Evolution of the Giraffe

John Graham admits that when he first heard about the Giraffe Project, which inspires kids with stories about heroes who stick their necks out, he considered it “kind of lightweight.”

The woman who created it attracted a better judgment. He married her.

So it’s really no surprise that by the time Graham the mountain climber and Ann Medlock the writer exchanged vows in 1982, he had come to recognize the “tremendous archetypal power” of storytelling. Today, he’s president of the Giraffe Project.

And he’s annoyed.

That’s because after more than 20 years in business, Giraffe has been forced by the nation’s shifting political and educational landscapes to pull its neck in. With its budget shrunk by half from its heyday, Giraffe has shifted from service-learning and civic engagement projects – like the Georgia middle schoolers who wrote a waste management plan that was adopted by their county – to helping kids read.

Literacy instruction is good – but it’s not what Giraffe’s leaders set out to provide.

On the one hand, Giraffe stands as a lesson in how nonprofits can adjust to changing times in order to survive. But it also stands as an exhibit of the obstacles to conducting full-fledged service-learning and civic engagement through schools.
With educators overwhelmed by the pressure to meet rising academic standards, “there is a great disincentive to practice service-learning,” says Kenny Holdsman, managing director of the 8,500-member National Service-Learning Partnership, based in New York.

What’s more, many schools steer clear of civic engagement ventures that are supposed to be part of service-learning, for fear of violating the “no politics” rules of the federal government’s major grant-maker for service-learning, the U.S. Corporation for National and Community Service. While some in the field call this a misunderstanding about reasonable restrictions, Graham charges that federal officials “don’t want kids engaged. They want them quiet – because they want all of us quiet.”

To the White House

Ann Medlock speaks softly but is hardly quiet. She’s been a poet, media consultant, curriculum developer, speechwriter to the Aga Khan and journalist, including a stint as editor-in-chief of the now-defunct Children’s Express. In 1980, she was on staff when Quest magazine folded, taking with it a “Giraffe Society” through which the magazine recognized people who stuck their necks out to make a difference in society.

Medlock wanted to keep that idea alive. Graham, who met Medlock in 1979, supported her, despite his early self-described “skepticism.” He favored the power of direct persuasion: After 15 years in the Foreign Service, Graham had started a solo career training and inspiring peace activists, setting out to “convince people that they should ban the bomb or save the whales.”

By 1983, the pair was running Medlock’s creation, the Giraffe Project, which is now based in Langely, Wash., on an island north of Seattle. Initially, the project recognized inspirational, regular folks who took risks to help others, calling them “giraffes.” Many of the stories were about youths or adults working with youths. Giraffe wrote their stories and got celebrities to read them in public service spots for radio. Soon, newspapers and magazines ran stories about the heroes.

Giraffe used anecdotes to make inspirational points, which might be one reason it caught the eye of officials in the Reagan administration. During the administrations of President Reagan and the first President Bush, Medlock and Graham were invited to the White House several times to talk with domestic policy staffers about how Giraffe found and put out the word about its heroes.

“We said, ‘You know, many of the people [we recognize] are breaking the law or not very happy with what Mr. Reagan was doing,’ ” Graham recalls. “And they said, ‘We don’t care. We just love what you’re doing.’

“They really understood that it was important to engage young people in the political process. They didn’t care at all that some of our giraffes were driving some of their people crazy.”

In 1989, the Giraffe Project was honored as one of Bush’s 1,000 Points of Light, a program that highlighted the work of volunteer groups.

But White House cheers were not enough to sustain Giraffe. Ironically, the project was actually hurt, as the concept of inspiring kids by telling them about everyday heroes took off nationally. “Heroes” programs sprang up everywhere, making competitive the veldt on which Giraffe had once roamed virtually alone. It got harder to raise money from foundations.

To survive, Giraffe had to change.

