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Meet Karen Ogden of SOLE Effects in North County

Today we’d like to introduce you to Karen Ogden.

Karen, can you briefly walk us through your story – how you started and how you got to where you are today.
The story of how SOLE Effects came to fruition can quickly turn a 30-minute lunch, walk or phone call into three hours. This is because, this story is not only close to me, it’s a part of me. However, since this is in print, and not over an iced tea, I will try to be concise.

Building this organization has been a combination of my own life experiences, and what I witnessed and grew passionate about through a career in teaching. As an upper elementary teacher, I became increasingly aware of the lack of space and time devoted to social and emotional issues that students faced. I cannot tell you how many times girls would come in from recess after dealing with drama, many of them crying, and it was time for math. Although nearly every minute of classroom time was accounted for, focusing on academic standards, I could no longer ignore this “silent violence” that was impacting learning.

Opening my classroom on Fridays at lunch allowed girls to congregate in a positive environment, escaping this toxic social climate. Over the course of several years, these lunchtime gatherings grew to 90 fourth & fifth grade girls who named their group G-Pact, standing for girls making pacts to be positive influences, and support systems for each other. Parent volunteers stepped up to facilitate groups in three separate classrooms and I continued to pour in the time and resources I could while still teaching.

Word spread to the middle school next door, and soon former students of mine were hanging out in my class now after school. With social media magnifying their issues, I realized their problems they were talking about were much more serious, significantly impacting their emotional health. In watching the natural growth and progression of this group, it was becoming apparent there was an incredible need for all girls to understand each other’s stories, to be heard, and to feel safe.

Realizing how formative these middle school years were, I started to familiarize myself more with the climate these students were headed to in high school, a time of heightened social complexity and pressure. I had been aware of several suicides at our local high school, which prompted our district’s principals and faith leaders to come together to support families of our youth. These caring leaders began to hold parent forums which today is known as “What I Wish My Parents Knew”. For years, impactful workshops have given parents a better understanding of the pressures their kids are facing and how to provide support. While this team was addressing high schoolers’ most pressing needs, it became abundantly clear to me that my role and my passion was to focus on prevention. How DID our kids get to this point of hopelessness? It was then that I knew I needed to retire, 3 years earlier than planned, to invest in this work full-time.

From spending my days, the classroom to now attending workshops, conferences, committees, and investing in research, I was absorbing all that I could. Soon I was joined by many others, equally devoted to improving the lives of our young people. Together, for 3 years, we held focus groups outside of school with 7th-12th grade students to identify our youth’s key issues and pressures. Simultaneously, a former school psychologist and several retired teaching friends of mine joined me in leading girls’ groups at the local middle school during lunchtime. Sierra McCullough, an amazing high school senior was also on our team, and it immediately was apparent that these girls were able to relate to Sierra in a way they couldn’t with “old us”! Traci Barker-Ball, a highly respected counselor at our local high school, encouraged more students to join us and soon they put together an all-girls’ assembly: SOLE Talk: Stop the Cyberbullying Virus. Jackie Foster and Phyllis Gitobu, Senior Ambassadors, were in the “talk show” sharing their personal stories of their experiences with relational aggression, and there wasn’t a dry eye in the gymnasium. It became crystal clear that older mentors telling their stories of struggle to victory was the answer.

After contacting a friend and professor at a local college, we visited the campus and promoted the opportunity to serve as a mentor, to college students. After conducting interviews, we soon had our first official group of college mentors working with 6th-8th grade girls. It was then that we started to see the impact that mentoring was having, not only on these girls, but on the college students as well. Us “old people” became advisors to the college students, creating a trickle-down mentorship model and witnessing the change happening in the teens, college students, and also ourselves.

