauer says, is that the buyers will have to spend $100,000 or so to make the properties habitable. “They’re definitely fixer-uppers,” she says. “They’re not move-in ready. Many will need new electric, new heat, new plumbing.”

Combatting blight

Land banks got their start in the United States in 1971, in St. Louis. As with Wilmington’s original homesteading program, they were seen as a way to combat the blight that developed as urban industries collapsed and city residents fled to the suburbs. Interest in land banks revived about a decade ago with the real estate market collapse and the foreclosure crisis that followed. There are now about 200 land banks nationwide.

Land Bank Executive Director Christian Willauer stands in front of 509 Concord Ave., another of the units to be offered. Photo Jim Coarse

Interest in a land bank for Wilmington began developing about five years ago. Then, in 2015, the General Assembly passed a law authorizing local governments to create land banks, and the Wilmington City Council did that later in the year. It took most of 2016 for the land bank to organize a board of directors, secure its nonprofit status, write bylaws and take care of related legal issues. Last February, it hired Willauer, who had been the head of Cornerstone West, the economic development arm of the West End Neighborhood House, as its executive director. The organization’s only employee, she spent most of last year pulling the organizational pieces together—raising money, securing insurance, developing a system for managing properties, and figuring out a process for finding good owners for rundown properties.

The land bank is getting started with about $3 million in seed money, which will be used primarily to buy and manage properties. The city put up $1.5 million and the state kicked in $645,000 from its Strong Neighborhoods Housing Fund. Then Barclaycard US stepped forward with a $1 million grant“more than we’ve ever given before,” according to Joceyln Stewart, the bank’s community reinvestment officer and a member of the land bank’s board of governors.

The city and Barclaycard contributions have a shared purpose, but they were made for different reasons.

“The city has not supported this function very well,” Mayor Mike Purzycki says, referring to its oversight of blighted properties. He thinks the land bank can do it better. “You’re taking a responsibility away from agencies that have multiple tasks and giving it to an agency that has one focus: redevelopment and conveying properties to developers,” he says.

City Council President Hanifa Shabazz says she expects the land bank to “work in concert with the city to convert vacant, abandoned and blighted properties and lots to stimulate economic development and neighborhood revitalization.”

While Purzycki looks back and sees ineffectiveness, Stewart looks forward with a hopeful eye. “We believe this can make a difference—citywide,” she says. “There are a lot of us here who really believe in Wilmington, who love this city and will rally behind it.”

Three types of programs

The land bank’s current holdings, Willauer says, are a mix of structures and vacant land, most of them transferred from the city’s stock of abandoned properties. By the end of 2018, she expects the inventory to grow to about 300 parcels and anticipates it will stabilize near that level, with the land bank selling off about as many properties as it acquires on a year-to-year basis.

Willauer says the land bank, as it gets up and running, will have three types of programs: homesteading, urban gardening and side lots.

In the homesteading component, rundown structures will be sold to qualified buyers who commit to rehabilitating the properties within one year of acquisition.

As of mid-December, the details of the homesteading system were still being worked out. Basic rules will likely include requirements that buyers can’t owe the city any money for back taxes or delinquent utility bills and that they will have to meet rehab specifications within a year or risk having to turn the property back to the land bank. “There will be some clawback provisions to hold the buyer accountable,” Willauer says.

What is for certain is that prospective buyers would receive a set of specifications from the land bank, detailing improvements that would have to be made to the property. They could then share those specifications with contractors and financial institutions to determine how much the work would cost and how much financing they could secure.

Interested parties would then submit their plans to the land bank board, and those who submit the most complete proposals would be awarded the properties, Willauer says.

The homes, mostly traditional row homes, vary in size, but most have two to four bedrooms. They tend to be in neighborhoods that don’t get a lot of activity in the local residential real estate market. “They need a more targeted approach to get back into use,” Willauer says.

While she often uses $100,000 as a ballpark figure for rehabilitation costs, the actual price will depend on the buyer’s taste and needs, because the condition of the homes will give purchasers plenty of leeway on things like designing and equipping the kitchen, baths and laundry areas.

One of the goals of the homesteading effort is to provide housing opportunities to renters and to those who lost their homes during the foreclosure crisis, Willauer says. To help achieve that objective, the land bank plans to assist buyers by work with agencies like the Delaware State Housing Authority on financing packages and Habitat for Humanity for first-time homeowner counseling.

“We’re not looking for gentrification,” Stewart says. “We’re interested in growing wealth.”

A variation of the land bank’s homesteading initiative involves partnering with organizations like Habitat for Humanity of New Castle County. Habitat likes to secure packages of adjoining properties so it can transform entire blocks, and the land bank, by acquiring foreclosed properties through the city and purchasing nearby properties on its own, can make that happen.

Recently, Habitat transferred ownership of a property it owns on East 22nd Street to the land bank, which already owns an adjacent property. For now, the land bank is maintaining both parcels. When Habitat is ready to begin its construction project, the land bank will transfer ownership of both parcels to Habitat.

Urban agriculture

Similarly, in West Center City, an area that Purzycki and Shabazz have targeted for revitalization, Willauer expects the bank to become involved in assembling adjoining parcels into a contiguous package for redevelopment.

When Willauer speaks of “urban gardening,” she offers a range of possibilities for vacant lots or parcels that contain structures for which demolition is the best option. In some situations, residents of a block or a neighborhood association might want to acquire a lot that could be transformed into a community garden or a pocket park.

Rather than sell such properties, the land bank would consider lease arrangements with community groups, she says.

“Side lots,” smaller properties held by the land bank that are adjacent to owner-occupied homes, might not be suitable for redevelopment but they could make attractive additions to the footprint of the homeowner’s property, Willauer says. The land bank will work with homeowners on how to annex these side lots to their properties.

“Our overall goal is to get all these properties back into use,” she says.

The urban gardening and side lots programs were launched in early January. Regulations and forms to apply for acquiring properties are posted on the land bank’s website, wilmingtonlandbank.org.

“Our work should be consistent with neighborhood plans, and will require greater coordination,” she says. “If a community sees open space as a priority, or if it sees increased home ownership as an objective, we want to work with neighborhood organizations and civic associations to make sure we’re fulfilling the goals and the vision that residents have for their neighborhoods.”

By promoting home ownership and working closely with civic groups, the land bank should promote community development and help create safer neighborhoods, Willauer says. 

Forty Years of Service to the Poor

Led by the indefatigable Brother Ronald Giannone, the Ministry of Caring has spearheaded dozens of charitable projects aimed at the under-served. This month, it launches another: The $22 million Village of St. John.

Brother Ronald Giannone established the Ministry of Caring in Wilmington in 1977 with a house, purchased for $5,000, that became a shelter for homeless women.

But that was just a start. Giannone has always been a big thinker, and over the intervening 40 years, he has grown the ministry into a charity that runs 20 programs in 29 buildings throughout Wilmington, with an annual budget of about $11 million.

Childcare, dining rooms, emergency shelters, long-term and transitional housing for the homeless, for senior citizens, for men and women suffering from AIDS and HIV: If there’s a need, the Ministry of Caring is there to fill it. Throughout those four decades, Giannone has been guided by the ministry’s basic principle: “The poor should not be treated poorly.”

This month, the charity will launch another massive project—the transformation of the former Cathedral Church of St. John, a landmark in Wilmington’s Brandywine Village for more than 150 years, into a residential complex designed to serve moderate and low-income seniors and the working poor, age 62 and older.

Early in December, the ministry will go to settlement and close the deal to purchase the cathedral complex from the Episcopal Diocese of Delaware for $651,800—a steep discount from the original asking price of $1.7 million. A grant from the Longwood Foundation will cover the purchase price.
Following a groundbreaking ceremony Dec. 15, construction will begin, says Priscilla Rakestraw, the ministry’s director of development. The project, dubbed the Village of St. John, now carries a $22 million price tag, and all but $2 million has been raised, primarily through a combination of grants from foundations and businesses, the state, Wilmington and New Castle County governments, and a variety of tax credits available for developing low-income housing and restoring historic sites.

