Spring is the busiest time of year for Derrin Slack. In April, he managed 21 service projects.
The executive director of ProAct, an Indianapolis nonprofit, works with kids ages 10 to 18 to connect them with community projects so the youth gain skills and confidence while the community benefits from their work.
Seven years ago, when Slack was 22, he founded the organization, and he’s been steadily building it since. It now employs a director of social engagement and several site leaders and interns.
Youth workers like Slack are deeply committed to a mission, but focusing strongly on the needs of others can often leave youth workers themselves unsustained.
“As a youth worker, we get so caught up in other people’s problems that we forget our own [needs],” he said.
Last year, however, Slack took time to attend four three-day retreats that support youth workers’ professional development and help them renew and recharge.
The retreats are led by The Journey, an Indiana nonprofit that supports the renewal and professionalization of youth workers, which also created Thank a Youth Worker Day in 2009. The day is celebrated internationally on May 11 this year.
Through the gatherings, Slack shared his experiences with a broad range of people in the field, including attorneys who advocate for youth.
“It was time to be around like-minded individuals who understand how youth work is,” he said. “It was time to step back to remind myself why I do what I do.”
Youth workers can sometimes feel alone, Slack said. Other people doing different work may not understand.
“The biggest takeaway [from the retreats],” Slack said, “is that It’s OK to take the time out for myself.”
When Slack needs to wind down, he writes in a journal, reads for pleasure or catches up with friends.
But he said he has also changed the culture of his organization.
ProAct encourages its staff to attend conferences and to take time for self-renewal — to focus on a personal goal, spend time with family or simply rest, he said.
The organization now includes a strengths-finder assessment when staff come on board and a process for certification through the Child and Youth Care Certification Institute.
The inspiration for ProAct
The idea for ProAct was born when Slack was a college student. Along with 19 other football players at Wabash College, he took part in a mission trip to Botswana.
“It ignited a fire in me,” he said.
He said he realized then that every person has something of value that can help others.
But he didn’t see any organizations that were connecting disadvantaged youth to others in order to build the kids’ character and self-esteem through community service.
He developed ProAct as an out-of-school-time program giving youth the opportunity to build and support the community.
In ProAct’s after-school and Saturday programs, kids learn how to plan events, handle logistics and gather information. They learn about communities outside of their own and gain understanding of the issues in different neighborhoods.
Young people are not the recipient of community service, but creators and performers of it, according to ProAct.
They become more informed, reflective and intentional, according to the organization.
They build confidence and self-esteem, Slack said.
And the youth workers who support them should also find support through ProAct to develop professionally and personally, Slack believes.