Making Tech accessible at The Difference Engine

Making Tech accessible at The Difference Engine

As technology and software become an indispensable part of our lives, the demand for skilled people to work in this sector continues to skyrocket. For those looking to start new careers in software, it can be intimidating to obtain a computer science degree. Recently, the rise of development boot camps and online courses have opened the doors to more people trying to enter the tech field. But even then, there are still considerable challenges for these people to convince tech companies to hire them since they don’t have real world experience. That is where The Difference Engine comes in to help.

The Difference Engine was born out of the experience and passion of Kimberly Lowe-Williams. As a young child, she knew she wanted to be involved with computers in some capacity. Lowe-Williams pursued the use of computers in high school and naturally went on to major in computer science in college. In her first computer science class, she realized how difficult software development was and how it is truly a collaborative effort. Life took her away from computer science for a while, but Lowe-Williams’ passion for it never diminished. When programming courses started becoming more readily available online, she started to get back to pursuing her interests around software development. She discovered a development boot camp called Actualize and went through that program. After completing the program, Lowe-Williams started applying to development jobs, but encountered another barrier in landing a job.

Tech companies were still skeptical that developmental boot camp graduates had the necessary skills to build applications and software since they did not go through the traditional four-year computer science path. They wanted more experience in these graduates. Lowe-Williams explained, “There needs to be additional support after people finished the boot camp because a few months can pass where you are not getting a job and you’re not coding and you’re not building your skills and skills do atrophy”. The time gap makes it difficult for applicants to pass coding challenges and to articulate what they have learned in an interview. This was an issue that Lowe-Williams wanted to solve. She is passionate about making tech more accessible since she experienced firsthand how it allowed her, as a girl from a small town in Northwest Indiana, to make a living and support her family. Also while volunteering as an adult, she saw the challenges nonprofits faced that could be addressed by technology, but these organizations didn’t have the resources or funding to take advantage of tech solutions. “Technology was changing the world and people who can most benefit from it are locked out”, Lowe-Williams said.

The Difference Engine solves problems for two groups that have needs. On one hand, you have aspiring software developers who have dedicated time and effort to change their careers, but encounter challenges in showing prospective employers they have real world skills and experience to do the job. On the other hand, there are numerous nonprofit organizations trying to change the world, but operate inefficiently and don’t have resources to use technology to help them. Lowe-Williams used her background working in technology companies to create an apprenticeship for the boot camp graduates to simulate an actual software work environment where a product is delivered. In this case, the product can be a website or application built for nonprofits to help carry out their mission. “The apprenticeship is a safe way to transition from one career to the next and keep growing, keep coding,” Lowe-Williams said. “The true heart in the mission is to make tech accessible. The reason tech is not accessible is because how much it costs. To make tech accessible we have to keep the cost no to low. That is one of the reasons why we are a nonprofit to keep us mission first.” With this approach to eliminate the barrier of cost, The Difference Engine can support the large number of people trying to enter the tech world.

The process of the program starts with an applicant submitting a letter of interest to join the team as an apprentice, followed by a phone screen or face-to-face meeting. Another method to inquire is to attend one of the info sessions. Once an applicant is accepted, a technical assessment is done by the volunteer staff so they can place people on the appropriate project based on their skill and experience level. Lowe-Williams said they will not reject anyone that qualifies, but that there may be a waiting list depending on the number of projects that need to be staffed. One requirement of the 17 week program is that you need to be actively looking for a job. This serves as a motivator and confidence builder for the apprentices.

The process for nonprofits/social enterprises is similar in requesting help to work on a project. They should email The Difference Engine with details on the project and the organization must have no or low revenue. They also must have an open time frame since The Difference Engine can be constrained by the number of available developers. Requested projects must be new code (not fixing an existing site for example) and open to The Difference Engine determining the type of technology best to deliver the project. The goal is to build a minimum viable product (MVP) to solve business problems for the nonprofit or social enterprise.

The biggest challenge The Difference Engine faces is finding more funding and sponsorship so they can provide more nonprofit projects for apprentices to work on and help the program become more sustainable. As with many startups and nonprofits, building a team of advocates and board members to network is also a necessity to succeed. Another challenge Lowe-Williams pointed out was to break down biases toward non-traditional software development candidates. Many tech companies filter out non-traditional resumes, so many people with high potential are left struggling to find jobs. So working with startups to diversify at conception versus trying to change views on this bias later is ideal. Partnering with good companies that believe in their mission and developing a pipeline of volunteers that understand the challenges facing these non-traditional applicants will help remove these biases and lead to more successful job placements.