Ready by 2019

Repurposing the former Cathedral Church of St. John, which is more than 150 years old, will be key to the new project. Photo by Moonloop Photography

The goal, Rakestraw says, is to have 53 apartments—a combination of efficiencies and 1- and 2-bedroom units—ready for occupancy by about 80 residents by December 2019. Seventeen units will be created within the church and the adjoining dean’s house. The other 36 will be in a new three-story building on the southwest side of the 2.6-acre property.

The project represents not only a repurposing of a 19th-century structure to meet 21st-century needs, but also an opportunity to spur a revitalization of Brandywine Village, which has battled a steady decline over the past 40 years.

“I can’t tell you how exciting it is to be part of this project,” says Kevin Wilson, a principal of Architectural Alliance, which has handled all the design work. “We’re preserving history and we’re anchoring the neighborhood.”

Brandywine Village had a history as a bustling neighborhood dating to the Revolutionary era, when the Green Tree Tavern occupied the corner of Market Street and Concord Avenue. In 1856 Alexis I. du Pont, son of the founder of the DuPont Co., chose the corner as the site for a new Episcopal church. A year later, as construction was beginning, du Pont suffered fatal burns while trying to rescue workers from an explosion at his family’s powder mill on the Brandywine. While on his death bed, Rakestraw says, he changed his will to ensure that there would be sufficient funds to complete the church.

Construction projects in 1885, 1919 and 1952 added a parish hall, a parsonage and a spacious kitchen as the congregation grew and the complex became the headquarters of the Episcopal Diocese of Delaware.

A Neighborhood in Decline

More recently, the neighborhood, once home to trendy restaurants and hardware and paint stores, fell into decline. Its most prominent businesses now are a Dollar General, a couple of fast food outlets and some liquor stores. Meanwhile, the church’s membership declined, and the shrinking congregation didn’t have the resources to maintain the aging buildings. Church members eventually joined other congregations, the diocese moved its offices to Brandywine Hundred and the complex was put up for sale.

Eighty-five-year-old Edie Menser, a longtime parishioner who remembers first visiting the church when she was 4, recalls “Christmas Eve services with trumpets blowing” and choir members heading across the street to Hearn’s Restaurant for breakfast between the two services on Easter morning.
“I was married here, my children were married here, my great-grandchildren were baptized here. Those memories are precious,” she says. “I would have loved for the church to have stayed open, but it’s going to be used, and that’s important.”

With the apartments bringing new residents into the area, existing businesses in Brandywine Village should benefit, and others should be encouraged to locate there, Giannone says. “If you put $22 million toward a project, you’re going to change the neighborhood for the better.”

The restoration and renovation project will preserve both existing buildings’ exterior, including the stained glass windows in the cathedral and chapel. The new building, Wilson says, “has been designed to be harmonious with the church,” using the same stone and the same finishes, “but its massing will be simpler” so it won’t diminish the prominence of the church.

While matching the church’s early Gothic style, the new building will incorporate contemporary features to maximize its energy efficiency, including rooftop solar panels for heating hot water.

Since the granite for the church was quarried in nearby Alapocas, finding matching stone proved somewhat of a challenge, Wilson says. A local supplier, the Delaware Brick Co., located not only a dark gray granite that matches most of the existing church but also some oxidized stone that looks much like portions of the church exterior that have acquired a reddish tint over the years.

Changes on the Inside

“We met with both the state and the city historic preservation folks, and they all agreed it was a good match,” Wilson says.

Also being preserved are two engraved marble plaques, honoring Alexis I. du Pont and his wife, Joanna, for their roles in the church’s construction.

But there will be significant changes to the interior.

While the small chapel will be maintained for interdenominational worship, the cathedral’s sanctuary will be transformed into a common area, a wide-open gathering space for residents to meet, relax, play cards and enjoy group activities. The hand-carved pews in the cathedral are in excellent condition, and the ministry hopes to find a church in the area that could use them, Rakestraw says.

The large kitchen on the main floor will be ripped out and replaced by a combination kitchen/café.
The greatest challenge will be in repurposing the numerous classrooms and offices that line the hallways on the west side of the cathedral.

Some of the rooms are large enough to be envisioned as two-bedroom units with an open design. “I’d want this one for myself,” Rakestraw says as she guides visitors into a bright and airy second-floor space that once was used for choir rehearsals.

But the size and placement of many of the offices and classrooms can lead to design challenges or surprising results. “We have to carefully design spaces to keep their unique architectural features, like the ornate woodwork in the ceilings and walls,” Wilson says. In several places, stone fireplaces surrounded by wood panels will become the focal point of a new resident’s living room.

In addition to the changes inherent in transforming offices into apartments, structural improvements are also needed. For example, century-old leaded glass windows will be removed and replaced with energy-efficient frames and glass.

The construction of the new building will create a more or less triangular courtyard in the area between the structures, a place Rakestraw expects to become popular with residents as a picnic ground or for outdoor conversations.

24-hour Security

As part of the purchase, Rakestraw says, the ministry is acquiring a parking lot on the north side of

The altar area of the former Cathedral Church of St. John. Photo by Moonloop Photography

Concord Avenue that runs from the rear of businesses on Market Street west to Tatnall Street. Residents and visitors will be able to use the lot, and there also will be a group of handicap parking spaces along the semicircular driveway at the Tatnall Street entrance to the complex.

“The best part of this,” Rakestraw says, “will be the security—24 hours a day, on site. It’s not going to be a place that people can run in and out of.”

The construction marks a continuation of the ministry’s steady growth under Giannone, whose leadership has led to more than a score of projects aimed at housing, feeding and employing the poor.
It began in early 1977, when Giannone, recently assigned to the St. Francis Priory off Silverside Road in Brandywine Hundred, confessed his disappointment to his superior that work at the retreat house didn’t give him the opportunity to help the poor. “What’s stopping you?” his superior replied, and soon he was on the phone and knocking on the door of state social service agencies trying to find out where help was most needed.

He learned of homeless women sleeping under bridges in Wilmington and grandparents caring for infants and toddlers because their parents were in prison.

“That was my baptism by fire to conditions on the East Side of Wilmington,” he says.

He found a home for sale for $7,500 on North Van Buren Street, talked the price down to $5,000, rounded up donations to pay for it, enlisted the support of volunteers and other religious orders, and opened the Mary Mother of Hope House for homeless women. Since then the Capuchin Franciscan friar has built an operation that, among other things, serves 170,000 meals a year at its three dining rooms and provides care for 153 at-risk children at three centers in the city.

The Mary Mother of Hope House was followed by the first Emmanuel Dining Room in 1979 and the second three years later. In 1983, the ministry opened the Mary Mother of Hope transitional residence for single women and Mary Mother of Hope House II, an emergency shelter for homeless women with children.

Two years later came a job placement center and House of Joseph I, an emergency shelter for homeless employable men. The third Emmanuel Dining Room opened in 1987, followed in 1989 by a distribution center, which provides free clothing, home supplies and furniture for people in need.

The St. Clare Van, a health services outreach collaboration with St. Francis Hospital, was launched in 1992, the year the first childcare center opened.

In 1995, three more programs were launched: St. Francis Transitional Residence, providing housing for homeless women and their children; a dental clinic and a Samaritan Center, which helps the poor and homeless with housing referrals, case management, hygienic services and other supports.

From 1997 to 2000, four more housing initiatives were created: House of Joseph II, a permanent residence for homeless people living with AIDS; Nazareth House I and II, transitional housing for families; and Sacred Heart Village I, 78 one-bedroom apartments for the elderly.

