Care Force Alumni Spotlight: Grace Lehan
On October 27th, 2021, the Team Care Force blog team (Stuart Allen, Allison Anderson, and Caitlyn Sarles) had the pleasure of interviewing Grace Lehan, who served with City Year Boston 2010-2011 and Team Care Force 2011-2012. Following her graduation from Team Care Force, Grace went on to become a Care Force staff member and then a National Corporate Partnerships Manager and Director for City Year. Grace recently transitioned into her role as the Director of Annual Giving at the Wheeler School in Providence, RI.
Allison: Where did you do your first year of service? Can you tell me about an important experience or skill you got out of that first year?
Grace: I served with City Year Boston in 2010 after graduating from University of Massachusetts Amherst with a degree in art history. I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do after I graduated and was excited and inspired by this idea of a year of service with City Year and AmeriCorps. As far as an important experience, my first year as an AmeriCorps member really helped me understand the power of relationships and their connectedness to having a positive impact. The challenges that our team dealt with at any level were mostly resolved through the strength of the relationships that we built with students, our teammates, or teachers. I had a team of about 10 who ran a large after school program. As our team’s afterschool coordinator, I was responsible for reviewing lesson plans, making sure each activity or afterschool club was successful, safe, and fun. The relationships that I built with my teammates was critical to them feeling confident and set up for success. That really stands out for me as something that I took away from my first year of service.
Stuart: What brought you to City Year? Why did you initially apply to City Year and why did you apply to serve a second year with Care Force?
Grace: After I graduated from college, I honestly just wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do, outside of something meaningful. I found the AmeriCorps webpage which led me to City Year and I had a few friends who had served with City Year in Boston, so that’s where I applied. I didn’t even know at that time there were other City Year sites and cities that I could serve in!
If you know me, you likely know that I’m a fairly competitive person. I had heard that Care Force was a competitive program and only accepted eight second year corps members each year from across the country. That’s what first got me interested. I have also always been a very hands-on person. I love baking, painting, arts and crafts-everything that I do has always been very hands on. It’s how I learn and engage, so Care Force just seemed like a natural fit. I think one thing I didn’t realize is just how much the relationship building skills I had begun to flex during my corps year would come into play working so closely with volunteers, schools, community centers, and more.
Caitlyn: What was a favorite event or activity for you while serving on Team Care Force?
Grace: A favorite service event that stands out to me is one that we held in Miami, at a men’s shelter. Our team came in a few days in advance to prep for the event and were joined by a great team of City Year Miami staff and alumni. Because we were doing a few entire room makeovers there was a fair amount of labor-intensive prep to do before the volunteers arrived. One example of this was in a game and gathering room for the men at the shelter, where we ended up spending a solid two days ripping up carpet that had been glued to the floor. Ripping that carpet up was one of those experiences that really bonded the event team because we went into it expecting it to be an easy few-hour task and it ended up being the focus of our entire prep week! It was an exhausting and incredibly long week, but it was that much more rewarding to see our volunteers complete these beautiful spaces for the men at the shelter that Saturday. The event was also late enough in my service year that I had built relationships with many of the volunteers that joined us that day, so having that chance to come together and serve alongside familiar faces was always a special part of my service experience.
Allison: You’ve mentioned the importance of being flexible and being able to roll with the punches that a Care Force service day brings. Can you talk a little bit more about any other challenges that might have surprised you during your time on Care Force and how you overcame or grew from them?
Grace: I think another challenge that I didn’t expect to be so important to my success on Care Force was my ability to manage my time effectively. As a Project Manager on Care Force staff that meant being thoughtful about what I knew I could and couldn’t get done in my own prep days with my team, but also what was possible with volunteers. For instance, understanding that some tasks take longer with volunteers while others might go by very fast. Being able to understand when something was going to finish early or when something was going to not get done helped me begin to troubleshoot a challenge when I needed to and before it was too late.
Stuart: What has your trajectory through City Year been like? Could you talk about some of your different roles prior to the one that you have now?
Grace: In general, each role I have had at City Year has helped me learn new things about my strengths and interests that I have inspired my next job. I see my career as a journey of following my passions and growth, and am grateful I’ve been able to do that thanks to many things- including some incredible managers. During my service year with Care Force I had decided that I wanted to do something in the community engagement space because I had really loved my Care Force experience. Then, during my Care Force corps year, Care Force had a position open up as a Project Manager on their staff team. I knew immediately it was something I wanted to pursue, and I was intentional about talking to Care Force and City Year staff about the opportunity. I really saw the remainder of my service year like a long-term, in-person interview because I knew applying to the job would be a competitive process. When I was offered the position, I knew it was a big turning point for me career wise. I served with Care Force for another four years, eventually managing their 500 person Synopsys service event among many others- and I loved the work. While I loved planning events, I was also really interested in Care Force as a mechanism to educate and engage companies and individuals in our service in schools and communities and a chance to show them how our work was so relevant to their philanthropic goals.
