Debbie Krause
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Debbie Krause

Executive Director, Summer Search Boston

Growing up in Saginaw, Michigan, in a tightly knit family dedicated to education, Debbie Krause always knew she wanted to spend her life serving others. With a mother who taught in the elementary school she attended and a father who was the principal of her high school, it was only natural that the outlet she would find for this impulse would focus on youth and education.

The organization that combines these areas perfectly is Summer Search, an independent nonprofit designed to inspire low-income, inner-city high school students to complete their education and become responsible, altruistic leaders. Debbie serves as Executive Director of the Boston chapter.

The Path of Service

The road to Debbie's current position was a fairly straightforward one. Her interest in working with kids developed when she was studying psychology at Michigan State University, where she concentrated on learning about the impact of violence on the social and emotional functioning of children. That experience led her to Boston College, where she earned a master's degree in counseling psychology "with very much a focus on working with kids," she says.

Although Debbie had intended to move back to the Midwest, a rewarding job and the man she loved (now her husband) persuaded her to remain in the Boston area. That job was with a nonprofit organization, doing home-based therapy with low-income children and families. "I loved the work! Right out of grad school, I felt it was exactly the work I wanted to be doing. It was meaningful work with kids, and I was getting to work with their families, which was really important to me," she says.

After five years, however, Debbie was ready for a change. Although she was on the verge of accepting another position, she responded to a job posting for an Outreach Director at Summer Search Boston, to facilitate a major growth in the number of students served. "I had never even heard of Summer Search," she recalls, "but I came for my first interview and completely, completely fell in love. I got into my car and called my husband and said, 'That's it.'" She accepted the job, was promoted to Program Director a year later, and became Executive Director three years ago.

Three Programs to Help 350 Students Get Ahead

The aspect of Summer Search that most appeals to Debbie is its long-term focus on the students it serves. "At other points in my career, I've gotten to work with kids for maybe six months, maybe a year if I was really lucky," she says. "I still wonder about those kids. I wonder how they turned out." Summer Search, on the other hand, accepts students in their sophomore year and works with them all throughout high school —and even has a program to keep alumni in the fold once they move on to college.

Though the organization's name is Summer Search, its services are year-round—and three-pronged. First is its mentoring program. A professional staff of 15, ten of whom are full-time mentors, provides individual attention to students selected for Summer Search. Mentors are asked to make a three-year commitment, so that students are assured continuity throughout their high school careers. For their part, students are required to check in with their mentor weekly.

"These students and their families are struggling," Debbie points out. "The mentor is someone who will be there for them. When things go well for our students, we're their biggest cheerleader. And when they struggle, we're there to talk to them in a very real way and be direct and honest with them when they need it. That's what Summer Search is—a place where people are really paying attention."

The second area of activity for Summer Search traces back to how the program began in 1990 and how it got its name: summer experiential programs. The organization was founded that year in San Francisco by Linda Mornell, a psychiatric nurse who saw the life-changing benefits of her children's participation in summer experiential educational programs and wanted to extend those benefits to those less fortunate.

Today, Summer Search—which now has chapters in seven cities around the country—requires its students to engage in two summer programs. During the summer after their sophomore year, they must attend a wilderness program like National Outdoor Leadership School or Outward Bound somewhere in the U.S. "The outdoors is a great equalizer," Debbie says. "This program allows low-income scholarship students to mingle with more affluent kids and realize that they can fit in and compete and achieve at the same level." The second trip occurs after students' junior year, when they can take a trip anywhere in the world to study or perform community service. These trips and all Summer Search services are completely free to the students and their families.

The third prong of the Summer Search program is college advisory service, which assists with college applications and financial aid counseling. Debbie proudly notes that 100% of Summer Search Boston students have graduated high school, with 94% continuing on to college and 89% either graduating college or on track to do so—compared to 14% of their peers in the Boston Public Schools.

Giving by Growing

Of the 1,200 students in the Summer Search program nationwide, 350 are served by the Boston chapter—up from 120 when Debbie joined the organization in 2005. "Quality growth is the biggest priority for me," she says. "Even through this bad economy, we grew and served more students." No small achievement for an organization that receives no government assistance.

She is grateful for partners such as Grand Circle Foundation. "Their financial support has been tremendous!" she says. "But they've been much more than a financial partner." For one thing, she notes that Foundation founders Harriet and Alan Lewis have instilled a corporate culture at Grand Circle Corporation that is very similar to that of Summer Search. "They're a great match for the work we do," Debbie says. She cites, for example, Grand Circle Foundation's Next Generation Leaders program, a comprehensive program designed to develop outstanding Boston inner-city students through experiential learning, mentoring, and scholarship. Summer Search students have been selected as Next Generation Leaders each of the two times the program has run, and Debbie marvels at how well the Lewises stay in touch with the kids even years afterward. "How they can run a company and a Foundation and still care about the kids—I can't say enough about how unique that is," she says. "It's extraordinary!"

Like the Lewises, for Debbie, giving back isn't about statistics or dollar bills. It's about kids like Gisele, whose homeless family was abandoned by her father and drifted from shelter to shelter—and who found a second family at Summer Search who loves her and helped her transform her life to pursue her education. Or Ronald, whom even Summer Search couldn't reach—until he landed on a college campus during his second summer with the program, and it "turned on a switch," as Debbie puts it.

These stories are among the reasons why continuing to grow the organization remains Debbie's focus as its gutsy leader. "I know Summer Search works for kids," she says. "I feel a strong obligation to reach as many students as need us. More every year."

Featured in our December 2010 E-Newsletter. Read the full issue here.