Next came Bethany House I, in 2002, providing long-term housing for women with disabilities, and Il Bambino, in 2003, an infant care program for the poor, working poor and homeless.

In 2007, the ministry opened Maria Lorenza Longo House, a long-term residence for single women, followed in 2010 by Padre Pio House, a long-term residence for men with disabilities.

The Mother Teresa House, providing affordable independent housing with supportive services to low-income men and women disabled by HIV/AIDS, opened in 2011, along with the Josephine Bakhita House, a residence for recent college graduates dedicating a year to service of the poor and hungry.
Bethany House II, also serving women with disabilities, opened in 2014.

The ministry’s most recent venture, Sacred Heart Village II, opened earlier this year to provide housing for low-income seniors on Wilmington’s East Side.

Many of those projects, Giannone says, had significant support from MBNA, one of the first banks to prosper in Delaware after passage of the Financial Center Development Act in 1981, and the generosity of the late Charles M. Cawley, who started the credit-card bank in 1982.

Cawley “wanted the bank to have a social conscience,” and one of his early moves was to hire Francis X. Norton, a former leader of social programs in the Catholic Diocese of Wilmington, and then “assigned him to work with me,” Giannone says.

“Charlie became very hands-on. I would tell him how much money we would need, and he would support us,” Giannone says.

That relationship led to, among other things, construction of the Guardian Angel Child Care on Wilmington’s East Side and the development of Sacred Heart Village I on the grounds of a former Catholic Church in the Trinity Vicinity neighborhood.

In addition to funding multiple projects, Cawley instilled a culture of community service at MBNA that generated a stream of dependable volunteers for the ministry, Giannone says.

Now 67, the Bronx native shows no signs of slowing down—and neither does his ministry.

“I’ll be here as long as God gives me life and my superiors allow,” he says.

And the Village of St. John, with its strong foundation and granite walls, will be around even longer.

Ongoing Needs

The Ministry of Caring has ongoing needs for volunteers, including assisting at its childcare centers, helping with food preparation and service at its dining rooms, helping with activities for senior citizens and sorting donated clothing or assembling hygiene kits at its Samaritan Outreach Center.
Details on volunteering are available at ministryofcaring.org.

The ministry is currently running a drive for food and necessities that are essential to serving the poor. The Emmanuel Dining Room needs large family-size containers of vegetables, pasta, spaghetti sauce, fruit, cereal, beans, pancake mix, syrup, oatmeal and tuna fish. DART prepaid passes enable the ministry’s shelter residents to seek employment, and gift cards from local grocery stores enable the dining room and shelters to purchase emergency provisions. The shelters for homeless men, women and women with small children need canned/packaged nonperishable foods and paper products, as well as new or gently used coats, towels, twin-size blankets and sheet sets. Monetary donations are also accepted.

To arrange donations, contact:
ReeNee at 652-3228
(mlafate@sacredheartvillage2.org) or Priscilla at 652-5523

Not the Same Ol’ Song and Dance

Oscar Compo leads high school vocal majors in "In The Beginning" from Children of Eden by Stephen Schwartz at the 25th Anniversary celebration of the Cab Calloway School of the Arts. Photo Joe del Tufo

Celebrating its 25th anniversary, the Cab Calloway School of the Arts overcame a bumpy beginning to become, according to one parent, almost perfect

When the Red Clay Consolidated School district announced in 1992 that it would launch a Creative and Performing Arts Middle School, it wasn’t hard to find students to start refilling a mostly empty building that then housed the dying Wilmington High School.

“Some thought it was going to be a breeze, that all they had to do was sing and dance all day,” recalls Sally McBride, a Red Clay parent who served on the committee that helped found the school.

As it turned out, the school’s curriculum developed with as much substance as style, and this year there’s plenty of singing and dancing going on as what has become the Cab Calloway School of the Arts is celebrating its 25th anniversary.

Indeed, visitors should not be surprised to observe art students painting in the hallways, musicians playing pianos in the lobby, or a trio bursting out of a classroom and breaking into song in the middle of a class period.

There’s a certain irony to the origin of the school, opened a few years before the lifting of a federal court desegregation order for northern New Castle County schools. In the desegregation era, Wilmington High’s enrollment declined sharply, largely because white families in the nearby blue-collar suburban areas chose to send their children to private or parochial schools.

In search of a solution, a group of Red Clay School Board members, administrators and parents hopped on a train to New York City and found their answer in, of all places, Harlem, recognized as a major African-American residential, cultural and business center since the early 20th century.

As they visited a classroom in a middle school whose curriculum blended academic subjects with the performing arts, “the kids were practicing for a musical, and their work was so good, so powerful, that tears ran from our eyes,” recalls Bill Manning, once the legal counsel to former Gov. Pete du Pont and then president of the Red Clay School Board.

Creating a new school, even in an existing building, in a mere six months or so proved quite a challenge. There were lots of startup issues—textbooks not arriving on time, the transformation of a spare closet into a library, to name just two.

Separate Board of Directors

But the middle school came together well, due in no small measure to dedicated parents and enthusiastic support from the local arts community. It helped too that Red Clay, recognizing the unique character of its new magnet school, created a separate board of directors that functioned as a mini school board.

As the school was opening, its leaders realized that Cab Calloway, the legendary singer and bandleader, was living at Cokesbury Village retirement community in Hockessin. They invited him to the school’s ribbon-cutting in November 1992. Soon after, his daughter, Cabella Calloway Langsam, joined the school’s board of directors. A year later, the Red Clay Board of Education renamed the school in Calloway’s honor.

After the bandleader’s death in 1994, Langsam remained involved with the school until she moved to Arizona several years ago. Today, photos, paintings and other Calloway memorabilia—most of them donated by Langsam—adorn many of the school’s walls.

In its first three years, the middle school blossomed, and parents urged Red Clay to expand the program to include a high school. That occurred in 1997, but the first couple of years were rocky.

Enrollment wasn’t large enough to sustain a broad high school curriculum, so academic options were limited, and hardly rigorous. “If you’ve only got 29 seniors, you can’t offer six Advanced Placement courses,” says Julie Rumschlag, who took over as the school’s dean in 1999.

Red Clay adopted a velvet glove approach toward the high school program. Rumschlag remembers being told, in essence, “you have to make it work or we’re going to close the high school.” But the school board also gave her additional resources to beef up academics.

Student art adorns the Cab gallery. Photo by Joe del Tufo

To supplement what the district provides, Cab’s original board of directors has morphed into a separate entity, the Cab Calloway School Fund, which serves as a fundraising organization, providing enough money each year to pay for two staff positions and to help purchase musical instruments and other equipment.

As the pieces came together, Cab has evolved into a top-performing academic school, with its emphasis on the arts perfectly complementing the science and math-focused Charter School of Wilmington, with whom it shares the old Wilmington High Building.

Because of their strong reputations, “students at both schools inspire each other to work harder,” McBride says.

Nine Majors

And there are partnerships and synergies as well. Cab students participate on Charter athletic teams, and Charter students can try out for roles in Cab’s theater productions. Cab’s marching band performs at Charter’s football games. If there’s an extra seat in a class Charter offers, a Cab student can register, and vice versa. Besides taking all the courses needed to meet the state’s graduation requirements, Cab students can choose from nine majors: dance, digital media and communication arts, instrumental music, piano, strings, technical theater, theater arts, visual arts and vocal music.

Getting into the school is a challenge. Students have to take “assessments” in two of those major areas before even qualifying for the admissions lottery, which is conducted according to the rules of the state’s choice enrollment system.

“The quality of the dancers has really changed,” says Allyson Cohen-Sherlock, who began teaching at Cab the year the high school opened. “There are 14 or 15 spots open every year, and I see maybe 100 people [at the assessments].”

