Below, you’ll find an essay I wrote in late December 2022 (when I was still serving as Project REAL’s Senior Director).
At the time, I had brought it up as something we could send out instead of the traditional end-of-year donation-request letter. We provide updates on programming and send invites out for events when we have them, but as guests of the schools we serve it’s incredibly difficult to get to tell our story. With field trips at an all time low due to bus availability (and additional challenges we face with our mock trials), getting simple video testimonials from the students we serve has also become next to impossible since the pandemic.
I was also fortunate enough to have witnessed phenomenal student reaction to seven years of work. These events just don’t fit into newsletters well, and cannot be accurately conveyed in a single paragraph in some ‘Giving Tuesday’ letter or something along those lines.
For those of you who take the time to read this, you won’t find a long build up to a donation request at the end; perhaps a small nudge out of due diligence, however I was aiming for extreme subtlety, as fundraising was not the point. Instead, you’ll just see the impact of your years of support – whether that was donations, or just making calls and connecting us to the people we work with and for.
I hope you enjoy this deep-dive into our work, and welcome any questions or comments you have that may stem from it.
The REAL Story:
An End of Year Essay From Project REAL’s Senior Director.
Typically we end each year with a message from the President of our Board of Directors or our Executive Director (and one of reasonable length, at that).
This year however I requested – and was granted – an opportunity to take on the task. That’s because I have two stories about our work I believe you all need the chance to learn about.
While this end-of-year message will be longer than anything we’ve sent out in the past, I hope you’ll join me for the journey. Just to be clear, this is more of an essay more than anything resembling an end-of-year letter.
Before I get to the two stories, I’d like to address the proverbial ‘wet towels’ in the room.
I’m guessing that when most of you think of the work Project REAL does, you don’t imagine our staff getting teary eyed – or ‘verklempt’ as some might say – seeing our work in action. And to be fair, typically it might not seem like we’re doing the kind of work that would bring those moments on.
That’s not to say we aren’t doing critical work in Nevada – it’s pretty clear that we fill a major service gap. Most young Nevadans are not taught the differences between what behaviors can get them grounded or detention and what can get them arrested. For the students we reach, Project REAL is addressing that need.
Perhaps more important still is the fact that by doing that work in a way that ties into core-required classes, we’re modeling what can one day be a paradigm shift in the education experience of all Nevadan students.
Even with that massive scope of possibility that us opening up as a result of our services, I’ve heard from many Nevadans that the work Project REAL’s work sounds Spartan more than anything else. Usually that’s something akin to “Sure you’re doing important work, but it’s just teach kids what to do, and what not to do. Most parents should be doing that even if the schools don’t”
With regards to parents getting involved – we are working on that too but ultimately they weren’t taught about this stuff either, so there needs to be a massive shift before the onus can be placed solely on them if that’s really the best solution.
Another challenge is just the lack of urgency. Our work is important but the greatest effects are slow-moving. It’s just not the same as finding ‘fur-ever’ homes for unadopted animals living under the threat of euthanasia, supplying young students at risk of going to bed hungry with food, or providing much-needed feminine hygiene products to unhoused women.
Sure it’s true that over the last few years we’ve begun offering our mock trials which allow us to capture some adorable moments. Even better, those moments result from carefully crafted experiences that help younger students develop a foundational understanding of the law – a foundation which we’re we build upon in later years of service to those same students.
We’re also great at what we do in terms of efficiency and effectiveness. Since we began collecting student behavior evaluations in 2016, we’ve seen that every experience we deliver achieves at least an 80% positive impact rate across the board. In each activity no less than 80% of students report somewhat-to-significantly
Still, our work doesn’t radiate the sense of urgency or the true value of impact it truly deserves. That is why I’d like to share these two experiences with you from this year – two during which our team did in fact get ‘verklempt’ and teary eyed.
The First Story: On Teens and Tepidness
The first of these was on May 24 this year. Our REAL Ready Coordinator Kaylee O’Donnell and I were invited to Rancho High School’s graduation rehearsal (thanks to Las Vegas’ Ward 6 City Counselor Nancy Brune’s timely assistance). We had been given permission to distribute our teen law guides ‘Independence & You’ to the seniors once the rehearsal period has ended.