City Year has an amazing National Corporate Partnerships team that focuses on building strategic partnerships with companies invested in our mission and impact, many of whom also partner with Care Force. When a role opened up on that team, I knew I wanted to pursue it. After Care Force, I ended up spending about seven years on City Year’s National Corporate Development team managing partnerships with companies like Starbucks and The Taco Bell Foundation, Comcast NBCUniversal, Bank of America and many others. There I continued to grow; pitching, developing, building, and activating partnerships across our 29 sites and working with incredible people both on the corporate side and internally across City Year. I continued to love the relationship building elements of the role, while strengthening my skills in communications and marketing, supporting large partnership campaigns, activations, partnership videos, and more. I recently ended my City Year journey in January of 2022, and now serve as the Director of Annual Giving at the Wheeler School in Providence, RI. I do even more work in communications and marketing, which I love, and, much like I did at City Year, continue to build relationships with people across our school community to help educate them on our Annual Fund and the importance of it impact on our students’ education. And, the best part is, I also still get to plan a big event here or there!
Allison: What are some skills you learned or developed while on Team Care Force that you are using in your current role?
Grace: Where do I start, there are so many of them. Event planning, managing tons of details and moving pieces at the same time, and especially, surprisingly, to the skill of managing and distributing tasks to adults. As a Team Care Force AmeriCorps member, you need to be able to thoroughly explain a task and set others up for success in a way that feels gracious and authentic, inspires people to do the work that you’re asking them to do but also isn’t condescending or judgmental. There are many adults that wish they could do this! It’s such a huge skill that I definitely started to build and built a lot on Care Force that I use every day of my job. Another one that comes to mind is prioritizing tasks. Before you paint a wall with volunteers, what do you need to do to be ready for that? You’ll need to design the mural, approve the mural, prep the wall, prime the wall, sketch out the mural, purchase the paint, prepare the paint colors… All of those pieces that you are prioritizing and juggling throughout the year, even in the virtual space, are great skills for any project. Especially in large, matrixed, complex organizations, you need to know the order of tasks to complete something and how to manage each stage of that task.
Stuart: If there is one piece of advice that you could give to people who are interested in applying to Care Force, what would it be?
Grace: For a returning AmeriCorps member interested in joining Team Care Force, I would say your willingness to learn and be flexible will dictate how much you learn. Be prepared to have an incredibly challenging and rewarding experience that will stretch you in ways that you weren’t expecting and help you grow in ways that you weren’t expecting.
Stuart: Is there anything you wish that you had known before you came onto Care Force?
Grace: I see myself as a team player and a collaborator, and I didn’t realize how valuable and important it would be to be somebody who can contribute, be a leader, but most importantly be a team player. Be willing to compromise and problem solve and support a teammate when they need it. I think that is just so critical to the success of being a member of Team Care force and being part of any successful team.
Allison: Can you talk a little bit more about working with your team? How many people were on your team and what did that dynamic look like?
Grace: I had a great team. We were a team of seven. We were split into two pods which we traveled in for the first six months of our service year. It really helped in building smaller, stronger relationships with each of our teammates but also really pushed us to get along. We did a lot of traveling and we had a lot of events on the road which was really exciting and fun, but also a whirlwind. Then, in the second half of the year we had quite a few larger whole-team events like Project Inspire with NVIDIA that really bonded our team.
Caitlyn: I would love to know more about your interactions with corporate partners. Did building those relationships stem from being a staff member on Care Force or a corps member?
Grace: It definitely happened while I was on Team Care Force as a corps member. Early in my year I learned that if I built a good relationship with a volunteer, I could count on that volunteer to get things done for me, because we had built that bridge of mutual respect and trust. From there I also focused on building relationships with the people who led our partnerships at those companies that we saw often at all our events. They were sources of expertise having been to so many events and I learned a lot from many of them. Just listening to them talk about their volunteer engagement program or corporate community service day helped me understand and learn more. When I applied to Care Force as a Project Manager, I actually had two of our partners write me letters of recommendation for the role- and I’m glad I did!
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