Overall, Cab enrolls 940 students in grades 6-12. From the students who complete the assessments and apply for the lottery, about one-third are admitted, Rumschlag says.

Parents appreciate the way the school integrates the arts into its regular academic subjects.

“They put on a one-act play in their history class. That makes it easier for them to learn,” says Erin Lacey, who has daughters in sixth and seventh grades. “My sixth-grader had to write a parody song for an English assignment. She’s writing poetry and she doesn’t even know it.”

Piano teacher Margaret Badger’s children began attending Cab well before she joined the faculty in 2012. As a parent, she was impressed by faculty members and their care for and dedication to students. “When I joined the faculty, I found that that passion is real. Every teacher is extremely committed to their subject,” she says.

Dan Kafader was a visual arts major at Cab, graduating in 2003. He came back as a science teacher after working at schools in Philadelphia and in Cecil County, Md. He offers a personal example that “our graduates can pursue a lot of different things—not only arts careers, but also careers in science and math.”

Ethan Hunter Raysor, a 2012 Cab grad who dances with the First State Ballet, performs during the anniversary event. Photo Joe del Tufo

James Mikijanic, who teaches technical theater and manages the school’s theater (the old Wilmington High auditorium was gutted several years ago and rebuilt with state-of-the-art equipment ideal for both performances and instruction), says he enjoys working at Cab because “the students who come here want to be here. That’s not always the case now in education.”

On a Monday morning, he says, “sometimes a teacher will want to ask the class how their weekend was, and someone will ask if we can’t get on with the lesson.”

Senior theater major Megan Allen says she chose to attend Cab because “I knew it was a really good academic school as well as an arts school.”

Stage Combat

She has found many opportunities to pursue interesting activities that aren’t possible at most high schools, like co-writing a play with one or her classmates and taking a class in stage combat, which Mikijanic describes as “how to create safe but realistic-looking violence on stage – with hand-to-hand combat, knives, rapiers and swords.”

With experiences like these, “there’s no such thing as a typical Cab experience,” says Kuno Haimbodi, president of the senior class.

The school “invites you to learn and think from multiple perspectives,” he told the audience in the theater nearly filled for an anniversary celebration in late September. “And, apart from the basement mice and the occasional cockroach, I have enjoyed every single moment of it.”
Teachers too have to deal with multiple perspectives.

Badger, the piano teacher, finds that her greatest challenge is “individualizing … trying to find the perfect piece for each of 150 kids.” There are 24 pianos in her classroom, each one equipped with a switch that lets students hear what they’re playing through headphones without disturbing each other’s concentration. One September morning, students were playing jazz waltzes, classic rock and Chopin.

On the other hand, Cohen-Sherlock’s challenge with her dance classes is teaching them to work as an ensemble. Most of her students have taken lessons at private dance schools for years, learning different ways to perform the same moves. “They have to learn how to work together,” she says.

And, she notes, there’s a lot more to dance instruction than teaching the right moves. “We do psychology of dance, anatomy, nutrition and eating disorders,” she says, “and a lot of boot camp cardio. You need a strong core and strong posture.”

Some of those attributes were evident at the anniversary celebration.

Ethan Hunter Raysor, a 2012 graduate who dances with the First State Ballet, covered most of the stage in a brief performance of “Blue Bird Variation from Sleeping Beauty,” while senior pianist Shane VanNeerden dominated the keyboard with Franz Liszt’s “Paraphrase on Verdi’s Rigoletto.”

While the school is too young to have produced its own Cab Calloway, some of its graduates have already launched promising careers. Jeremy O’Keefe, a member of the first middle school class, and 2004 graduate Bridget Matthews are both in Los Angeles, working in the film industry. Nick LaMedica, a 2006 graduate, is a professional actor in St. Louis, and Megan Hellman, a 2000 graduate who formerly danced with the Baltimore City Ballet, is now teaching dance at a college in Florida.

As Kafader noted, not every graduate seeks a theatrical or artistic career, but most put the skills they learned at Cab to good use.

One example is Sarah McBride, a 2009 graduate, who last year became the first transgender individual to speak at a national political convention. She is now national spokesperson for the Human Rights Campaign.

Sally McBride, Sarah’s mother, has remained close to the school since its beginnings, and has marveled at what it has become.

“We may not be the perfect school,” she says, “but we’re close.”

New Kids On the Block

Says one parent: "Every student seems engaged." Photo Joe del Tufo

Opened in 2014, First State Montessori Academy is growing its enrollment, adding two grades, and finding its downtown location an advantage

Creating a new school can be a bit like completing a jigsaw puzzle. It requires vision to put the pieces together properly.

As it prepares to start its fourth year of operation in downtown Wilmington, the First State Montessori Academy is seeing all its pieces fit nicely.

Enrollment should top 500 students this year as the school adds a seventh-grade class, and could grow to 660 in the fall of 2018 when an eighth grade is added. The school received more than 600 applications for 91 open seats this year, so its waiting list has more than 500 names.
They must be doing something right.

“Every time I go into the school, I’m in awe,” says Meredith Rosenthal, whose son and daughter attend the school. “Every student seems engaged. You can see them engrossed in their learning, working together.”

As Rosenthal sees it, the school’s board of directors and staff adhere to a very basic principle: “They only do things if they know they’re going to do it well.”

That started in 2009, when the leaders of several private Montessori schools in New Castle County began meeting to develop a plan to bring Montessori education into a public school setting. An application filed that year with the state Department of Education’s Charter School Office did not win approval, but the group expanded its membership, refined its proposal and submitted a successful application in 2012 to open a new charter school. (A charter school is a public school, funded primarily by state and local tax dollars, but it is operated by a board of directors, not a local board of education, and is not subject to all the same rules and regulations as traditional public schools.) As originally planned, the school would open in the fall of 2013 with 241 students in kindergarten through sixth grade and grow to 325 students in its fourth year.

“We just did it one step at a time,” says Yvonne Nass, president of the school’s board of directors.
Preparing a charter school application is no mean achievement. The completed document totaled 635 pages, with details about curriculum, finances, discipline policies, health and safety, and the qualifications of the board members and staff.

Head of School Courtney Fox is a former first-grade teacher in the Brandywine School District and Delaware’s Teacher of the Year in 2008. Photo Joe del Tufo
Head of School Courtney Fox is a former first-grade teacher in the Brandywine School District and Delaware’s Teacher of the Year in 2008. Photo Joe del Tufo

But that was just the beginning. As has been the case with many new charters in Delaware, it took First State an extra year to open, partly because of difficulty finding a suitable building.

“We looked all over New Castle County,” says Courtney Fox, the head of school, a first-grade teacher for 15 years in the Brandywine School District and Delaware’s Teacher of the Year in 2008. “Old school buildings were not available. We looked at a lot of empty office space.”

They applied for space in the Community Education Building, the former MBNA/Bank of America office building acquired through the Longwood Foundation and retrofitted with the goal of housing up to four charter schools dedicated to meeting the educational needs of Wilmington’s low-income students.

The application wasn’t approved. “The schools that were accepted had in their mission statement that they would serve certain communities,” Fox explains. “Our mission was to serve a variety of communities.”

The Right Place and Space

As it turned out, First State would settle in another surplus MBNA/Bank of America structure, a former corporate childcare center at 920 French St., just two blocks south of the Community Education Building. “It was the right size, the right space, with the right amenities,” Fox says.
“The kids could move about, there were large hallways, the rooms had observation windows,” Nass adds. “We decided that it was our spot.”

And, since it was built as a daycare center, it didn’t require much retrofitting.
But there was one hitch. First State made an offer to buy the building, but the Buccini/Pollin group put in a higher bid. So First State wound up as BPG’s tenant.