While we’d worked with the schools’ criminal justice elective students for years, consistently providing field trips whenever they were available, that was usually just 10% of the schools seniors each year. As one of CCSD’s four urban core high schools (along with Valley, Western, and Clark) providing an entire grade level with a Project REAL experience at Rancho had been a priority for years, and the opportunity had finally come.
The guides had only arrived at our offices 18 hours earlier. This was our first print run of 7,000 copies of a project that had been in unfunded development since May 2016, and which only became possible thanks to a grant from United Way of Southern Nevada and the Clark County Fiscal Recovery Fund.
While we’d done our due diligence and piloted stand-alone chapters to test reception, there was a lot of nervousness about how the guides would be received. The chaos of when and how we were distributing these guides wasn’t helping much either : the students were to complete their rehearsal, and then would have to pick up their graduation tickets for family members. It was during their time in line that we would have an opportunity to connect with them.
As soon as the rehearsal portion ended, Kaylee and I were behind a table with twenty or so cases of books unpacked, with myself carnival-barking towards the students encouraging them to just come take our free guides, explaining they’d help them.
We had maybe fifteen of the nearly six hundred students in the room come up to us. It was not going well. Then, things seemed to get worse.
Kaylee and I began walking up and down the multiple lines for tickets, essentially forcing the guides into the teens hands while saying things like “Look, it’s free just take it and skim it, and you’ll thank us in few years – we promise!” and “This guide is free and it will help you end up better off than most of your peers if you just flip through it a few times” or phrases to those effects.
Some of the kids seemed on board, and took them and shoved them in their bags. Others took them while nodding politely, but seemed hesitant. Then there were the last two type of recipients – those who were taking them just to end the conversation as quickly as possible, and those who were outright refusing to accept them.
Kaylee and I had handed out about guides to perhaps 300 of the 600 students there, so that was great, but the question of impact remained. To put it mildly, the majority of the reception was seeming tepid at best.
While this is a story about Project REAL, I’ll self-indulge here for a moment and admin that as someone that had been willing ‘Independence & You’ into existence for more nearly six years and was finally having an opportunity to finally serve the students of Rancho in the volume I’d always known we’d had the capacity to, I was feeling particularly bleak professionally, and empathetically for Project REAL over all – we had after all just completed a $50,000 print run creating 7,000 copies of these guides. All of our planning, research, student feedback, teacher feedback, and steady-paced development suggested that we were on the right path. This looked like we just jumped into a massively misguided use of time, resources, and donor trust. To describe what I was feeling as a sinking sensation does not come close to what I was experiencing.
But then…something started to change.
A few of the students that seemed to be the most hesitant and dismissive about accepting the guides were flipping through them and began talking while looking surprised. Other students in line started either looking along with a nearby group, or flipping through their own. Then, as if they were paid to do it (they definitely were not), various groups of students that were going through the guide were enthusiastically pointing at some of the contents and actively nodding in agreement while talking about it.
“Okay!” I thought. “This is great – some of them are getting it, and they see it – they see what we’re doing. This is going to work”.
Kaylee and I began to do another pass through the lines, offering the guides again and this time things were clearly different. Students were actively asking “Hey, can I get one over here?” and a few even requested extra copies for older brothers and sisters. Kaylee and I ended up having to make multiple trips back to the table we’d set up at to get more guides to meet the demand.
And then came the cherry on top. Some of those students who’d taken guides from us just to have us go away quickly had set their guides 50 feet or so away on the cafeteria tables, or on the ground at their feet. Kaylee and I went to go pick up these seemingly unwanted copies, only to get shouted at!
“Hey! Wait, what’re you doing?” was the general sentiment we were getting.
“We’re just picking up the extra copies nobody wanted” was how we were replying.
“No no – I want that, I just set that down. Please leave it” was how they were responding every time.
We brought more guides than there were students, so we didn’t leave empty handed that day, but we did leave teary-eyed. We weren’t just handing out guides to kids that morning, and Kaylee and I both knew it.
Misty Eyes & Insights
Independence & You offers greater understanding of adult situations shaped by the law, and the tools available for navigating those situations. The easiest example to highlight is apartment security deposits. The guide explains how they work, how often young people fail to get them returned for their first and sometimes second leases, and the tools they have available to them if they suspect a past landlord has wrongly denied them a return of their deposit.
When the average American adult cannot afford a $500 emergency without going into debt (more than 33% of them at most times, and as high as 49% of U during some seasons, according to numerous 2022-released studies).
