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Part 1

Updated: Jul 18, 2020

Disclaimer: this blog is not meant to serve as legal or accounting advice when starting a nonprofit. Always check with your local legal and accounting services as each state has differing regulations and requirements.  

Our Journey

Ten years ago, I was working on completing my Masters degree in education in Southern California. Finished my degree and decided to start my new teaching career in Alexandria, Virginia where the jobs were plentiful, and the effects of the Great Recession had not reached. In Southern California, in a region known as the Inland Empire (which includes San Bernardino and Riverside Counties), the Great Recession had impacted the teaching field heavily. There were teacher layoffs occurring in the thousands across the state at the time. 20,000 teachers had received layoff notices, and 8,000 of those teachers were actually laid off ( Overloaded with student loans, my husband and I knew we had to make a drastic change in order to survive the economic downturn...we had to leave our home and start over elsewhere. It was a tough pill to swallow leaving our families to move to a place where we knew absolutely no one. It was difficult, "...but nothing worth doing is ever easy," I told my husband when deciding to move. It was a great move not only for the careers of both my husband and myself, but also for our son who was diagnosed with autism at two years old.

Our son was diagnosed with severe/non-verbal autism. After months of in home therapy in California, we decided that moving to the Washington D.C. metro area would also be beneficial by taking him to experience as many cultural events possible. At four years old, two years after living in the Washington D.C. metro area, experiencing as many cultural events and festivals the Smithsonian Museums had to offer, our son began to talk. We attribute our son's gains in neurological development to the various art, science and cultural events D.C. and the surrounding metropolitan areas had to offer while we lived there. There was nothing like it at home in the Inland Empire of Southern California.

Fast forward to 2020. We are right back where we started - home. We moved back to Southern California in August of 2019, due to my father needing a heart transplant, and due to my own health conditions I had been navigating since childhood - a spinal cord injury in my neck that was supposed to leave me paralyzed or dead. Something my various doctors love to remind me of each time I follow up with them throughout the year. But, I pay no mind to my doctors, and continue to live life as though there is no spinal cord injury, even though my body loves to remind me that there is. It's a constant battle and struggle, getting my body to do what my mind wants, but one that has prepared me with the mindset needed to navigate the next journey in life - starting a nonprofit with my husband during a pandemic.

Starting a Nonprofit

Moving back to the Inland Empire (after living on the East Coast for seven years), we could immediately see the disparities between living in a place like Washington D.C., and living in Southern California - from the economic system, to the education system, to everything in between. My husband and I didn't have to do much research to know the education systems were in stark contrast to one another - our son had attended public school in both states, receiving special needs services under an IEP (Individualized Education Plan). Virginia's public school system is ranked 7th in the nation as of 2019 by US News, while California is currently ranked 37th.

Two days of our son being enrolled in the same California public school I attended in 4th grade, a school I did not perform well at (nor any of my siblings), we began to receive phone calls from his 4th grade teacher. Our son was under performing academically and exhibiting behavior issues. Knowing our son wasn't performing well in the California school system, while also knowing our son was performing extremely well in Virginia's full-time, Advanced Academic public school (a highly competitive program in the state), paved the way for our nonprofit journey. My husband and I asked each other, "If we're going through this right now, what are many of the families in our community experiencing? Why is this happening? Why are we having such a hard time with public schools in California versus public schools in Virginia?"

It took a bit of thinking and reflecting on these questions, but during the first week of February of 2020, my husband and I celebrated our 14th wedding anniversary at an interactive art gallery at the Beverly Center in Beverly Hills. It hit us as we were driving through L.A. takes a long time to get anywhere around Southern California to experience an interactive art gallery, science center or cultural center. We currently do not have a children's science center or interactive art gallery anywhere in the Inland Empire (approximately 27,000 square miles) that we have been able to find. Imagine a family from our low income neighborhoods traveling 35+ miles to Los Angeles, or 100+ miles to San Diego, paying $5.00 a gallon for gas, and spending up to two hours in traffic to get their kids to one of these exhibits, plus pay admission and cost of food. We have the ability and the means to navigate these obstacles, but how many of our families from our region have the time, the money, or the means to do so? We also began asking ourselves...what impact is this having on our local school systems? How are families, organizations and education systems making those vital, and necessary connections within our region?

When we lived in D.C., access to museums, cultural festivals and family events were available for free every weekend, throughout the year, thanks to various nonprofit organizations and institutions. We met families from every part of the country, and from all around the world. Educators, organizations, and families gathered in the same spaces throughout the year, and as our worldview expanded, so too, did our son's verbal communication skills.

Thinking back on all this, while celebrating our anniversary, my husband and I began to see the need for a nonprofit organization, the likes of which had not yet been established in our region. After dinner that night, my husband and I began discussing the possibility of establishing a nonprofit focusing on building interactive art galleries, science museums and cultural centers - to build community, while improving our local education system. Our first course of action was to hold ourselves accountable. We posted our vision in online forums, asked for feedback as we surveyed our community, and took note of people's concerns, and if they were receptive to the idea.

The next step in creating our nonprofit was to learn and understand the needs of our community. Was there evidence and data to justify our claims? We began by spending time researching the census information of our region (gathering demographic information, population density and percent of education levels). We also spent time researching statistics in the museum and art industries, by looking up information from the American Alliance of Museums. Finally, after reviewing the data, we came to the conclusion that our idea was worth pursuing.

In conclusion, we determined there was a need in both our community, and in our local education system, people were excited and receptive to the idea of the formation of the nonprofit, and my husband and I agreed we have the time and money to invest in our community.

Summary of our First Steps:

  1. We determined there was a need for a nonprofit in our community

  2. We researched the need

  3. We surveyed our community

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