Into the Schools

In 1992, Medlock and Graham turned the stories of the giraffes – they’d identified about 800 – into a character-building and service-learning curriculum, “The Giraffe Heroes Project.” The timing was right. The national trend to encourage youth volunteerism and civic engagement had prompted many states and school districts to weave service-learning into their curricula, often making it a high school graduation requirement. (See “Service-Learning Sits in School,” November 2002, under archives at

That project included three student readers, covering kindergarten through high school. Teachers used a 300-page binder to help students choose a problem, research it, develop a plan to address it, take action, then reflect and celebrate. The youths also read heroes’ biographies, then searched for examples around them of people sticking their necks out.

Many student projects were environmental. Popular projects among the younger kids included putting recycling bins around schools and installing signs in parks to encourage recycling.

Older kids often cleaned streams as part of lessons on pollution. They also tackled fighting in school by setting up student courts, and they convinced city councils to put crosswalks at dangerous intersections.

“They need to run into all the obstacles: people who call them ‘goody two-shoes,’ city council members who are patronizing,” Graham says. “They need to see that the process can be tiring and difficult. They learn to work hard, persevere and be responsible by getting involved.”

In doing so, he says, “they begin to get an idea of what a real hero is and – this is very important – to differentiate between celebrities and heroes.”

Between 1992 and 2004, Giraffe says, the Heroes Project reached 225,000 youths, covering every state. Evaluations in 1995 and 1997 by University of Washington researchers, funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, found that the program helped kids distinguish between heroism and celebrity, instilled civic values and inspired children.

But no one tracked how many projects were carried out. It became clear that many teachers were having their students read and discuss the Giraffe materials, but relatively few were leading the youths through service projects.

Squeezed Out

Superb in the hands of highly motivated teachers, the curriculum was unrealistic for the average classroom, where teachers were increasingly pressured to prepare students for state tests. The federal No Child Left Behind Act, signed in 2002, significantly ratcheted up the focus on academics, especially math, science and reading.

“There does seem to be this pressure on principals to do fewer teaching and learning activities that don’t involve a specific curriculum focus or a specific test outcome that they’re looking for,” says Jim Kielsmeirer, CEO of the National Youth Leadership Council, based in St. Paul, Minn.

“The prevailing incentive structure” for schools, administrators and teachers “doesn’t favor service-learning,” says Holdsman of the Service-Learning Partnership.

Kielsmeirer and others in service-learning say that such programs are still growing in schools, but are often molded to meet schools’ academic needs. So the programs might involve a lot of math or literacy instruction, says Nelda Brown, executive director of SEANet, the network of service-learning staff in state education agencies.

The ideals of service-learning say youth should follow such instruction with ambitious projects to learn about and confront issues in their communities. “Without an action component, there is no service-learning,” Holdsman says. “There is no service-learning without addressing the real world community need, issue or problem through service or advocacy or a public information exchange.”

But community action takes too much time and raises too many logistical issues for most schools. While many projects involve analysis of societal issues, the students rarely use that analysis as a springboard for community action. Much of the nation’s service-learning is done entirely within the schools – and tends to be “tame,” as Medlock says. “Let’s do posters about litter.”
One reason is that many school-based service-learning projects are funded by Learn and Serve grants through the Corporation for National and Community Service. The corporation plans to release $43 million in such grants this year. In 2002, the corporation raised eyebrows with a memo reminding recipients that their service-learning projects could not involve political action or lobbying.

It wasn’t a new rule, only a reiteration of policy, says a corporation spokeswoman. The federal government does not want, for instance, to fund youths working on a political campaign.

Graham charges that the distinction renders service-learning and civic engagement programs toothless. Kids can create service-learning projects to pick up litter in parks, and they can tell a city council about what they learned, but they can’t lobby city or county governments to create a new park, build a playground or stop industries from polluting.

“ ‘Civic engagement’ as interpreted by this administration is a joke,” Graham says. “They’ll allow our kids to use [CNCS] funds to clean up the messes created by bad policies, not take on the policies themselves.”

Holdsman says some grant recipients have taken the restriction too far, but the corporation has failed to clarify the regulation.

Tacking, Again

With teachers by and large not carrying out Giraffe’s service-learning vision, the project was reinvented again last year. With help from a literacy expert, Giraffe re-engineered the Heroes material into a single, smaller literacy text that meets state education requirements for language arts classes at the middle grade levels. The anthology of 40 stories, Voices of Hope, is accompanied by a teacher guide/service-learning guide, in the hope that some teachers and youth workers will use it to help youths develop projects.

