For so many mamas, it can be difficult to make time for our own well-being. That’s why we’re so excited for our Wellness First event, a day that’s all about taking care of ourselves. The event will benefit Determined to Succeed, a nonprofit led by co-executive directors Jessica Penkower Reid and Mimi Neandross. We love that these two mamas find ways to bring wellness into everything from self-care to the Determined to Succeed’s college success program. We caught up with them to learn more about their organization and what to expect at Wellness First.
Calling LA mamas! You need to check out Wellness First. What can guests expect at the event?
Jessica: Picture a morning that’s all about YOU. I know, it’s hard to imagine! Wellness First is an opportunity for busy mamas to relax, rejuvenate, and reset. It’s really hard to do your best work and be the best mom when you’re stressed out and your lunch is the rest of your kid’s half-eaten cheese stick. Wellness First celebrates all things nutritious, mindful and sustainable. We’ll have meditation, fitness and yoga classes, amazing food, super shopping, a bountiful silent auction, and a very inspiring guest speaker. And guests will have the chance to learn about DTS and how we further our commitment to student wellness.
How did the two of you become involved in Determined to Succeed?
Mimi: I have worked for Determined to Succeed since 2011. For the first several years, I served as an educational consultant and college counselor, but the more I got involved, the more opportunity I saw to make real change not only in the trajectory of our students’ futures but also in the current state of public education in the United States. When the previous Executive Director retired, I was offered her position. My expertise and passion are in working with the students and in building educational programs, so I knew that if I took on this role, I would need someone to run the business side of the organization. That is when I reached out to Jessica.
Jessica: Our older boys attended the same co-op preschool, and when we were both pregnant with our younger boys, we kept running into each other at the same sandwich shop. We NEEDED a particular sandwich for lunch EVERYDAY. That will bond mamas for life! After working remarkably well together in volunteer capacities at the preschool for a few years, Mimi approached me to join her at DTS when the former Executive Director retired. I had left work as a lawyer when my oldest was born, and I had been itching to get back into a career, preferably at a nonprofit where I could see my efforts make a difference in families’ lives in real time. DTS was a perfect match for me on an intellectual and entrepreneurial level, and it also affords me the flexibility to spend time doing all of the mom things that I want to do. The best part is that I get to work with Mimi every day.
Your organization has inspired so many kids to chase their dream of a college education. What are you most proud of from your work with the company? What has been your biggest challenge?
Mimi: There is so much to be proud of! For me, personally, it has been creating and implementing our summer programming, with input from staff, students and parents. Last summer, I created our Bridge to High School readiness program, which was a resounding success. At the end of the three-week program, the kids were sad that it wasn’t longer. To me, that was the greatest compliment! When I was their age, you could not have paid me to be in summer school, and if I was, I would count down the days until it was over. The quality and content of what we covered deeply impacted the kids, and they wanted more – more meditation, more movement, more learning about their bodies, more interactions with our summer interns who are also our college students. Our students started high school ahead of the pack. To me, this is the fruition of a dream.
A challenge for me, personally, has been learning how to ask people for money. Prior to being in this position, I was not comfortable asking people for anything, much less money. I was raised to be self-sufficient, which is great, but our program can only exist if others believe in our work and support it with money. As much as wish and hope for it to rain money on DTS so that we can not only do our work, but replicate our model in schools across the country, I know that isn’t how the world works. Thankfully, Jessica and I have found philanthropy strategists who have volunteered to coach us both and have helped me change my mindset about asking for money. I know now that in asking, I am offering someone an opportunity to do good for others.
Jessica: I love when our college students are home for vacations. Our juniors already have graduation in their sights, and I’m so impressed by how they’ve persisted and flourished. We are in the process of launching a formal career mentoring program for them, which I’m pretty sure is going to make me very proud! My biggest challenge is ongoing, and that is my DTS elevator pitch. There’s just too much to share!
Is there a success story of one of your students [ie. did they go on to start their own charity? Win an award? Start an amazing career?]
Mimi: Each of our students defines success on his or her own terms. However, we had a pretty exciting spring when one of our then high school seniors, Melanie, was accepted to multiple top tier colleges across the country.
