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Today we’d like to introduce you to Russell Degnan.
Russell Degnan is a passionate change maker who has followed in the footsteps of his father (Bill Degnan) who founded Operation New Hope (ONH) 1981. In 1996, he would begin his career journey as a group counselor assigned to ONH’s contract with Riverside County’s Probation Department and Los Angeles County Juvenile Parole. In 2001 Russell earned his California Drugs and Alcohol Certificate at San Bernardino Valley College. Throughout the turn of the 2000’s Russell gained a wealth of experience and knowledge managing contracts and grants working alongside the Executive Director at the San Gabriel Conservation Corps, sitting on Watts Gangs and Drugs Taskforce Board, Riversides Parks and Recreation Youth Steering Committee, and as appointee on San Bernardino/Riverside Counties Catholic Dioceses Youth Advisory Board. Russell stepped into ONH’s Executive Director role in 2009; his goal was to develop and implement a Youth Opportunity Center to provide meaningful life skill resources for disadvantaged youth. Increase the success rate of those classified as “dropouts” throughout San Bernardino County by providing ONH’s Evidence Based Practice of case management, educational opportunities, life skills, and career pathway programs. With these supportive services, he was confident that ONH could provide the necessary resources to assist San Bernardino County in achieving success with the youth he dedicated his career, those often referred to as “at-risk”. Foster Youth, Teen Parents, Homeless, Mental Health, and those experiencing the Judicial System.
In 2010, Russell would successfully develop a relationship and critical funding from the San Bernardino County Workforce Investment Board through the Workforce Investment Act (WIA). The funding kicked started the development of ONH’s Youth Opportunity Center’s. One of the first steps in the implementation process ONH would enter into a meaningful partnership with Learn4Life Charter Concepts and John Muir Charter Schools. The partnership with the Schools provides ONH students with a high school education that is tailored to the student’s needs, and most importantly providing aged out youth the opportunity to complete their high school diploma (ages 18 – 24). ONH provides students with small class sizes and a family-like atmosphere that teaches the importance of life, job and leadership skills. Russell explained, “It is crucial for students to receive their high school diploma. Having their diploma allows them to gain employment or enroll in a secondary institution. We provide our students with soft skill sets that make them attractive to potential employers, they receive training on job readiness, financial literacy, leadership, anger management, substance abuse, and everything in between.” To help make their students even more competitive in the job market, Russell would lead his team in developing worksite partnership with employers, so ONH students can have the opportunity to complete a three-month internship with an array of workforce sector. “Each element of ourprogram is critical to building healthy young men and women,” Degnan said.
At the beginning of the year (2016), ONH saw an additional growth. Russell Degnan moved from executive director to chief operating officer, which gave him the freedom and ability to attend workshops and promote Operation New Hope in the community. “Operation New Hope seeks to be the premier youth opportunity center in the Inland Empire,” Russell Degnan explained. “The high school dropout rate is a huge epidemic across the nation. Our goal is to be a positive solution for our youth, our communities and the taxpayers.” In the next ten years, Team ONH envisions youth opportunity centers in other communities, particularly in communities with the at-risk youth. In addition to their youth opportunity centers, Operation New Hope’s evidence-based trauma-informed life skills curriculum are currently being used in Soledad and Salinas Valley State Prison (California Department of Correction and Rehabilitation), juvenile facilities throughout the Country, group homes, transitional living homes and church outreach programs. Russell credits the success of his father’s program to ONH’s values. “Our success is built on our belief that lives must be built on healthy relationships,” Russell explains.
Although ONH continues to expand to meet the growing demand, the program’s growth is limited due to financial constraints. The programs ONH offers are part of reimburse contracts, which can create cash flow problems. Operation New Hope’s Board of Directors has made it their personal mission to build a solid cash reserve to alleviate the burden of waiting on reimbursements from a number of government agencies. Operation New Hope currently employs ten and serves over 150 students daily. Since 2010, 436 students have successfully graduated with their High School Diploma and 4867 students have successfully completed their Career Pathway Program which 93% are employed and or enrolled in to post-secondary education. Currently, ONH’s high school has 65 students enrolled and the Workforce Program has 110 students. All students range in age from 16 to 25. Ultimately Russell’s passion is to provide underserved youth who have been expected to be the failures in society a place where they experience genuine love, hope, and opportunities to succeed in life. Weekly you will find him in the community encouraging youth, actively engaging community leaders, and or developing community partnerships to help empower his beloved students he has devoted his entire life to serve. Russell is one of the most loyal and sincere voices for our under-served youth.
Alright, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
The process has been quite a journey, consistently learning and growing through each step of the way. I often share ONH was developed out of the love of helping and providing those in need with opportunities to succeed in life. My education was in the Human Service schools, not in the Business schools. Growing a business to expand our outreach has been challenging. I have been extremely fortunate to have an amazing support system with our County, City, and School District partnerships. They have provided and sent me to non-profit management workshops to increase my knowledge in business management, grant writing, fundraising, board development, and an array of other crucial business classes. The constant challenge is securing funding to ensure our youth are provided with the necessary resources they need to succeed. I am encouraged with my professional growth within fund-developing these past five years; I am excited to continue to put in practice what I have learned from these business classes our government partnerships have provided. I do not view the process as a struggle but opportunities to learn, grow, and become a better leader.
Thanks – so what else should our readers know about your work and what you’re currently focused on?
Working with Operation New Hope since 1996, I have developed my work experience at every level. Wearing every hat in the human service and community-based organization sector from volunteer, receptionist, janitor, mentor, tutor, group counselor, case manager, program manager, and today CEO. 2009 ONH’s budget had three contracts valuing $80,000 per year, life skills workshops was our sole resource. At this time ONH had two employees. Today ONH budgets exceed $500,000. We are a key-stake holder in the communities we serve, providing an evidence-based trauma-informed youth opportunity center. I have gained extensive knowledge how to build strong collaborative teams across State/County/City Departments. It humbles when I have my peers and county leadership refer to me as one of the leaders in truly collaborating.
During my professional development, I have focused on the value of strategic planning to identify and attain program goals. I believe strategic planning is instrumental to ensure that our doors do not close and leave a void for the families and youth who depend on our resources. Program management; I excel in leveraging existing programs and grants to procure new grant funding. Success in overseeing contracts with local government has provided me with the essential experience and understanding into proposal writing, contract compliance, and monitoring of grant-funded programs. Public affairs strategies I have exceled in building and maintaining collaborations with community-based organization, fostering imperative relationships with elected officials and their staff at all levels of government. My peers have often referred to me as a “people person” and “consensus builder” who can work with people effectively on all levels.
What does success mean to you?
Success is the ability to have what I refer to as the 3 H’s working together. Our Head, Hands, and Heart; everyone has the thoughts to be successful. The question is, will you have the passion and desire to put in the daily work when the Head says, “I can’t”, and not everyone has the Heart to bounce back and look in the mirror when failure hits the Head and the Hands.
Those who have the desire to learn from mistakes, tough times, and bounce back have the secret ingredient that I like to call Grit. Those who possess Grit find a way to keep the 3 H’s in sync to keep moving forward to achieve what their Head and Heart desire – SUCCESS.
- All our services and resources are free to our youth and families