First State faced two other significant start-up hurdles: ensuring that the Montessori curriculum would cover all the items in the Common Core standards recently adopted by Delaware (and many other states) and recruiting teachers trained in Montessori methods.
“Common Core tells us what to cover. We modify our content to fit lesson planning and methods,” Fox says.

“It wasn’t that hard,” says Liz Madden, a 17-year Montessori veteran and the school’s director of education. “The Common Core standards are more challenging, more rigorous, but Common Core doesn’t dictate how you teach something.”

Montessori educators require special certification beyond meeting the standards for a state teaching license. The certification involves taking a seven-week summer course and a series of projects that are completed while working in a Montessori classroom.

“A couple of our teachers live downtown, and a couple live an hour away,” Fox says. “Because there are fewer certified Montessori teachers, we have to cast our net wider.”

Hiring hasn’t been a big problem, Fox says, partly because teacher salaries at First State, while slightly below the range for teachers with comparable experience in traditional public schools, are higher than those offered at most private Montessori schools in the region.

Mary Falkenberg, who had spent 12 years teaching third grade in the Colonial School District, joined the First State staff last year after spending the summer taking her Montessori training. This summer, she says, she has to turn in the papers she completed during the school year and take a final exam for certification.

As with private Montessori schools, First State uses multi-age grouping, with kindergarten and first-grade students together, then second and third grade, then fourth through sixth.

Two Teachers Per Classroom

Each classroom has two teachers and there’s a Montessori-certified teacher in each one, Fox says.
Having two teachers working together makes a huge difference, Falkenberg says. “If I give a lesson and a student is struggling with it, he or she can go to the other teacher for additional support.”
The arrangement also allows teachers to play off each other’s strengths, she says. “I was more science, my co-teacher was more artistic. I love teaching third grade writing with essays, and she likes phonics and decoding.”

While Montessori teachers spend plenty of time instructing, students do a lot on their own, following weekly “work plans” designed by their teachers and based on their needs. A morning meeting starts the day, which includes some group instruction and special classes like art and music. But the biggest chunks are a pair of two-hour blocks during which students work on their own without interruption.

Look around a classroom and you’ll see some students reading quietly, others collaborating on a group project, and some using blocks or other materials as they work out their math lesson. “If a couple of kids want to do something at the same time, they have to learn to share, or to wait and check in later. They have to figure out a plan for how to get it done,” Fox says.

The biggest difference between a traditional school and Montessori is how students build their sense of independence, Falkenberg says.

“They have their own work places. Kids have more freedom in choosing their own work. Some will pick their favorite subject and work on it first. Others will save the best for last,” she says. No matter how they set up their agenda, “they get so excited at the end of them, saying, ‘I completed my work plan. I got all my work done.’”

Staying with the same teacher and classmates for two or more years benefits young students, Rosenthal says, because “unbelievable relationships are developed, both student-to-student and student-to-teacher.”

Rosenthal relates another positive she has noticed with her son Max, who just completed sixth grade. “Watching him in grades four through six, he really matured,” she says. “He felt responsible for the younger kids in the classroom. He became a mentor and a role model.”

Max’s maturation in the Montessori environment is one reason he is staying at First State, rather than transferring into a middle school in the Brandywine district, as the school adds seventh and eighth grades, his mother says.

Adding the two grades was an instance of a problem becoming an opportunity.
In the school’s first two years, Fox explains, it was losing students who would have entered sixth grade, largely because parents felt their children would be more comfortable moving into a middle school, which typically serves grades 6-8, for sixth grade rather than for seventh grade.

First State contemplated dropping back to a K-5 structure, but a survey of parents indicated that most would keep their children at First State if grades seven and eight were added.

In the fall of 2015, the school forged ahead with that plan, but had to find a second building to house the additional students. At about the same time, the Delaware MET, a charter high school that had just opened across the street from First State, failed. Due to a series of management, curriculum and discipline issues, the state ordered Delaware MET to close at the end of its first semester. The Charter Schools Development Corporation, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that had purchased another former MBNA/Bank of America building at 1000 French St. and leased it to Delaware MET, now had an empty building on its hands. Just as 920 French proved to be an ideal initial location, the building across the street was just right for First State’s expansion.

Downtown Advantages

A large part of First State’s appeal to students and their parents is the array of downtown amenities available through the school.

“Putting suburban kids in a city environment—new sounds, new sights, new experiences. It opens up a whole new world,” Rosenthal says.

While students at suburban schools might take a field trip to a play or a concert, First State

Students follow weekly “work plans” designed by their teachers and based on their individual needs. Photo Joe del Tufo
Students follow weekly “work plans” designed by their teachers and based on their individual needs. Photo Joe del Tufo

students regularly walk to musical and theatrical performances at The Grand, the Playhouse on Rodney Square or First & Central Presbyterian Church. Kindergarten students take dance lessons at The Grand, and grades four through six visit the Wilmington Institute Free Library once a week. “Their artwork gets displayed in the library. That’s a big deal for them,” Rosenthal says.

First State parents provide strong support for the school, Fox says. Some help with landscaping around the building, others staff the teachers’ workroom.

Another group takes regular assignments handling the lunch program. First State contracts with the Community Education Building to prepare and deliver student meals. Parents sort the lunches by class and take them to each classroom and, when they’re done, they assemble breakfasts for the next school day in the same fashion.

“We’ve got a core group of 10 to 15 parents, and others fill in. They try to take the same day each week. With seventh and eighth grade, we’ll probably need more,” says parent Corey Lamborn, who will be coordinating the assignments this year.

“It’s really fun to be there, to see your own kid at lunch time,” she says.

In addition to contracting with the Community Education Building for its lunches, First State uses the back office services of Innovative Schools, a charter school support organization, for its bookkeeping needs, and collaborates with other downtown charter schools on professional development for staff members.

First State’s enrollment is roughly two-thirds white and 25 percent African-American, Latino or multiracial. About 12 percent are considered low-income, and 8 percent have special education needs, according to the latest school profile report filed with the state Department of Education.

About a quarter of the students live in city ZIP codes; the rest come from all over New Castle County, Fox says.

There’s more than a little irony in those enrollment figures. A generation ago, when court-ordered desegregation began in northern New Castle County, student assignments were made with an eye toward setting school enrollments at about two-thirds to three-quarters white. Most white suburban parents were unhappy with their children having to attend city schools for up to three years; many black parents from Wilmington complained that their children endured long bus rides to the suburbs for up to nine years.

With the lifting of the desegregation order more than 20 years ago, and the subsequent development of charter schools and choice programs, few white children from the suburbs are now attending traditional public schools in Wilmington. But the enrollment numbers for First State Montessori demonstrate that there are suburban families who will choose to send their children to a public school in the city.

The Montessori curriculum is certainly a factor in the school’s popularity, board president Nass says. And it’s a plus that leaders like Fox and Madden were well known in the public school and Montessori communities, she adds.

“Parents are looking for choice. They’re shopping,” Nass says. “And we are very clear about our mission.”

Wilmington Welcomes NextFab

The ‘gym for innovators’ at Fifth and Tatnall is a significant addition to the Creative District

Lest anyone doubt that Wilmington’s Creative District is for real, the mid-June opening of NextFab, the Philadelphia-based “gym for innovators,” should be ample proof that the vision is coming to life.
Its 10,000-square-foot building at Fifth and Tatnall streets offers crafters a playground where they can transform their dreams into reality, and maybe even launch a new business.

“They have taken a corner that’s been quiet for several years and are bringing it back to life,” says Carrie Gray, managing director of the Wilmington Renaissance Corporation, which has been spearheading redevelopment planning for the Creative District, an area bounded by Market, Fourth, Washington and Ninth streets.