Jessica: She is now at Harvard on a full scholarship! She was also accepted to Stanford and Columbia, among other fantastic schools. Melanie has told us that she never imagined the possibility of going to college thousands of miles away from home, but that DTS always encouraged her to try new things and supported her as she navigated her way through them. Her parents never went to college, and her mother didn’t even go to high school. Our staff truly championed not only Melanie, but also her family, through their journey to college.
Your college success program is one of the only programs that incorporates wellness (both physical and mental). How have your kids benefited from looking at them from a whole child perspective?
Mimi: It is a new world! For the population of students DTS serves, it’s not a question of whether there will be a crisis, it is a question of when. The personal challenges in our students’ lives, from stress and anxiety to family trauma, pose enormous risks to their health, self-esteem, academics, and, ultimately, college success. Prior to adding this critical and essential component to DTS, we were simply putting out metaphorical fires for our students. In doing so, we were robbing them of the opportunity to practice self-care, learn coping mechanisms, and develop healthy habits. Our wellness curriculum provides the time and space for our students to develop all of the life skills they’ll need when they head off to a demanding college environment.
Jessica: After our rising tenth graders completed our two-week summer Health and Wellness Intensive, two students set out to start their own wellness club at their high school. They felt so good after learning stress-reducing techniques and how to keep their bodies healthy that want to spread their new knowledge far and wide. I just think that’s the coolest!
What advice do you have for mamas wanting to see their own kids strive for a college education? How do you inspire good work habits at home?
Jessica: I try to incorporate at home what we teach our DTS students in ways that aren’t necessarily obvious to my kids at this point. The concept of college and the hard work it takes to get there is part of our normal conversations. Kids today are under enormous pressure – much more than when I was as a kid – and they need understanding and support. Not coddling, but guidance in navigating the stressors and anxiety attendant to performing at a high level in school. My middle schooler is already feeling it, so I find myself using the growth mindset techniques we practice with the DTS kids with him at home.
Mimi: The greatest advice I can give to other mothers is to help your child separate work time from play time and to recognize the importance of both. A great cause of stress for teens (and adults) is putting off their responsibilities in order to engage in what they enjoy. The problem there is that some part of the brain is still thinking about what is supposed to be done, so the person is not fully enjoying the free time. In my family’s home, our boys come home from school, eat a snack, and then do their homework. Once it is done, their work is put in their backpacks, which they zip up and put by the door. This signifies that responsibility time is done and the work is physically removed from the space. It has an end, so that the fun/free time can be fully enjoyed. I think this a practice that helps set a child on the college path and, frankly, on the path to a healthier and happier life.
You both have been friends for years. Do you have any ground rules or advice for working with a friend?
Jessica: Working with a close friend is the best, especially when your kids love to hang out together as ours do. We’ve pretty much set up a remote DTS office in the bleachers at Little League! Mimi and I have different, yet complementary, skill sets, and we have great respect for one another and the work that each of us does. It’s important to keep lines of communication open, check in with each other about your goals for the organization as well your personal goals, so that you can provide support the same as you would for any friend.
Mimi: Although I didn’t do it intentionally, I tested the waters first. Working with Jessica is like a dream, but I knew it would be going into our partnership, which is why I approached her with the opportunity. We had previously worked together on some larger projects at our children’s preschool, and for the first time in my life I was working with someone who was equally engaged in the task at hand, someone who did not stop at 100%, and someone who walked the talk. This experience was eye opening for me because I saw how much more could be accomplished through collaboration. Collaboration and complementary skills are key to our partnership and probably most others. And we’re pretty good at communicating by ESP at this point!
We love that your program encourages kids to give back to the younger kids that are currently coming up through the program. Do you have your own mentor that has helped you along the way?
Jessica: My parents have always been great role models for me. I’ve spent my life seeing them advocate for others that need a hand and working to create positive change in the world. They taught me that you can’t sit back; you need get up and contribute.
Mimi: My mother, father and my husband. All three are examples of people who follow their passion, work tremendously hard, take the time to listen and connect, demonstrate grit and resilience in all aspects of their lives, and are not afraid to stand up for what is right.
3 pearls of wisdom
Let your kids make mistakes and experience failure.
You’ll miss that pile of dirty clothes on the floor when your kids are off to college.
Put down your phone, turn off your computer, and be present.
3 pearls of wisdom
My pearls aren’t originally mine; they are borrowed from others along the way. When your child does something that is upsetting or not ok, come from a place of love when you address it.
Be honest with your kids. Even when it is hard.
Limit screen time.