During her journey so far, Lowe-Williams feels giving a voice to people trying to get into tech is one of the proudest accomplishments of The Difference Engine. Many of the apprentices didn’t have knowledge of technology or what a developer was only a short time ago. “They were working in manufacturing, were construction workers, guitar instructors, Uber drivers, moms, former nannies, and there’s been quite a few people who now have had their lives transformed.” She said these people’s children now know what a developer is and with this exposure to tech, can see the field as an option for a future career. These stories and impact fuels Lowe-Williams and The Difference Engine to support others to make that leap.

CALL TO ACTION

There are several ways to help The Difference Engine keep running and making an impact.

  • Join as a technical (Product Owners, Dev Leads) or admin volunteer to be part of the team supporting the apprenticeship program
  • Donate to help support more nonprofit projects for apprentices to work on
  • As a nonprofit looking for development work to aid their cause, submit a project request!
  • Volunteer as a board member! Applicants with nonprofit and fundraising backgrounds are especially needed.
Chicago Rises on Founder Stories

Chicago Rises on Founder Stories

Recently we collaborated with the platform Founder Stories to share what we do here at Chicago Rises. It was the first time I remember doing a video interview, so I admit it was a bit awkward at first talking straight into the camera. But I was able to quickly loosen up and really enjoy the interview. It was a great experience and hopefully I was able to articulate Chicago Rises’ mission to viewers. We’re always looking to collaborate and partner with other organizations to help lift each other up.

Thanks Founder Stories for sharing our story!

Raising the Next Generation of Givers

Raising the Next Generation of Givers

You’re never too young to learn the importance of giving back, and Families Helping Families Chicagoland [FHFC] knows it.

Families Helping Families Chicagoland aims to improve the lives of low income families and foster children in the Chicagoland area. The charity collaborates with different social service agencies, homeless shelters, and schools to find needs they can help fulfill. To meet those needs, they hold monthly donation collections, sponsor foster children for their birthdays, and host hands-on events. These events give children opportunities to immerse themselves in the idea of giving back.

Families Helping Families Chicagoland started with founder and president Amy Newman four years ago. Inspired by her mother, a woman who was all about giving back, Newman wanted to find a way to help kids for the holidays. She began collecting donations, and with the help of others, was able to help 200 kids all from her own home.

Since then, Families Helping Families has grown, now complete with its own board of directors, and even a junior board. All 12 board members are volunteers and actively involved in pick-ups, drop-offs and running events. The junior board helps to plan and spread the word about events.

“Getting children involved is very important to FHFC. We feel that giving back is something to be modeled, so our children see it as [a necessity], not just a choice,” Newman said.

With four years under her belt, Newman has enjoyed watching all kinds of people come together to make a difference. The most rewarding part is “seeing the relief on people’s faces” and knowing that they’ve helped make hard times a little easier.

Call to Action

Want to get involved?

  • Visit FHFC’s facebook page to find info about their events and volunteer opportunities.
  • Visit their website to find out how to donate.
Matchmakers for Donations

Matchmakers for Donations

It’s that item sitting in your closet gathering dust. Or you find it hidden in a drawer or your garage. Many of us have items in our home that we no longer need. The best option in most cases is to donate the item so it can be re-used. But have you ever wondered if your donation will go to a person or home with the most need?

Fortunately there is a platform that can help with this predicament. GiveNkind directly connects individual donors with 501(c)(3) registered nonprofits to make this donation process more personal and purposeful. I had the chance to meet giveNkind’s founder, Emily Petway, to learn more about their mission.

Petway’s journey to founding giveNkind began in Atlanta. As a music teacher in Atlanta, she learned that some of her students were not able to afford dresses to attend formal dances such as prom. Unwilling to accept this situation, Petway eventually founded the Greater Atlanta chapter of Becca’s Closet, a national, non-profit organization that donates formal dresses to high school girls who cannot afford to purchase them. During her time as a volunteer manager of this chapter, she discovered how much material goods are needed by nonprofits to operate. In cases of small nonprofits, being able to afford these goods is not feasible and can threaten their ability to carry out their mission. For Becca’s Closet, not only did they need prom dresses, but they needed items like clothing racks, mirrors, and chairs among other things. When Petway narrowly missed out on securing a donated lawnmower to help keep the grass in front of their building up to city code, she knew there needed to be a system for donations to be re-purposed for only nonprofits. Determined to solve this social problem, Petway’s idea for giveNkind was born.

The giveNkind platform is straightforward and free to anyone that registers. Once a donor signs up on the site, they can post a list of what the items they have to donate. On the other side, a nonprofit can also post a list of goods they would like to request after signing up. In addition, the nonprofit can explain how the items will impact their organization and communities. “A donor list is available to be seen by nonprofits and a nonprofit list can be seen by donors, so the connection is authentic and direct,” Petway said. That direct connection is important so the actual donation matches are not determined by a third party system, but instead by the two involved parties.