SOLE Effects started as a program to address the needs and issues young girls are facing, but we were acutely aware that there is a need with boys as well as girls. Moving towards a structure that accommodated boys was uncharted territory. (We discovered there are very few organizations out there for boys). To be honest, we were nervous. How could we effectively meet their needs which were, in my experience, incredibly different from the issues young girls faced? With the leadership and commitment of an incredibly strong dad of one of our middle school students, Brad Holliday, we took on the challenge and began to launch groups and mentorship programs for boys. As group leaders, we laughed about the fact that we needed to increase our liability insurance because now we were dealing with boys and backflips.

We are now into our 4th year, our final year of piloting, of our 8-session “SWITCH Expedition” program. In just a few weeks, we will begin our 2018 adventure, impacting 200 7th & 8th graders and for the first time, taking on 9th graders where 150 students will be served. This next week, our 24 college-age interns will receive intense training involving what IS a teen, personal reflecting, how to present our own stories of struggle to victory, facilitating group discussions, and implementation of our SWITCH program. It will be a highly interactive and energetic day of team bonding, role-playing experiences, internalizing concepts, and FUN!

We’re always bombarded by how great it is to pursue your passion, etc. – but we’ve spoken with enough people to know that it’s not always easy. Overall, would you say things have been easy for you?
Brene Brown says, “If you aren’t in the arena also getting your ass kicked, I’m not interested in your feedback.” Brene, an expert on vulnerability, authenticity, and courage, is my absolute greatest role model. For these past years, our “arena” has been a series of “science experiments” where our team has been hands-on with teens and college interns. We’ve taken the messiness of how our society and media is wreaking havoc on teens’ social and emotional issues and figured out the greatest strategies to solve these complex problems. So, what in our arena would NOT be challenging? We finally feel we’re “out of the woods” with this important work we’ve invested in our programming, and now we consider the outcome of our experimentations our greatest success!

Also, a huge challenge, has been learning, understanding, and launching ourselves into the world of business. As educators, we’re so used to giving everything away, expecting nothing but the “good feelings” we get by making a difference. I soon learned that it was easy to be pulled in a million different directions to do “good”, but if I wasn’t going to focus most of my time and energy on OUR mission, then we’d never achieve success. This doesn’t mean that I don’t give anymore, but I’ve learned through Adam Grant’s book, “Give and Take”, that still giving more than taking is best, but there’s definitely a time and a place for both. I will never forget our entrepreneurial friend’s advice, “Your success is what you will say no to”. Best advice ever.

The first two years of our non-profit was tough financially. We didn’t receive a large grant we applied for because they wanted to see history of our work and data proving that we’ve achieved success, but it was still too early to have much to show. I now see why 85% of non-profits go under within the first 5 years. However, we’ve been fortunate to have received funds from a few very generous individual donors and also secured grants from seven out of eight of those we applied. Our top donors have been 4S Ranch-Del Sur Community Foundation and RB Sunrise Rotary, and we could never be where we are today without their support. We’ve avoided many financial obstacles because we’ve listened hard to top business people, and we’ve acted on their advice.

Our biggest challenge we will be facing will be creating a financial model that will allow us to be sustainable. Recently, we formed our first 5-year business planning team of 14 professionals from different fields. When I boldly invited some individuals that are highly respected from Cal State San Marcos to our first meeting, I was shocked when they showed! Giving us one of their Saturdays made us realize that they really believed in our work! Dr. Alan Omens, Business Professor Emeritus is now one of our key consultants. Dr. Shannon Nolan, Coordinator of Student Life and Leadership, is working with us on how we can most effectively streamline our college recruiting process with top-notch leadership training. Also, on our team is SOLE’s board, including an attorney, a highly successful business owner, and retired counselors and educators.