NextFab members consist of “a mix of beginners and seasoned, knowledgeable craftspeople,” says location manager Kate Brown. “Our collaborative nature helps people develop their own ideas and see attainable goals.”

Entering the building, visitors encounter a reception desk featuring the NextFab logo designed by NextFab member Peter Brown and carved on a 3D cutter at NextFab’s main site in Philadelphia. The ground floor holds a large woodshop on one end and a laser-electronics shop on the other, with an open area suitable for small conferences in the middle. On the first and second floors are a half-dozen incubator spaces—private rooms designed for use by startup businesses—and a larger classroom area. The third floor remains open for now, available for crafters working on large projects.

Marketing Manager Laate Olukotun and Location Manager Kate Brown (Photo by Larry Nagengast)
Marketing Manager Laate Olukotun and Location Manager Kate Brown (Photo by Larry Nagengast)

NextFab’s opening raises the prospect of Tatnall Street emerging as the spine of the Creative District. The Mill, a small business coworking space, is housed in the Nemours Building six blocks to the north and Artist Ave Station studio and gallery is at the corner of Eighth and Tatnall, practically at the midpoint of the larger ventures. “This is a pretty significant presence,” Gray says.

“I think it’s great. NextFab has a lot of equipment that we can’t afford,” says Jessi Taylor, president of Wilmington’s Barrel of Makers, a community-oriented makers group whose members use the woodshop in the Highlands Art Garage, not far from Trolley Square, for some of its meetings. With its 3D cutters and laser tools, NextFab has “a level of intricacy that we don’t have,” she says.

Some Barrel of Makers participants have previously become NextFab members in Philadelphia and more will likely join to take advantage of the more convenient Wilmington location, Taylor says. She says she has been pleased with the friendly relationships that are developing between the NextFab team and members of the Delaware community.

Zach Phillips, creative director of the Short Order Production House, the video production business formerly known as The Kitchen, says he’s now scouting for space within the Creative District. In only two years, the business has already outgrown its digs in the Wilmington Train Station. “With NextFab, the Mill, and hopefully us in the Creative District soon, I think we’ve got the potential to spin out a lot of new businesses, not just one or two,” Phillips says.

About NextFab

NextFab Wilmington, at 501-509 Tatnall St., will be open from 2 to 10 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays and from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.

Membership rates range from $49 to $299 per month, depending on usage, with a discount equal to two monthly payments for a full-year membership. A pilot membership, covering classes only, is available for $19 a month. Members can use NextFab’s two Philadelphia sites as well as the Wilmington facility.

Class schedules will be posted on the NextFab.com.

Leading a Grassroots Movement

After falling just short in his campaign for mayor, Eugene Young continues to advocate for social change through Network Delaware, a new nonprofit coalition

Candidates who lose elections tend to take either of two paths afterward: the road to oblivion or the roundabout that leads to one failed race after another.

Eugene Young, after finishing second to Mike Purzycki by 234 votes in the eight-way Democratic primary for Wilmington mayor last September, is trying to pave a different route—one he hopes will lead to success.

Young, 34, is the board chairman of Network Delaware, a new nonprofit coalition of community organizers, leaders and activists that is trying to spur grassroots involvement to advocate for social change throughout the state. He has a “day job” too, working as advocacy director at the Delaware Center for Justice, a nonprofit whose executive director is Ashley Biden, daughter of former Vice President Joe Biden.

Network Delaware is “very unique in this moment,” says Elizabeth “Tizzie” Lockman, advocacy director for the Christina Cultural Arts Center and vice-chairperson of the Wilmington Education Improvement Commission.

The organization is an outgrowth of the political campaign, Young says, a collaboration of volunteers who “doubled down and said ‘we’ve got to get involved’” following their disappointment with the outcome of the November elections.

A week after the election, he says, “about 65 people came out, just to get together, and started to look at ways this could work.” By the end of January, he was able to launch the operation, getting it off on a high note with a rally-like meeting that drew about 300 to the Christina Cultural Arts Center.

Progressive and Charismatic

Lockman met Young about 10 years ago, when the St. Mark’s High School and University of Maryland Baltimore County graduate was organizing a basketball league for Wilmington kids and she was cutting her teeth with several nonprofits in the city. They reconnected two years ago, when he returned to Wilmington after spending two years as an advisor to Cory Booker, first while Booker was serving as mayor of Newark, N. J., and then as a U.S. senator.

Almost from the beginning, she says, she recognized that Young, being both progressive and charismatic, “was somebody who was going to be able to do whatever he wants.”

What Young wants to do now amounts to figuratively turning “the Delaware Way” on its head. Rather than having business and foundation leaders meeting at the table with a bipartisan assemblage of political power brokers, Network Delaware would take a bottom-up, grassroots approach to developing public policy.

While proponents of the Delaware Way tout the relative ease with which key stakeholders in government, business and nonprofit circles can assemble to hash out issues in a small state, Young notes that, with this closeness, “it becomes very easy for a small group of people to become exclusive.”
As it starts out, Network Delaware has no causes. The nature of those causes will evolve, Young says, as the organization listens to its members and learns their concerns.

To those familiar with issue-based organizations, Network Delaware’s mission can be confusing, says Lockman, who is doing some policy advisory work for the group. “They ask, ‘What are we working toward?’ But it’s not a specific issue. It’s building the community, linking it to the civic process and giving them the tools” to become advocates for their causes.

“We’re focusing on what people’s concerns are and finding solutions for those concerns,” Young says. “A lot of people don’t care because their voices aren’t being heard. Our goal is to amplify their voices.”

In some respects, Network Delaware’s intended growth trajectory mirrors the strategy Young employed as the young man who grew up on the city’s East Side and morphed from an unknown political quantity into a near-winner in the race for Wilmington’s highest office. During the campaign, Young and his volunteers knocked on doors throughout the city and churned out position papers on issue after issue.

While the other candidates in the primary had pockets of support in particular neighborhoods—Purzycki, for example, dominated the upper-income areas on Wilmington’s west side, with help from a campaign urging Republicans in those areas to switch party affiliation to vote in the primary—Young’s voters were distributed throughout the city, indicating diverse support by ethnicity and income levels.

Similarly, Network Delaware is drawing members from diverse backgrounds. “We’ve got people of extremely high socioeconomic means and resources to people in poverty, and everything in between,” Young says. In terms of their politics, he says, “we have progressives, we have libertarians, we have some conservatives.”

The organization’s big tent, he adds, “allows people to interact with those who they might not have necessarily met before.”

Everybody has a role to play. “If you’re about justice, if you’re about creating a better community, then you’re with us,” Young says.

Six Working Groups

Young launched the six-tiered nonprofit with the goal of creating social change and commuity leaders. (Photo by William Moree)
Young launched the six-tiered nonprofit with the goal of creating social change and commuity leaders. (Photo by William Moree)

What remains to be seen is what the new group will be able to accomplish. It is organized into six working groups, or “pillars,” each one with a distinct role: base building, an economic opportunity incubator, an electoral politics committee, a leadership development pipeline, a public policy and research institute, and a nonviolent movement building group.

Base building represents the core of the network—getting involved with people on a block-by-block basis, learning about their needs and identifying potential community leaders—while the economic opportunity incubator will focus on training entrepreneurs and developing new small businesses, with a focus on economically troubled neighborhoods.

The electoral politics committee will not only identify, recruit and mentor candidates for public office. It will also develop an “information hub” with political profiles of each lawmaker’s district and a report card system to track voting records of elected officials.

“We’re going to train people to be organizers. We’re going to train people to be candidates. We want to be community-led but outcome driven,” he says.

Serving as a public official is hard work, Young points out. Just as important as holding legislators accountable for their votes is to “provide cover and support when they do the right thing.” If lawmakers suspect that their constituents don’t care, they will be less likely to stick their necks out on controversial issues, he says.