I was able to experience the process through giveNkind first hand when my family needed to donate some baby clothes, detailed here in my story about Cradles to Crayons. According to Petway, my experience is the ideal one in the their system, explaining “We’re of course hoping the item fulfills the need and allows them to extend their reach, but now you’ve entered their circle of volunteerism and potential donors, so that’s expanding not only the nonprofit’s reach but their base of support and that’s awesome!” The goal of fostering these direct connections is for people to get involved in another organization by joining their volunteer base and donating, which can result in reoccurring gifts without giveNkind’s involvement.

Petway’s mission for giveNkind is to grow a community of giving. “We believe everybody has something they can give, even if it’s not money, it’s something that isn’t being used or it’s being underutilized,” Petway said. “It’s some item that’s been misplaced in your home and actually belongs somewhere else.” GiveNkind’s model focuses on the individual donor and enabling them to make the most impact, which results in nonprofits being more productive. Instead of using energy to find things they need, nonprofits can use that energy to focus on servicing others.

The giveNkind platform launched in April of this year, so they are in an early adoption phase while trying to create more awareness of the platform. A couple of challenges that surprised Petway when talking to nonprofits about giveNkind were related to what can be posted and the free cost. She wants to convince nonprofits to post requests for more than the obvious and that they can literally ask for anything they need. As for the free cost, it takes skeptical nonprofits some time to understand that giveNkind is indeed completely free. Petway feels a growing system with more participants will address these issues and earn the trust of nonprofits going forward.

It is amazing that giveNkind is operating with a 100% volunteer base. They have volunteers all over the country, which requires them to meet virtually. A large portion of the team are software developers. For them, being able to give back in way that leverages their skill set is enticing. Petway believes that their structure so far is sustainable because of the low overhead and that they are all volunteers. This fact also gives them credibility in the eyes of nonprofits since giveNkind is a nonprofit itself and not making money off their platform.

The proudest accomplishments so far with giveNkind, Petway said, are the experiences of dropping off donations and seeing someone shopping and using those items. She recalled a time when they dropped off a couch and later found out that it was used by a woman going through a very difficult time in her life. In addition to the donations, Petway also gets to meet and learn about giveNkind’s nonprofit partners and their selfless work. Seeing the impact and gratitude directly is very rewarding, Petway shared.

During our conversation, it is easy to feel the energy and passion that Petway exudes about helping others and furthering nonprofits’ missions. She has a refreshing perspective on how helping others is bigger than any individual and organization. On multiple occasions, Petway said it would be great if people used giveNkind to donate. But if people don’t use them, she encourages others to still use other organizations and take action to make a positive impact.

 

Call to Action

There are several ways one can make a difference with giveNkind.

  • Have something to donate and looking to make a connection to a great cause? Then register as a donor and make an impact with your donation.
  • Are you a nonprofit looking for items that can help your organization better serve your community? Then register as a nonprofit and share the list of items you need so you can meet wonderful donors that could potentially become future supporters of your mission.
  • Are you a software developer looking to give back by using your skills in technology? GiveNkind would love to have your expertise to make their platform even better and to help bring some great ideas to fruition.
  • To contact giveNkind directly, please email epetway@givenkind.org or call 847-802-8977
  • Here’s some parting advice from Petway that resonates: “You have a skill that can benefit someone in the community or organization. Don’t underestimate your ability to affect change. Someone can do anything, however small, to start a chain reaction. Don’t not start because you’re afraid what you’re doing isn’t big enough. Start. Do something. You never know what your impact will be and what that will lead to.”
Giving Kids the Essentials to Succeed

Giving Kids the Essentials to Succeed

As the weather turns colder in Chicago, many of us start taking out our winter clothes from storage or look to purchase new gear to stay warm. Unfortunately, there are kids in Chicago that don’t have this luxury. In fact, many children don’t even have the basic essentials in any season, let alone warm jackets and clothes for the winter. Almost 200,000 children in Chicago live in poverty, which is a staggering number. For Cradles to Crayons, their mission is to help make life better for these children in need by providing them the essentials they need to thrive.

I was recently connected to Cradles to Crayons because my family had some baby clothes to donate. We wanted to make sure that the donated clothes went to a cause or organization that will ensure the items reached kids who would need them most. Fortunately we found giveNkind, a nonprofit that helps connect donors with organizations needing the donations, which matched us with Cradles to Crayons. After dropping off the bags of donations at their facility on the northwest side of the city, the staff was kind enough to give me a tour of “The Giving Factory” and explain what they do there. The Giving Factory houses Cradles to Crayons’ local business and volunteer operations. The organization’s mission inspired me to learn more. In fact, I signed up to volunteer at The Giving Factory and also had a great opportunity to sit down and talk with their executive director, Bernard Cherkasov.