Lastly, what has saved us financially is that we have so many generous family members and friends who’ve donated their time and talents! Our own daughters, Kelsey and Kory, have provided great insight in many different areas, but especially how to effectively meet the needs of our college interns. My parents and brother have always given us their time brainstorming and working on projects. Dan Weeks, Entrepreneur in Residence at Cal Poly SLO, has been by our side from the start. Tim Prass is brilliantly spearheading our business team. Deanna Bernsen, former school psychologist, has been hands-on working tirelessly with us for 4 years. With my ADD and often crazy ideas, Deanna has been the backbone in project completions with her direct, yet polite, manner in not allowing me to bird-walk! Also, so many friends are serving as advisors to our mentors, volunteering at fundraising events, and the list goes on! Between having clear “next business steps”, along with having such great people on board, we’re now moving forward more quickly than ever! I do believe what keeps our volunteers coming back is the fact that they’re witnessing lives changed, but also that we’re always having fun!

So, let’s switch gears a bit and go into the SOLE Effects story. Tell us more about the business.
Observing first-hand the growing social and emotional challenges students today are facing, we are team of educators committed to bring hope to our youth, their families, schools, and our communities. Anxiety and depression is at all all-time high in our country. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for youth ages 10-24. Our current generation of teens is exposed to more media than any other generation. This media exposure is creating greater isolation, self-absorption, less exercise and unstructured technology-free play, less sunshine, increased wasted time, and greater access to prescription and illegal drugs. With absorption into this virtual world, there is less time with real life connections with family, friends, and community. As a result, our teens’ emotional and physical health, academic achievement, future opportunities, and our communities are jeopardized.

SOLE Effects became a non-profit in January 2015. Along with our amazing community partnerships, we are on a mission to lead and mentor college-age students to influence and guide teens through our SWITCH Expedition. “SWITCH” is a highly impactful 8-session program implemented as part of a school’s curriculum. Ensuring that each session is relevant to today’s issues while utilizing best practices, it has been created through intense research, collaboration with high school focus groups and college leaders, and tested for 4 years. Together, we’ve worked years to develop rich content that is highly relevant to today’s teens with our topics which include: Passion/Purpose, Teamwork, Empathy, Stress Control, Direct Communication, Mind & Body, Healthy Relationships, and Leadership. Woven throughout each lesson is “Navigating Our Digital Lives”. While instilling our 8 “SWITCH Steps” in all students, our mission is to simultaneously prevent depression/anxiety, self-harm, addiction, bullying, violence, and suicide. Students becoming strong leaders can therefore reach their fullest potential, leading fulfilled lives, while changing our communities.

Learn more about our work:

Our Specialty:
“Leadership is communicating to people their worth and potential so clearly that they come to see it in themselves.” ~ Steven Covey Our specialty is just this ~ we work to understand others so we can bring out their gifts, character qualities and talents, that they don’t even know they possess, to use to influence others.

We have countless stories of former interns making “self-discoveries” while working with us. Grace changed her criminology major to becoming a high school counselor because she realized how effective she was working with teens. For the third year leading one of our teams of 14 mentors, Tiana is back because she sees the significant personal self-growth she makes every year. Philip, first-generation male graduate said “I never dreamed I would see myself as a leader. I am now so strong that I feel like I can do anything I set my mind to.” I’ll never forget Philip’s smile while we heard these words.

Also, numerous, are opportunities that have opened up for our interns while working with us. Forrest wrote, “…because of this, subsequent to my time with Sole Effects, I began forming student-run organizations on campus that focused on social issues. I would not have been able to help others, nor realize my potential as a leader without SOLE Effects.” Forrest graduated from Palomar College and went on to Berkeley. Kelsey worked with us in the fall and made a highly impactful video for our program on her story about her sexual assault experience to her healing; a professor in the CSUSM graduate department told me that Kelsey’s application stood out from the others because of working with us as a mentor and was accepted into the graduate department. Jonathan shared, “While volunteering with SOLE Effects, I also was applying for colleges to finish my degree. I got accepted into NYU’s undergraduate program at Stern School of Business, the number 2 school in the nation for my degree in Finance! I have always been a strong student, yet NYU had initially rejected my application the year before. I am a firm believer that volunteering with SOLE Effects played a role in my acceptance there”. Forrest, Kelsey, and Jonathan are 3 of many students who did not receive internship hours for a course or a stipend from us. However, they joined our team seeing how this volunteer experience could change their futures, which obviously, it did.
More life-changing stories found:

What We’re Known For:
We believe it’s PEOPLE, not programs that change lives. What we are known for is that we invest our hearts and souls in our PEOPLE, as this is our greatest asset. Our team of experienced professionals (educators, psychologists, etc.), our advisors, develop leadership and mentoring skills in college-age students who then serve as influential role models, equipping 7th-9th grade students in our 8-session SWITCH Expedition with strong interpersonal and life skills so we ALL can reach our fullest potential in life. Our “mentoring-down” model is what we’re about ~ older adults are changing the lives of younger adults who are changing the lives of teens.

SOLE Effects emphasizes avoiding the question often asked of teens, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” (Heck, I don’t even know what I want to do when I “grow up”!) Instead, we ask, “What do you love doing, and how are you using that today to influence others?” Not only does our question reduce their stress, it brings greater joy and tells them they have a purpose for their lives TODAY. Society tells our kids that they need to have life all figured out at that magical age of 18 when they graduate from high school! Adding to their pressure is the unreasonable and unhealthy college admission process for students and parents alike. Our interns share their stories of different paths they took after high school to find their own personal success.

What We’re Most Proud of As a Company:
What we’re most proud as an organization is that we have TRUSTED our hundreds of high school and college leaders who’ve been a part of creating our SWITCH Expedition and have a hand in the business side of our non-profit. We believe ALL students can be leaders, extroverts and introverts alike! Each one of these student leaders could tell you they had a voice in what it is today! Just because my husband and I have had 65 years combined experience in education, does NOT qualify us to effectively reach teenagers like our mentor’s can ~ we TRUST that THEY can do a much better job in changing lives. It’s not about having credentials or knowledge or even years of experience, but it’s all about what we’ve equipped them with and how these teens RELATE to their mentors. If you want to sell drugs, alcohol, or leadership to a teen, introduce them to a college student!

We’re also proud that whatever we ask our college mentors to do, we make sure we experience it ourselves. If we encourage them to try something new so that they can model risk-taking to those they’re mentoring, then WE need to take risks. For example, since we started SOLE Effects, my husband and I learned how to row and play pickleball, so we can honestly say we’re trying new things, and always laughing at ourselves! We ask them to set personal goals, and we do the same, as we’re never done growing. If we encourage them to share their stories of struggles and how they overcame them we do too! At our training, I share about my struggles as a teen with an eating disorder and ADD. My husband shares about the humiliation he experienced as an obese teenager in the locker room when he had to dress out for PE, motivating him to lose weight. We both share about our anxiety and depression we’ve experienced. Brine Brown states, “Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity, and change.” Our transparency is ultimately what is creating the greatest change in the lives of our mentors and the teens they’re influencing.

Well, I guess we’re proud of a lot. One more thing… we highly encourage EVERYONE to take risks and make mistakes! We always say, “If you’re not making mistakes, you’re not growing as a person or making a difference in the world!” As a teacher for 29 years, I’ve had many amazing bosses, but also some who couldn’t let go of control, of micromanaging, and were “leading” out of fear. It was because of one strong leader of mine that said, “I want to come into each of your classrooms and see something completely different, something I’ve never seen before, I WANT TO SEE YOU MAKE MISTAKES!” These words changed me. It gave me the freedom to start trusting my students more, to let them earn leadership roles in my classroom. I began to have one of the loudest (I called it “healthy chaos”) classrooms. Since 90% of concepts are remembered in active learning “explaining while doing”, whereas in passive learning “listening to a lecture” only 20% is remembered, it made sense. When I truly started giving students a voice, it led me to totally abandon the mentality that teachers have all the answers! I learned to be a great facilitator and encourager of my students. Mine was the first third grade class in our district to effectively implement 1-to-1 iPads; this was only because I was able to finally let go and trust, allowing them to earn more freedom to direct their learning. It was then that I began to realize I was effective at developing leadership skills in students and took on the role as leading our Student Council. In my classrooms growing up, the “good kids” were considered the quiet ones. As a deathly shy child, myself and an extreme people pleaser, I wanted to be a “good kid”, so I never talked. I also saw talking as taking a risk, risking being wrong, of being humiliated in front of others. When teachers take great pride in having the quietest classrooms, I realize they probably don’t think about themselves sitting quietly in a chair all day; in fact, these are usually the teachers who can’t sit still and shut up in staff meetings!) Both outgoing and quiet children and adults need to express themselves as well as listen to other personalities and perspectives to truly learn; THIS is preparing 21st century learners for the work force! Okay…. I am bird-walking here, again…lol

