Third Sector Grit

A series on the driving—but often unrecognized—forces behind many nonprofits.

Grit, as defined by Webster’s Dictionary, is a “firmness of mind or spirit, unyielding courage in the face of hardship or danger.”  The nonprofit sector is great for many reasons, but one of the main reasons for its greatness is what I term, “Third Sector Grit,” which lives out every day in the many stories of unyielding courage in the face of hardship or danger.  It is a quality that is abundant and at times minimized in the face of “innovation.”

Third Sector Grit is most times not the stories of the sector’s executive leaders; more often it refers to those community champions in each nonprofit who do not have the larger titles but without whom the organization could not move forward.  I would venture to say that the definition of Third Sector Grit is the individuals and stories in each nonprofit that showcase its most valuable asset, the ‘firmness of spirit and unyielding courage in the face of the hardship’ toward fulfilling its mission.

In this series, I highlight individuals who embody the notion of Third Sector Grit.  In a search for individuals, I received dozens of e-mails from around the world nominating individuals.  First up is Danny Lopez.  Danny is a Program Specialist for Drug Free Youth in Town (DFYIT), a nationally recognized youth substance abuse prevention program located in Miami, FL.

Danny Lopez

Growing up in Miami, Danny Lopez was exposed to drugs and alcohol at a very young age. At just 12 years of age, he began experimenting with hardcore drugs. By the age of 20, Danny was addicted, jobless, and living on the streets. Setting up camp on the side of US 1 in Miami, his daily existence centered on determining where and how he was going to get his next fix.

Eventually, with an amazing amount of self-determination and help from others, Danny turned his life around. Now, having come back from the deadly brink of drug and alcohol addiction, Danny has committed his life to educating young people about the importance of staying drug-free.

As a Program Specialist for DFYIT, Danny is equal parts educator, mentor, and friend. He speaks openly with his students about his past, using his experiences as an opportunity to show students what is at stake when they choose to experiment with hardcore drugs. His energy and easygoing personality has made him a favorite among DFYIT students.

Danny’s profound impact on the DFYIT organization is evidenced in his ability to engage and empower his students to live above the influence of drugs and alcohol. Proudly, over 99% of Danny’s students are drug-free. And while his work week may technically end at 5:00 on Friday, his commitment to the young people he serves certainly doesn’t. On the weekends, he can usually be found working with students on various projects and program initiatives, like the graffiti art initiative he implemented at Kinloch Park Middle School. Keeping students occupied on the weekends, he says, is important: it reinforces pro-social behavior, gives them more face time with positive role models, and keeps them out of trouble.

Danny’s Personal Involvement

Danny was first contracted to speak during DFYIT annual events about his experience with drugs before he became a full time Program Specialist two years ago. Now Danny gets to interact directly daily with the youth and the community of Miami, Florida. Growing up, Danny never had a positive role model with whom he felt comfortable sharing details about his life.  Something that he tries to do is make sure his students feel confident and comfortable in all of his lectures and classes. “DFYIT has given me the ability to give back to the community and be involved in a city that I once did a lot of damage to” he says. He now empowers young adults to make informed decisions around drugs and alcohol.

Danny states, “One big obstacle that I am faced with everyday is the different kinds of youth that DFYIT serves.  Some of my schools are found in middle income neighborhoods while I also have some schools in very poor neighborhoods.  It’s not easy switching gears and changing my delivery based on the population that I am dealing with.  DFYIT has taught me a great deal about being culturally competent and making sure that every child has its opportunity to relate to our program.  Considering how diverse DFYIT is, I have learned how to work with teachers, administrators, students, parents, police officers, counselors and other professionals from every different background imaginable.  At first, this was not an easy task, but one that I feel I have mastered through the help of DFYIT”.

Danny’s Impact on DFYIT

The organization benefits from his high level of commitment in serving the youth and his ability to think outside of the box. His activities at the schools are always innovative, taking into consideration the specific background, interests and talents of the group he is working with. To do so, Danny spends a lot of time basing his delivery on what is happening in the news today, and bringing in speakers that can relate to the audience as well as he does: football celebrities who are past users, young recovering addicts, but also community heroes such as firefighters, police officers, sports and community figures that have made the choice to remain drug-free.

Danny has acted as a mentor to orientate new DFYIT staff on how to conduct successful meetings and prepare events that are age and culturally competent.  This year, Danny has made it a personal goal to help our members build their self esteem as a protective factor against drug use, by offering them positive outlets through mural projects, educational field trips that focus on health, fitness and healthy eating. Danny has established a personal relationship not only with the DFYIT members, but also with the school advisors and administrators. He has not only embraced DFYIT mission and become another DFYIT face in the community, but he also brings along who he is and what he believes in, and his message is honest and believable.

Danny’s Impact on the Community

This year the DFYIT Club at Kinloch Park Middle School has been involved in an unforgettable experience led by Danny. The members wanted to promote their club and the drug free lifestyle at the school. Danny proposed that they do a mural project, and the idea was welcome by all members and school administrators. According to Danny, “there is plenty of positivity in the interests that our youth has, we have to help point them in the right direction.  As our media is jam packed with people telling them that in order to be ‘cool’ they need to go out and 'party,' I think it is our responsibility to show them that they can still have fun and be positive, ‘cool’ and current.”

The theme of the mural was “What is your natural high?” which invited youth to reflect on ways to channel their interests into a positive direction. “Not all graffiti has to be illegal, not all rappers are drug dealers and not all skate boarders are ‘punks’” is what Danny made clear through this project, inviting the club members to freely incorporate elements of their own culture and interests in the design of the mural. To top all that, the artist is also a recovering addict.  He shared with members how an interest in art is actually what saved his life and keeps him off drugs. At the end of the experience, the Club advisor at Kinloch Mr. Eduardo Sabillon writes to DFYIT: 'Teachers and students love and respect DFYIT at Kinloch, and now with the mural even more.  Danny has done an incredible job, and we are very lucky to have him.  We are grateful to what DFYIT does and represents at our school.”

Danny’s Goals for the Future

Danny discussed his goals, stating “Every time I conduct a club meeting, work with a student or speak at an assembly, my hopes are that one student hears mine and DFYIT's message.  I know that if I’m speaking at an assembly with 500 students, not every kid is listening to me.  To be honest, there could be active users in the audience! You never know!  As long as one student leaves and remembers one thing that I said, my job is done, my goals are met.  It’s very cut and dry with me.  My personal and professional goals are the same. They are to be happy, drug-free, healthy, help others and spread the word about living a clean/productive lifestyle”.

As part of my regular blog postings with the Stanford Social Innovation Review, I will periodically feature a “Third Sector Grit” story.  If you have one that you would like to share, please feel free to send to me as I may highlight.  My e-mail is [email protected]

Look forward to hearing from you!

Read more stories by John Brothers.