“We had to realize that for some, it’s [enough] simply getting the stories of these brave heroes into the classroom, getting kids to reflect on what are heroic values, teaching them to find their own heroes, weaning them from celebrities as heroes,” Graham says. “And if that’s all we did, that’s a really big plus.”

Voices of Hope is smaller, easier to use and possibly easier to sell: Rather than approach school districts, Giraffe asks local corporations and foundations to pay for distribution. Giraffe still sells some texts directly to the districts.

Giraffe is also pitching the project to out-of-school-time programs. The Girl Scouts of Southeastern Massachusetts started using Voices this year, Graham says. Among other things, Graham says, scout leaders plan to use the guide to help girls create service-learning projects.

Giraffe needs the new approach to take off. Last year “was just a terrible year financially, a real struggle,” Graham says. A few employees were laid off, leaving one full-time staff member, three part-timers and two after-school interns.

The annual budget stands at about $234,000, Graham says. At its peak several years ago, the budget was about $500,000.
The project’s funding comes about equally from private donations (Giraffe has about 1,000 donors who each give less than $1,000); Graham’s speeches; sales of bumper stickers, coffee mugs, books and curricula; and foundation grants. The grants are small: The largest is $25,000, from the Virginia Wellington Cabot Foundation, to bring Voices to Boston public schools.
But they add up. In its first nine months, the new strategy got Voices into schools in Atlanta, Seattle, Boston, San Francisco, Oakland, Calif., and Aspen, Colo.

The plan is for Voices to pay the bills and to reach more youths than the project did before. “We think this is going to work,” Graham says. “We are increasingly aware that the best places for this are underserved, at-risk areas. They don’t have a lot of choices for literacy texts; they have no glossy textbooks.”

The shift makes sense from a business point of view, says Joseph Kahne, research director of the Institute for Civic Leadership at Mills College in Oakland. “The general risk” of such moves by service-learning providers, he says, “is that we’re diminishing our ability to articulate goals beyond math, reading and science.”

Graham would agree. But the Giraffe Project survives, he says, “because, in many ways, we think of ourselves as a business.”

Ann Medlock and John Graham
Giraffe Heroes Project
Langley, Wash.
(360) 221-7989
Kenny Holdsman,
Managing Director
National Service-Learning Partnership
Philadelphia, Pa.
(215) 848-9890
James Kielsmeirer, CEO
National Youth Leadership Council
St. Paul, Minn.
(651) 631-3672

A Few Good Giraffes

Steve Mariotti of New York responded to being mugged by street toughs by deciding to teach entrepreneurship to inner-city kids. Exasperated by a school system that considered typing and filing the most appropriate business subjects, Mariotti created the nonprofit National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship (, which contracts with schools to teach kids how to start and run new businesses. Through NFTE, youths have started dozens of businesses.

Dan Bassill of Chicago volunteered to tutor kids after work, and became concerned about the need for tutors. He left his job in advertising and now runs a full-service nonprofit, Cabrini Connection (, that provides tutoring, mentoring, motivational programs, field trips to colleges and businesses, and other services.

Diane Mintz started a one-woman enrichment program for at-risk kids in the San Francisco Bay Area. The nonprofit, Youth Enrichment Strategies (, provides hundreds of kids with art activities, field trips, books and clothing.

Roosevelt Johnson of Selma Ala., who as a high school student founded the local chapter of 21st Century Leadership, enlisted gang leaders to help confront and defuse racism, and pressured landlords to improve poor housing. Now an adult, he has also led evening study groups and voter registration drives and worked on anti-hunger campaigns.

Steve Cozza of Petaluma, Calif., decided at age 12 to earn his merit badge for citizenship by challenging the Boy Scouts of America’s policy of banning gay members. Cozza, who is straight, argued that the ban amounts to discrimination that makes the organization the “Boy Scouts of Part of America.” He organized Scouting for All (, which campaigns against the policy.



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