LA PLATA, Md.—Harriet Yaffe was sure that she wanted a career as a vocalist and as a freshman at the University of Maryland College Park she majored in music. The Southern Maryland community is fortunate, however, that she chose to use her voice in another vocation; in voicing support and helping communities by creating and directing nonprofit organizations.
Yaffe's career spanned 40 years and after a brief retirement, she has returned to her life's passion of working to better the lives of others, this time as the coordinator for the St. Mary's County Nonprofit Institute at the College of Southern Maryland.
With funding provided by Charles County and the St. Mary's County Boards of Commissioners, the Nonprofit Institute exists for the sole purpose of helping the communities' nonprofit organizations grow stronger. In 2012, with support from Charles County, the institute took shape with the hiring of a coordinator at the La Plata Campus. In 2013, with support from St. Mary's County, a coordinator was added at the Leonardtown Campus.
"We would like to see the institute expand with a coordinator on each campus," said CSM President Dr. Brad Gottfried, who envisioned the institute as a venue to provide professional development opportunities and assistance to nonprofit organizations.
"Harriet is a gem in our community and we are fortunate that she has agreed to lend her expertise to the Nonprofit Institute. She is one of those individuals who is energized by helping others," said Gottfried. "Her talent for recognizing potential partnerships and her skill at bringing people together is an asset to the institute."
Yaffe, a previous member of the Nonprofit Institute Advisory Committee for Charles County, said, "I discovered that I'm not into retirement. I like stimulating, new things, interaction with people and feeling like I am a part of something."
Finding Her Voice
Looking back on the path she took to a career with nonprofits, Yaffe sees a wide bend and a U-turn.
"I went off to college thinking that I wanted to be a musician, a singer, but discovered that I wasn't as serious as the other students," Yaffe said. "I didn't think that being a vocalist would define me, but that it would remain a hobby." Instead she majored in psychology, and minored in music.
"I was always fascinated as to why people did the things they did. Even as a young child I was always observing and wondering what people were thinking," she said.
During the tumultuous 1970s, Yaffe immersed herself in academics and plowed through a bachelor's degree in psychology, and a master's degree in community counseling/psychology and consultation while working as the manager of five residence halls on the College Park campus.
"I was on campus for the riots, peace marches and the first co-ed dorms," said Yaffe. "They were very tumultuous times, but always very interesting, always very stimulating."
Out of college, Yaffe worked at a counseling center for youth, coordinated job placement for disadvantaged youth and worked at a vocational rehabilitation center, all in Northern Virginia. Then, she made a move that would change her life.
"My first impression of Calvert County was that it was a beautiful, peaceful place with wonderful people. It was an escape from the suburbs and the city," she said. "It sounds corny, but I immediately felt at home. It was a period of enlightenment--everything made sense and this was where I was supposed to be."
When she was hired, in 1980, as the director of vocational training and employment services at The Arc of Southern Maryland, then Calvert Association for Retarded Citizens, she felt another wave of relief. "I was hooked on the field and the people in the area," she said. One of those people, Jerry Adams, also worked at The Arc. They would later marry.
During her first five years at The Arc, Yaffe was mentored by the organization's executive director Jerry Kiracofe. "We felt like pioneers in a great cause. [Working on behalf of people with disabilities] felt like a Civil Rights Movement to us," she said.
The center served less than 40 clients in the early and mid-1980s and Yaffe was looking for greater challenges and responsibilities and greater involvement with academia. As much as she enjoyed the people and pace of Calvert County, she was ready for the next, big thing.
From Research to Practice
Yaffe's next big thing was as executive director of ICON Community Services, Inc. a Northern Virginia nonprofit working with county and state agencies to train disabled persons for employment. With a three-month course through the University of Oregon's Specialized Training Program headed by some of the nation's leaders in the field of developmental disabilities, and a $50,000 grant, Yaffe was charged with starting up an organization based on a best-practices model on the West Coast.
"I had to start from the ground up, locating and setting up an office for ICON, filing for 501C 3 status, recruiting board members and hiring staff. I had to do it all in very short order," she said.
Then there was the jolt of community service boards not buying into the training model as well as resistance and a lack of trust among groups that were used to doing things a certain way, she said. An essential element of the process was learning what the business community's needs were and breaking down the demands of the identified jobs.
"It was important to do assessments so that we could match workers with employers. Do they have the skill sets needed, do they like the job, are they motivated? We wanted a good fit," she said.
Some assessments were literally on-the-job in order to make the ideal placement. For instance, to better understand the rigors of the job of dishwasher, Yaffe worked a shift at a busy hotel restaurant. Although clients were taught in their vocational training how to wash dishes, there was no training on what they would face in a real working kitchen. "We had a young man who when he got stressed would slump down under a table. The pace was too fast. We're not serving him or the employer when that happens," Yaffe said. "It was clear that he either needed to learn to deal with the stress or be employed in a less stressful environment."
Thirteen years of commuting between Alexandria and southern Calvert County were enough for Yaffe and when she saw an opening for executive director of The Arc of Southern Maryland, she was thrilled. During the 21 total years she worked at The Arc until her retirement in May 2014, The Arc grew from supporting less than 40 people to providing services to more than 1,500.
The region had grown also, and Yaffe saw a need to grow its leadership potential.
When Yaffe first spoke to business and community members about creating a Leadership Calvert County modeled after Leadership Fairfax and Leadership Maryland, both of which she had graduated from, there weren't enough businesses and organizations in the county to make it viable. By 2007, there was enough interest and a great enough pool of participants to sponsor the endeavor when combining Calvert, Charles and St. Mary's counties. Yaffe joined the effort as a founding board member and sponsor for Leadership Southern Maryland and continues to look for ways to enrich the experience for graduates.
"We have graduates of Leadership Southern Maryland who come away from their experience energized to fully participate in their community. Why not collaborate with nonprofits in the community and find missions and values that are good fits for LSM grads?" Yaffe said.
The idea is still percolating, and it is one that she wants to pursue in her role as coordinator for the Nonprofit Institute at the College of Southern Maryland in Leonardtown.
Nonprofit organizations throughout Southern Maryland and beyond can take advantage of services and seminars offered by the institute, with those based in Charles and St. Mary's counties paying a discounted price for seminars due to their county's financial support of the institute. For information on the institute, visit http://www.csmd.edu/NonProfitInstitute/ or contact Yaffe at hyaffe [at] csmd.edu.