If that one lesson about security deposits in the guide resonates with the students, we have greatly reduced the risk of being trapped in a cycle of poverty for many of them (with the average apartment security deposit reaching over $1,000).
The eventual reactions of those Rancho High School seniors was what brought the misty eyes on. We weren’t just filling a service gap, we were giving them something they didn’t know they needed, and absolutely wanted as soon as they recognized what was missing. It’s not just the value of our work, it’s the efficacy and the hunger for it. We were seeing the impact already start to take place right there, in that moment, in a way that the best feedback we get from fieldtrips or mock trials just can’t match.
The experience of watching nearly 600 young Nevadan adults being empowered with the guides we gave them – and knowing how it would impact so many of them – was an absolute honor. It also contrasts greatly with our second story: one in which the tears came via email.
The Second Story: A Legacy Preserved, Honored, Expanded.. and Celebrated
Those of you that have been supporting Project REAL since before 2018 are likely very familiar with Play By the Rules. Having been offered within weeks of our doors being opened in January 2005, Play By the Rules taught 200 laws specific to Nevada over ten to fifteen school periods.
Demand for Play By the Rules had already begun to decline slightly in 2016 as the Social Studies teachers using it were feeling the pressure of time crunch to cover other information. By November 2018 when teaching standards in Nevada for social studies and civics were updated, the challenge to onboard new instructors was essentially insurmountable.
For nearly fifteen years prior to this point, Play By the Rules was connecting with upwards of 10,000 Nevadan students each school year. Based on the records we’ve been able to find, we know that at least 100,000 copies of Play By the Rules have been printed and distributed in Nevada since February 2005.
Given that legacy, clearly something had to be done to preserve the utility and value of Play By the Rules. Under the leadership and guidance of our Executive Director Tom Kovach, I began working with our interns, past teaching partners, and community partners to reshape how we would offer the experience.
During this development process, we were recognizing that as a fifteen year old experience, some of the material was outdated, along with some of the teaching approaches being used. Play By the Rules was classic, but it ended the majority of it’s sentences with state statute citations, and the experience prioritized memorization of consequences over risk –aversion. It also – if it was going to be used in the way =it was designed to be – required the students be given reading homework (this is a huge ask for a supplemental experience like Play By the Rules, and something that led teachers to pass on our attempts to donate the experience to their classrooms).
The result of those revelations was a two-phase adaptation of the Play By the Rules concept.
First, we created a ‘new use’ guide that would encourage community programs and motivated social studies instructors who were excited by team-based learning. The new guide removed any homework reading needs and changed the focus from memorizing laws to helping students develop risk-aversion skills. These steps would allow Play By the Rules to reach a wider new audience while returning to use in some classrooms.
Next, thanks to a grant from Nevada Humanities we created a brand new student guide designed specifically around the ‘new use’ teacher’s guide we’d created to keep Play By the Rules alive. The new guide – Choices & You – presents a lot of the same information as Play By the Rules, with a fresher look, modern examples, and a voice that ensures any consequences that are discussed are put in the context of a student’s choices. Simply put, we don’t tell them what to do, the way Play By the Rules used to. Now, we explain that they have the power to make choices, and they will face the consequences – good or bad – of those choices. By giving them the power, they give us their attention and ears.
At least…that was the thought behind it, and there was a lot of impact banking on that thought.
You see, to avoid homework reading as a requirement for Choices & You, we designed the classroom experience as a sales pitch (this took place during the first phase of development). Each student only reads about 15% of the guide when it’s being used in their class, and each team of students (there are five teams per experience) reads different parts of the guide.
The first result is pretty clear: when they take part in various activities during which they’re supposed to apply the laws their learning about, they tend to get a lot of wrong answers. That (in theory) is where we would achieve success:
By showing them that not only do they have control over their relationship with the law in their lives but that there is a lot more to the law that they need to know about, we would sell them on the idea of reading all the content of Choices & You they don’t get to in class on their own, in their free time, without any prodding from adults.
This was a massive gamble that Tom was allowing me to lead. We had input from a variety of sources including teachers that had used Play By the Rules for years, but we were banking on ‘at risk’ kids to be as excited about learning laws outside of class as their more positive-behavior inclined peers.