For many people, a single event can inspire and have a positive impact on the direction of their life. For Cherkasov, that was the case when he was a young child. “I have a vivid memory of being 9 years old and us receiving a box of boots and coats for us. I remember the sense of going to school the next day, wearing my brand new coat and feeling so excited that there are people in this world who really cared for us and really wanted us to do well,” he recalled. Years later after studying law in college and then working as an attorney, he saw a chance to become more hands-on in nonprofit and to be part of the change that he wanted to see in the world. The first opportunity that convinced Cherkasov that nonprofit was where he needed to be, was at Equality Illinois, whose mission is to secure, protect and defend the civil rights of LGBTQ Illinoisans, which he led for 7 years. But his memory as a child receiving services similar to what Cradles to Crayons provides stayed with him. “When I heard that Cradles to Crayons was looking to expand to Chicago I knew this was my mission and I wanted to be part of it,” he said.

Cradles to Crayons was originally started in Boston and the Chicago location opened in August 2016. Since that time, the Chicago branch has served 49,000 children (from birth to age 12) and looks to expand that impact even more. With just over a year of operation in Chicago, Cradles to Crayons has worked hard to get a foothold in the city and gain the trust of the community that their work is reaching the kids in need. For Cherkasov, getting established in a new city and gaining that trust of volunteers, donors, and the community has been one of the top achievements of the organization so far. The organization realized its impact was working when they noticed many returning volunteers and referrals. Running The Giving Factory to serve thousands of kids and building a strong base of volunteers and donors is hard work, so it’s incredible that Cradles to Crayons Chicago currently only has 13 staff members! Bernard said this speaks to the importance of the army of volunteers and generosity of the community in their mission.

The Giving Factory

When I volunteered at The Giving Factory a couple of weeks ago, I could feel the impact I had as an individual and how the organization empowers their volunteers to embrace the mission. The Giving Factory is a large warehouse and when you step inside you immediately see the vast amounts of donated material, which include clothes, shoes, backpacks, books, diapers, strollers and an assortment of baby items. Even though there was a tremendous amount of items stacked everywhere, the warehouse was neatly organized in stations.

The process of taking a donated item and getting it to its final form as a kid pack is purposefully detailed to make it as efficient as possible. The first step is to fill out a note with a positive message using markers and crayons for a recipient of one of the kid packs. Then you are directed to a station that the volunteer coordinator deems as a high priority for that day and time. For example, I helped sort clothes into different bins by age and gender and also ensured the clothes were of high quality. There are motivational quotes posted all over the facility that inspire you as you work. One quote in particular resonated with me: “Quality = Dignity”, which is central to Cradles to Crayons approach. Donations are required to be new or nearly new condition before they are delivered to a child. To these children, receiving items that are new helps support their dignity, which is so important.

When I asked Cherkasov who the main beneficiaries of Cradles to Crayons’ services are, his answer opened my eyes to the actual impact of their organization. “I feel we benefit all of Chicago,” he responded. Aside from the Chicagoland kids they serve by providing high quality essentials, Cherkasov explained that the volunteers experience a transformation as well. “Chicagoans that can contribute and volunteer, it is a transformative experience because every moment you spend in The Giving Factory, sorting products for quality, or cleaning toys, or putting together outfits, or customizing the kid pack orders, you know that you’re adding purpose to your own life.” Cherkasov pointed out this transformation is especially important when kids are volunteering and providing these services for another kid. He recounted a story of a little girl who volunteered with her family at The Giving Factory. When the volunteering session was over, the girl asked if she could stay longer. When her mother told her they needed to go, the girl asked if she could come back another time with her friends and possibly even host her birthday party at The Giving Factory. The mother was moved to tears to hear her daughter speak those words.

Volunteering for two hours next to a group of students from a local high school and college students from Northwestern University, I saw how people from all walks of life can band together to make a difference. But most importantly, seeing those students sorting through the donated clothes to ensure the clothes were in good condition, you can see young people comprehending how simple things like having nice clothes that fit could impact a child. Watching the future of our society giving back was pretty amazing.

Call to Action

There are many ways to make an impact with Cradles to Crayons. Check out their Take Action page to see how you can make a difference. Whether you’re donating goods or money, spreading the word, or volunteering at The Giving Factory, your efforts will directly impact a child’s life immediately. To see examples of the impact that volunteers can have, here are some sunshine stories from the grateful families and kids.

A Safe Space at Broadway Youth Center

A Safe Space at Broadway Youth Center

The Broadway Youth Center (BYC) of Howard Brown Health is a haven for LGBTQ youth and young people experiencing homelessness or housing instability. BYC provides refuge and community as well as medical, social and mental health care services. BYC sees anyone, regardless of ability to pay, and serves more than 1,500 teens and adults aged 12 to 24.