For David Voegele, every issue is a youth issue.
Rightly so, as Voegele is the new executive director of Essex CHIPS, the Essex Jct.-based nonprofit that’s aimed to “inspire youth and build healthy communities” for the last 30 years.
That’s roughly how long Voegele’s been in the business, too. A Danbury, Conn. native, he got his start in social services as a volunteer at a childcare center, a position that led to a paid job there, a youth worker position at another organization and, eventually, his first executive directorship in his late 20s.
Fast forward to last Friday, where Voegele recounted his first month on the job at CHIPS from a bright meeting room above the village offices where the nonprofit enjoys rent-free space.
“That’s an enormous in-kind contribution,” Voegele said, noting CHIPS’ $250,000 annual budget is the smallest of any org he’s ever worked for; the last two each had $1.5 million yearly budgets. “It’s just a really wonderful community that values youth as much as they do.”
When he applied for the job, vacated by former director Diana Ferguson, Voegele admittedly knew little about the community where he’d soon be immersed. Drawn by the nonprofit’s status as a youth agency with growth potential and itching to move to Vermont, where he vacationed every year, he officially started as executive director June 5.
Voegele endured a hiring process that included no less than four separate interviews, meeting with a search committee and the organization’s board of directors before earning his spot at the helm.
Right away, Voegele was impressed with the concentration of youth leading the nonprofit – including the board president – an indication the organization “has embraced not just youth input, but youth engagement and youth control,” he said. “It’s very unusual.”
That’s something he tried to implement in previous roles in Massachusetts but faced resistance from leaders there, he said.
Voegele comes to CHIPS by way of
Albany, N.Y., where he served as executive directory of the Early Care and Learning Council for the past four years. Before that, he led DIAL/SELF Youth and Community Services in Greenfield, Mass. for 12 years.
It was a few years into Voegele’s work at DIAL/SELF when his understanding of the need for it crystallized. That agency contracted with the federal government for runaway and homeless youth funding, a specific category of programming targeting “at-risk youth” – a term Voegele said some shied away from using due to its stigma.
“I’ve come to believe the reality is all kids are at-risk youth,” he said.
He realized he could help kids recover from crisis, but the impact was lessened by “so much damage that had already occurred in their lives,” he said. “It became clear to me that we needed to be reaching youth at a younger age.”
CHIPS programs like mentoring, after school drop-in teen and tween centers and “adventure orientation” courses for incoming high school freshmen are meant to help kids navigate the sometimes perilous transition from adolescence to adulthood.
“The more work that the community engages in to promote positive youth development, the more youth are going to be productive residents of the community, who are going to be the leaders of the community 20 years from now,” Voegele said.
He offered an example from his time in Massachusetts, where a former AmeriCorps member became the mayor of Holyoke at age 24.
“The work that engages and promotes youth at this really critical point in their lives can be profound in its impact on their lives, but also on the community that they want to serve,” Voegele added.
He’s quick to address a common misconception that youth programs center solely on recreation or prevention. While those are key components of the agency’s work – and justifiably so, as keeping kids healthy and insusceptible to the lure of drugs and alcohol are lofty goals – they’re also but a piece of the puzzle.
“We can’t just be focused on stopping them from doing a particular behavior, but rather to help them make the decision themselves that these behaviors are not what they want in their lives,” he said.
To empower youth, advocates must also consider “virtually everything” to be youth-related issues, from global warming to economic development. After all, Voegele said, it’s young people who will inherit the planet and currently face the highest unemployment rates.
Voegele sees CHIPS as a conduit between the several hundred adolescents it serves and the resources they need to thrive. He also hopes other community organizations will turn to CHIPS for assistance with youth-related concerns.
While he acknowledges the agency’s effectiveness thus far, Voegele has also identified room for improvement, aiming to develop a larger statewide presence.
Right now, though, his ideas for new programming and fundraising are “top secret” until the board undertakes its strategic visioning process this summer. Still, he does plan to expand volunteer recruitment, particularly for help with social media, fundraising and community engagement.
“Volunteers are the lifeblood of a community,” he said.
Like other nonprofits of similar ilk, CHIPS is feeling pressure, bracing for potentially devastating federal budget cuts that translate to fewer state agency dollars for local distribution.
“Major cutbacks in education and social services will impact what we’re able to do,” Voegele said. He questioned the logic behind targeting community service-based programs like AmeriCorps, which are traditionally viewed as low-cost and high-impact, for cuts.
“The threat is out there, but we really can’t focus on it. We need to be focused on what can we do if resources are less, what’s our Plan B to still do a good job but with less resources?” Voegele said. “I think we have a very clear sense that we want to do more, and we want to do better.”