The leadership development pipeline will train leaders for Network Delaware and other organizations, while the public policy and research institute would examine issues, develop a repository of laws passed in other states and adapt these laws to fit Delaware’s context.

The nonviolent movement building group, according to the organization’s website, “will plan resistance to nationalist, authoritarian and undemocratic narratives and actions, while building a unifying vision.”

Having such a unit in the organization doesn’t make Network Delaware part of “the resistance,” the mushrooming array of issue-oriented groups that have expanded or been birthed since the November elections, Young says.

But, he adds, “If you’re not doing what’s right for the community, for the people in this country, we’re going to resist. I don’t believe in blind resistance. We will go issue by issue.”

While the organization may be grassroots and somewhat populist in its approach, that doesn’t mean it’s not business friendly, Lockman says. “It’s pro-business, it’s pro-growth. We just want to make sure everyone has access.”

Young hopes to see Network Delaware grow in numbers, reach and influence. In his view, improving communities is a shared responsibility, with each individual having a role. “If I’m not working to impact the lives of those in our community, whatever happens to them impacts me anyway,” he says. “If I’m in New Castle and a child in Dover is not getting educated, or a family in Milford can’t break out of poverty, that will impact me, whether I like it or not.”

Achieving Systemic Change

Building a statewide network is no small challenge. Building one that has genuine influence is an even greater task.

“When you’re trying to achieve deep systemic change, there’s definitely not an immediate payoff,” Lockman says. “But I have a good amount of faith that it is going to work.”

At this time, it’s fair to say that Network Delaware’s evolution as an organization could well be a significant factor in determining Young’s political future.

During the mayoral campaign, Purzycki and Young occasionally traded sharp barbs, with Purzycki questioning whether Young had the experience necessary to handle the job. Despite their differences during the campaign, Young now describes their relationship as “very cordial.”

While there was some post-primary speculation that Purzycki might offer Young a position in his administration, that never happened. “If he thought there was a role for me, he could ask, and I would consider it,” Young says. “I want him to be successful.”

For now, Young isn’t thinking about another campaign, even though he has gotten some mentions as a possible senatorial candidate if Tom Carper doesn’t seek re-election in 2018, or as a repeat mayoral candidate in 2020 if Purzycki doesn’t try for a second term.

Young’s current priorities are his work with the Delaware Center for Justice and growing Network Delaware. “I’ve got a lot on my plate right now,” he says.

“It takes a lot out of you to run for office. I put my family through enough,” he says, referring to his wife, Nicole, who earned her Ph.D. during the campaign and is on the business faculty at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa., and his daughter, Madison, who celebrated her second birthday in March.

“Anything I do, I have to be sure, I have to feel it in my gut,” he says. “It’s not a plaything. It’s not about wanting power, prestige or money. It has to be something you believe in.”

Newcomer: Extended Web Q&A with County Executive Matt Meyer

He has a varied background, but Matt Meyer has never held elective office. After unseating incumbent Tom Gordon, he now sits atop New Castle County government. Here he discusses his new job with Out & About.

Editor’s note: This is an extended version of the interview which appeared in the March 2017 issue of O&A

He has worked as a teacher and as a lawyer. He has served with the State Department in Iraq. When he was 24, he launched an eco-friendly sandal manufacturing business in Kenya, hiring workers who knew little English and who lived in an impoverished neighborhood.

But until last month, Matt Meyer had never served as an elected public official. Now he’s the New Castle County executive.

A 45-year-old bachelor who lives in Wilmington’s Trinity Vicinity neighborhood, Meyer came out of nowhere last March, launching a challenge to three-term incumbent Tom Gordon, a Democrat. While Gordon touted his ability to manage county government efficiently without ever raising property taxes, Meyer campaigned on a platform emphasizing honesty and transparency in government, hammering away at the high-profile personnel battles that plagued Gordon’s administration, including charges of favoritism and nepotism that culminated in Gordon firing his chief administrative officer, David Grimaldi.

Meyer contended that the county could do many things better – not only raising ethical standards, but also improving its land use and economic development efforts, collaborating more with local governments in Wilmington and south of the C&D Canal, and taking a more holistic approach to fighting crime.

Relying heavily on data analysis as they developed their strategy, his campaign team concluded that Gordon was beatable – if they could transform 4,000 likely Gordon voters into Meyer voters in time for the Sept. 13 Democratic primary. For Meyer, an admitted data geek, the math was perfect. He won by exactly 2,000 votes, so, if he hadn’t flipped those voters, he would have lost by 2,000 votes.

The general election was a bit easier, as he got two-thirds of the vote in defeating Republican candidate Mark Blake, a Hockessin civic leader.

A Brandywine Hundred native who attended local public schools before graduating from Wilmington Friends School, Meyer now faces the challenge of carrying out his campaign pledges.

As he began his second week in office, he sat down with Out & About to discuss key issues facing the county and how he plans to address them.

(This interview has been edited for clarity and space considerations.)

Let’s start at the beginning. You entered the campaign without any political experience …
That’s not true. I was elected student council president in 11th grade. You don’t know what you don’t know. You run, and it’s democracy, and if you put up the best argument and are strategic and smart …

… and you challenged a three-term incumbent. Some questioned whether you could win. What prompted you to jump in?
I really believed it was the right thing to do. Everything I’ve done in my professional life, I’ve tried to add value, to do better than the status quo. The first issue for me was, if I actually got the job, could I do a better job? In my heart and in my brain, I thought the answer was yes.

The next question is: how do you win when you’re running against a three-term incumbent? I love math. One of my favorite things about Little League Baseball was doing the math, figuring out my batting average, and in my short-time pitching career my earned run average and my strikeouts-to-walks ratio. There’s this general principle that incumbents are hard to beat, and from that they say incumbents are unbeatable. Well, the first statement is emphatically true, but the second statement is pretty clearly false.

What does it take to beat an incumbent? I talked to people. I talked to Brian Townsend, the state senator, who four years ago beat an incumbent. I don’t want to get nerdy, businessy on you, but we used something called “lean startup methodology,” what you do when you start a technology company. You take preliminary data, do something small, test it, take more data, test it again, and your thesis gets slowly refined.

We had a poll, we went door to door, we refined our model. We anticipated a primary election with 40,000 votes. It turned out there were 43,000. We figured that if we could turn 4,000 voters from Tom Gordon voters to Matt Meyer voters, we could win.

You have a varied background. You have taught, started a business in Africa, worked as a lawyer and served with the State Department in Iraq. How will those experiences help you do the county executive’s job well?
While I’ve done a large variety of things, they’ve all involved leadership.  You go to Kenya to start a business. I’m 24 at the time. It’s a poor neighborhood, none of my employees speak English as their first language. That’s a leadership challenge. You need to deploy nonverbal leadership skills.

My experience in a corporate law firm – you had to get the right answer. Clients were paying top dollar. They didn’t want 98 percent, they wanted 100 percent.

How about teaching? How did that help?
In my first year as a fourth-grade teacher, I wrote in my journal: “I am a teacher sometimes. I’m also a babysitter. I’m also a police officer. I’m a judge. When parent teacher conferences come around, I’m a lawyer. Sometimes I’m a sanitation worker, a server in a restaurant, all those different things.” But a teacher can never give up, no matter what crazy things happen that are out of your control.

I think the common perception throughout the county was that Tom Gordon ran the county pretty efficiently but his tenure was punctuated by high-profile personality conflicts that detracted from his work. Do you think that’s an accurate assessment?

I ran on a platform that our county government could and should be more honest, transparent and efficient. I believe now, as someone who has gotten to know Tom Gordon better the last couple of months, that he is someone who really cared, and cares, a lot about the communities of this county for decades. I ran on a platform that we can do much better, and our county can do much better.

