Sharing life’s lessons with the next generation
By Clay Whittaker
Ginny Deerin is awfully bubbly for someone who has just left a decade-and-a-half-long tenure in her own nonprofit. But if you talk to the Founder and former CEO of WINGS--an afterschool program meant to teach children social and emotional skills to make them happier and more successful later in life--it sounds less like a goodbye, and more like a graduation.
“It’ll give me a chance to do something totally different—at least totally different from the last 16 years.”
The business-minded 60-year-old knows how to get results, and that’s how she ran WINGS. But why? It started elsewhere, at the beginning of another career. Deerin started in politics out of college, then got into marketing and eventually fundraising. She had a productive career, but the years of helping other people achieve their dreams began to weigh heavily on her. Deerin began to see psychologists and psychiatrists to try and learn more about why she was feeling adrift.
“I began to walk out of there thinking ‘wow that’s really important. I wonder why I never learned that earlier in my life.”
Over those subsequent months, Deerin compiled her thoughts, and began attending conventions. She recalls one speech given at a women’s leadership conference where things began to click. “She said, ‘The birdcage door is open…but if you can’t see yourself flying out of that birdcage you’re not going to fly at all.’”
Deerin realized that all of these things she learned later in life needed to be shared with children.
WINGS was born immediately thereafter. “It was just me and my personal experience of realizing that I had not learned some things that if I had learned earlier would have made a big difference in my life.”
“I was going to dedicate my life to doing that. And I wrote the vision of wings that night.”
For the first time she saw her path as her own. She had a clear idea of what to do. “What I’m devoting my life to is helping kids develop emotional intelligence.”
Deerin came to her first challenge early in the process. “In the very early days of WINGS, I didn’t know how hard it is to teach these things in a way that really sticks.”
As she consulted experts to design the curriculum, she realized her best options were to appeal to children through enjoyable afterschool activities. “It’s almost like you don’t want them to be aware of what you’re teaching them,” she says, explaining that learning concentration on a basketball court disguises the overall lesson as something fun. “The artfulness of our curriculum…. is weaving it into stuff they like to do.”
Over the next 16 years, Deerin met challenging fundraising goals without compromising on her own personal goals., or the goals of her program. And that is quite impressive, considering the amount of time and resources that they need in order to change the kids’ habits and actions for the long term. Their research suggests that WINGS takes a minimum of 500 hours over two years to make these things ‘stick’ with the kids. This makes the program time and money intensive. Deerin knows, and has known, that many less-costly programs exist, but she stuck to her plans. “We made a decision pretty early on that we wanted to be as big as we could be as long as we were having impact.”
And it has paid off. Over the years WINGS has grown from a one-week summer camp to an after-school program reaching far more children. And never once did Deerin or her WINGS counterparts stray from their goal. She says that’s no easy task for nonprofits. “In nonprofits I think people are vulnerable to being enticed into losing their flight pattern because money’s so hard to come by.”
But nearly two decades later, they’ve continued to meet those challenges. And the result has been positive not only for the kids, but for Deerin and all her participants as well.
After 16 years she’s dealt with those topics every day. Deerin explains, “You can’t be around WINGS and not begin to appreciate how important these skills are.”
And as Deerin makes her transition from WINGS back into the political arena, she says those traits will make her better at that job too.
“My skills in running a campaign are significantly better. I’m better at doing it than I would have been 15 years ago. But the thing is, I’m better at doing anything than I was 15 years ago. There are few things that you can do that having stronger social and emotional skills wouldn’t make you do better.”
Deerin knows these rules inside and out, and she knows how they apply beyond childhood. “It makes for a better campaign organization. Campaigns are all about communication and empathy and being able to really manage your emotions. You have to be able to be a good listener.”
Deerin realizes these lessons go beyond breeding more happy and successful children. They’re lessons that everyone can benefit from, at any age and in any situation. “You are self-aware enough and know how to manage your emotions well enough to sit down and pitch something.”
The word Deerin eventually gets to is confidence. For Deerin, that comes from learning to be honest with yourself. “I think part of being confident comes from a self-awareness of what your strengths are. I think part of confidence is a willingness to put who you are and what your skills are out there in an enthusiastic way. And the root of that is strong social and emotional skills.”
And she ends this explanation with a challenge to all comers regardless of age. These things can change your life, she explains, whether you’re young or old, just finding out who you are or trying to be better late in life. “And you know what?” she explains, “The thing is, it’s never too late. The parts of your brain that have to do with social and emotional skills are very malleable.”
For a woman guided by her desire to share her hard-earned lessons with the next generation, Deerin should find comfort in the success she’s had with her own children.
Her son Conley, 31, is a graduate of Harvard. He was born much before the lessons shared with WINGS had been learned. Deerin says when her daughter was born a decade later, those things had a greater impact. “I was a good mother to my son, I think I was a great mother to my daughter. Lucy is a WINGS girl. My parenting is so much stronger.”
Lucy, now 22 and finishing college at UGA, is studying finance. Asked about whether or not her daughter might follow in her footsteps, Deerin says “You know, it’s funny. In some questionnaire she answered, she talked about the possibility that maybe later in her life, she could envision herself being head of a nonprofit.”
They say imitation is the highest form of flattery; for a woman who has spent the last two decades trying to reach children the best reward might be seeing her own want to follow in her footsteps someday.