What Sets Us Apart from Others?
SOLE Effects sponsored a CSUSM Senior Experience Business Team to conduct a comparison analysis to see how our SWITCH Expedition matches up to other programs locally and across the country. The results indicated that “No other schools have a cross-age peer mentorship program like SWITCH. When looking at what constitutes an effective cross-age peer mentorship program as defined by Michael Garringer and Patti MacRae (2008), SOLE Effects has excelled in creating a program that will last and most effectively benefit participants of the program.”

As retired educators who understand the demands constantly being placed upon teachers, our SWITCH Expedition program takes work OFF teachers’ plates which is a foreign concept! While teaching, I remember being asked to attend workshops, come back and train the staff on what I learned, and then implement these with our students. Already way overloaded with lesson preparation, as well as every second of the teaching day accounted for, adding “one more thing” was humanly impossible to effectively implement in their “purest” forms. With our SWITCH Expedition, we bring in our energetic team “ready to deliver” giving 100% to our work, so teachers not only actually get a break from preparation and teaching, but they’re provided with student support!

Also, what sets us apart is that our program has clearly-defined objectives; these have been created based on the latest research. One of the psychologists we work with told us, “You are not afraid to tackle the tough topics, and your sessions are very action-based with very clear goals.” Measuring the effectiveness of leadership programs is not an easy task, but we are investing a lot of time and effort in this process. Developing a plan with an exceptional program evaluation specialist, soon we will have a measurement tool that will provide hard data based upon our objectives. To achieve these objectives, we have developed very clear steps that students quickly become familiar with and grow to absolutely LOVE! Students internalize these concepts through their involvement with team and personal goal accountability, highly engaging presentations, personal stories from the mentors, relevant videos, objectives stated in “teen language”, small group discussions with goal setting, and hands-on activities. All learning modalities (i.e., visual, auditory, tactile, and kinesthetic) are utilized throughout each session. VERY rarely are there behavioral issues in our sessions, as our highly energetic mentors keep students moving and engaged; when the students realize how much their mentors genuinely care about them, students quickly want to earn the respect of their mentors that they receive from them.

Has luck played a meaningful role in your life and business?
What role has luck (good luck or bad luck) played in your life and business?
Luck. That’s an interesting thought. I do believe my husband and I have had a lot of great opportunities because of our dedication to educating our youth for a total of 65 years combined. It’s not easy to get into schools with a program, but because of the trust we’ve built in the education world, doors have opened. I guess a great deal of our success has to do with being in the right place at the right time with open-minded individuals. Kelly Burke, the principal at the middle school has not only allowed us to pilot our SWITCH program for these past years but has been a huge encourager. This year we have the support of two highly respected leaders, Principal Greg Mizel and PE Teacher, Dorra Duensing, allowing us to pilot our 9th grade SWITCH Expedition. Kelly, Greg, and Dorra are forward thinkers, always seeking ways to make a difference in the lives of their students. We certainly have had some luck early on, but it’s what each and every individual we’ve met along our journey and have invested in our mission that has brought success. It’s true, it’s PEOPLE, not programs that change lives.

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