In terms of culture and work environment, how will the Meyer administration be different from the Gordon administration?
There are a lot of good people working in county government. We’re going to work hard to find them and make sure they’re incentivized to do what’s right for the county. There are certain employees who are great employees who have been discouraged in recent years.

Does this building (the County Government Center) seem like a house divided – populated with pro-Gordon forces and anti-Gordon forces?
I’ve talked to a lot of county employees. We don’t really talk about that because it’s not relevant to what we’re trying to do right now. There are people who love Tom Gordon, and people who didn’t like Tom Gordon, and they all seem ready and very able to work hard for the Meyer administration and for the people of the county.

Do you see the workplace changing at all?
The tone from the top will change. The tone from the executive office has already changed. The collaboration between departments, among members of the executive team, has already changed. I’m passionate about the use of technology. Most people, and in the private sector, use technology efficiently, and government uses technology of decades ago. That’s not acceptable to me.

You kept some key people from the Gordon administration, and you brought in some new department heads. What’s the value in keeping some experienced leaders on board and bringing in some new ones?
I don’t look at it as who we keep and who we don’t keep. My obligation to the people of New Castle County is to put in every slot the highest quality individual we can find. In some cases, that was someone who has been working in county government for years.

It is important to me that we have a team with a diversity of backgrounds. I wanted a lot of new energy.

You will be dealing with a County Council with a new president, Karen Hartley-Nagle, but 11 of the 12 district representatives have considerable experience. As a newcomer, how will you convince them that what you’re proposing is better than what they’ve seen before?
It’s hard to figure out County Council as a “they.” Like any legislative body, you have a diversity of backgrounds and perspectives. We’ve met individually with every member of County Council. We’ve introduced a new level of communication with council members.

One thing you learn in school is we have an adversarial system. We have checks and balances, the legislative and the executive. Maybe because so many council people have been in this for so long, they’re eager for some new blood. People want to talk about ideas and how to move their districts forward.

Let’s turn to some specific issues that you highlighted in your campaign. In land use, you said you wanted to streamline the process so rezonings don’t take forever. How do you do that without giving the public the impression that you’re a rubber stamp for developers?
I promised during the campaign that we would have a more professional land use and development process. I brought in one of the finest land use professionals in the country to lead our land use department. We somehow managed to fool a guy who has eight years’ experience as a cabinet secretary in Maryland to come and be in charge of land use for New Castle County. I couldn’t get former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley or anyone else to say anything negative about Rich Hall.

Rich is working to address some of the deficiencies in our land use department. I see eye to eye with him on some of the smart growth strategies he has deployed in Maryland.

It’s my view, not necessarily the county’s view, that the Unified Development Code has a one-size-fits-all approach. If businesses that want to create high-quality jobs want to come into the Route 9 corridor or the Claymont development corridor or other areas that are desperate for high-quality jobs, the land use approval process should not be quite the same as it is for Pike Creek or Greenville.

In the economic development arena, the county doesn’t have the resources to be a big-time player …
We have to win them over with our personality. I’m joking, but I’m serious. I’ve been in the room, in the private sector, where deals are won by the power of personality. We have to convince business leaders that New Castle County has an extraordinary location, has for its size an extraordinary art scene, and really offers a family-friendly environment in which to grow a company in ways that will far exceed any tax break that another state may be offering. I think we will win some.

And you have to make sure the county is supportive of small businesses.
We can spend all our time and money trying to attract people and sometimes the answers are right in front of us. There’s extraordinary innovation, especially in chemical technologies, going on right here. The game may be less how we attract people and more how do we retain people as they leave their existing companies and start their own businesses.

You have said that the ethical standards of the Gordon administration don’t match those that you hope to implement. What will you do to raise the bar?
The first page of my ethics policy in the campaign spoke about the need to hire ethical people. Nothing addresses ethical concerns more than hiring people who you can look in the eye and have confidence that they’re ethical. And we’ve done that.

We’re comparing the ethics code of the county with other counties and the state of Delaware and making sure we have the highest standards.

Quite frankly, people on my executive staff are on notice that if anything close to funny stuff goes on, they’re out of here. There’s no tolerance for that. That’s not me having no tolerance for it, it’s my boss having no tolerance, and my boss is the people of New Castle County.

The county police are well respected, but you’ve pointed out that they can improve with hiring policies and diversity. In what other areas can the police do a better job?
We have an extraordinary police force, probably operating now at its highest level ever, using technology and collaborating, probably better than any police department in the state and would rival most police departments in the country.

Yet in certain areas of our county, violent crime is increasing, in areas served by county police and in other areas, such as Wilmington. I believe excellent policing can only go so far in reducing violent crime. We have had a dramatic decrease in well-paying middle-class jobs. In such a situation, it’s hard to think of what a police department can do to prevent certain criminal activity.

We’re looking at collaborating with the city and state, we’re looking at reports on recidivism and on shootings in Wilmington, and taking that data and trying to put it to use. There’s a lot of data out there that indicates who shooters will be before they even pick up a gun.

How far are you drilling down – to blocks or neighborhoods, or down to individuals?
If it were up to me, you would protect confidentiality, but you would put together a team to drill down to individuals.

You don’t want to take 10- and 12-year-old kids and turn them into criminals before they do anything wrong. But I would help them. They do it all the time in schools. They say, “this child is exhibiting these characteristics. We have to get him some services.” I think we have to do that in a more extensive way. That help might mean teaching them how to read.

Crime doesn’t respect city and county lines. There was a lot of talk four years ago about more police collaboration but not much happened. What are your thoughts on collaboration?
There is a lot to be done. Mayor Mike Purzycki and I don’t think metropolitan government is a good idea, but we know there are a number of ways we can get our police forces to collaborate. We’re working on it.

Even if metro government isn’t the answer, do you see more opportunities for city-county collaboration?
It’s early. Mayor Purzycki and I are still putting the finishing touches on staffing our administrations. We’ve had conversations. It has been very positive so far, but very preliminary. But it’s more than just Mike and I talking to each other. It’s our staff people, those who hold similar positions, regularly communicating, sharing ideas and knowing what each other is doing.

Can these collaborations lead to cost savings?
I don’t want to make predictions. People talk about school districts, how money would be saved if districts were merged. But I was told that’s not true because teacher salaries would probably be raised to the highest level.

In his 12 years, Tom Gordon never raised taxes, but Chris Coons had to raise taxes when he succeeded Gordon in 2005. Can we expect a tax increase in the county this year?
I’ve only been in office seven days …. I want to do what’s in the best interest of the citizens of New Castle County. A lot of people have made it very clear they don’t want their taxes raised. We have a very low tax rate in the county. I’ll do everything in my power to keep taxes low.

As you prioritize, what do you hope to accomplish in your first year?
We want to make some headway on land use. We’re taking a hard look at the finances. We think we can do more within the confines of our budget. And we’re going to look at stronger collaboration with towns south of the canal. The county has not been very active with towns south of the canal.

When it’s time for the public to assess your work, what standards should be used? How will you judge your work and how do you think you should be judged?
At some level, we’re a customer service enterprise. When customers come to us, they deserve to get an answer, and to get it quickly and to get an answer that is fair, even if it’s not the answer they want. So, I want them to think that this is a government that treats the citizens right. Whether you have a tremendous amount of money and power or you walk in here penniless and homeless, you get the same level of service from the county.

There are two other things that are personal passions of mine, even though the outcomes are somewhat out of our control. The first is increasing the level of job opportunities in the communities that need them the most. And related to that, in communities where kids don’t feel safe going outside today, they will feel safer going out [in the future].

If residents want to meet with you to discuss their concerns about county government, how can they do this?
Not only do I plan on doing it, I’ve already done it. Right after the swearing in, I came back to the office and anybody could talk to me. We’ll continue to have sessions like that, and we will be announcing them.