To again be completely transparent with a personal reflection, while I was excited to have led this project’s development, I was terrified I’d taken on more than I should have – I was replacing a resource that had a nearly fifteen year history of success with something that would fall entirely at my feet if it failed. The reasons for that replacement were certainly justified (as Play By The Rules wasn’t reaching the same volume of students as it had in the past), but still, there were some foundational adjustments to the concept being made.
The first order of Choices & You books arrived around October 15, 2022. Based on samples we’d sent out, we had three middle schools on board to use the new material on a grade-wide scale (so 250-400 students per school). Based on the communications we’d had, we weren’t expecting any teachers to have begun using the guides yet.
It was December 15th – just a few days ago – when I had my second moment of the year during which something from Project REAL caused ‘my allergies to flair up and get something in my eye’.
It was just an email.
“Good morning, Just wanted to let you know how things are going. We will finish Day 6 before break. They are super engaged and really enjoying the curriculum.
A couple of kids said they wanted to keep the book after we are done so they can go back and read everything. They like the characters and what not. They are having really good discussions amongst their teams and happily sharing things out.”
This might not seem like much at first, but you have to recognize everything that’s at play here.
First, this is one of the urban core middle schools with major behavior issues (the teacher is on break, so I don’t want to share specific details without her permission).
Second, these are 7th and 8th grade middle school students. If you’re a parent or know one, you’ve heard the phrase ‘terrible twos’ about toddlers being unmanageable. Well 7th and 8th grade students are the terrible twos of the K-12 education experience.
Third and finally, our gambit is paying off and a lot faster than we anticipated it happening. The students are only halfway through the guide, yet they’re already self-identifying as wanting to re-engage the material outside of class (while we can’t give them physical copies, they are all given free access to the full guides as pdfs which are hosted on our website).
Between that, the simple line ‘They like the characters and whatnot’ signifying our design team’s collective instinct of needing to have a book where the students could see themselves in the illustrations would help with its success, and the relief that came with seeing we preserved, honored, and expanded upon a legacy that began in December 2004 when Project REAL was first founded, I wasn’t going to walk away from that email without getting at least a little ‘verklempt’.
A Long Essay For a Longer-View of Things
If you’re still with this piece, I want to thank you. Already, something of this length runs the risk of losing an audience along the way, yet that just illustrates the need for support from people like you.
Oh yes, we’re going to ask for your support at the very end of this, but please, hear me out.
This essay is an example of what it takes to fully communicate Project REAL’s story. We’re not giving victims of violence a place to escape in an emergency. We’re not providing hair cuts to people looking to get their first job in a while. Heck, even though we do ‘give out’ free books, it’s not the kinds of novels and imagination-sparking stories that people typically get excited about helping young people connect with.
What we are doing is radically reshaping the possibilities for law related education on a systemic level, and that’s not something for which the value of can be clearly explained just by listing the experiences we facilitate. With REALReady being an exception, those examples tend to lack an urgency can lead to a kick-the-can view of our work. Something akin to “Project REAL is important, but not urgent” – a position we clearly disagree with.
If you can’t tell by the last few years of student behavior stories in the news, we’ve been kicking the can for far too long. It’s time to make some long-term investments.
I was recently told by a local business owner that their group wants to make Project REAL a permanent recipient of their charitable work. That commitment – I was told – was the result of a forty minute conversation we’d had, and our eventual release of Independence & You.
Essentially, it was made clear that our publications along or even a ten minute explanation accompanying them just isn’t enough to tell our story effectively.
To be successful, we need longer-form opportunities like this one to really the way you can explain the work of other organizations – even Law Related Education ones!
Wrapping Things Up
And with that, I’d again like to thank you for coming on this journey with me; allowing me to share those experiences from this year with you. I hope – having explored two major accomplishments for the organization (which admittedly, I found very rewarding personally and professionally as well) – that you will support us as best you can.
Maybe you’re in the position to donate to help us serve one student with an average of 3.5 hours of law related education each for each $25 you can provide. Perhaps you want to work with us to fund Project REAL serving a school you attended here in Nevada, or one your children currently attend. You might just have a meeting you’d like to arrange between our team and schools or other community partners because you believe there’s an opportunity that will result in Nevada being a greater community for us all.
Whatever you reason, I hope you’ll get in touch by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 702.302.3372.
Thank you for your time, your attention, your dedication, and any past and future support.
We appreciate you.