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Children's Voice Article, July/Aug 2002

Executive Directions

by Shay Bilchik

As I drive down the streets of my neighborhood, I'm beginning to see more and more "For Sale" signs. The fact that they're quickly followed by "Sold" signs seems to bode well for the economy, but the sheer number of transactions is a sure harbinger of summer and all the transitions that come with it.

Summer is often the season when families move, employees begin new jobs, and students get ready for the jump from elementary to middle school, middle school to high school, or high school to college. These changes and new challenges are often scary, but I've found that when the possibility of something new conjures equal parts excitement and terror, it's usually a good thing.

In some ways, I envy the schedules of my college-age children, and not just for their ability to squeeze in a nap between classes. The beginning of each semester brings them into contact with new professors, new subjects, and new thoughts, and each summer gives them an opportunity to shift gears from school, take on a job or internship, and prepare themselves for the future. The constant transitions keep them excited and energized.

The problem with being an adult is that most of us choose professions, buy homes, and grow accustomed to a routine. We are doing valuable work in our professional lives, and often doing even more important work at home, but we sometimes fail to look past the demands of our day-to-day lives to take on a new challenge.

That's not to say we should all be changing jobs, moving to new cities, or signing up to climb Mt. Everest, but there is danger in stagnation. We should all check ourselves from time to time to make sure we're still learning and growing; to ensure we're stepping outside of our comfort zones and preparing ourselves for the next challenge. Summer is a great time to do this.

The ways my staff challenge themselves inspire me daily. One program director is juggling his CWLA workload with coursework toward a PhD. A graphic designer in our art department leaves the office each afternoon to log in miles of swimming, biking, and running to prepare for a triathlon, and one editor spends her weekends training for a seven-day, 500-mile bike ride across Europe that will raise money for AIDS vaccine research. Other staff members are learning Spanish, honing their computer skills, and volunteering in their communities.

As an organization, CWLA also strives to create an atmosphere that encourages continuous learning and growth. Staff members have organized book clubs, and they use e-mail to keep their colleagues engaged in and exploring areas outside their normal experience and expertise. Informal staff discussions about a way to share staff knowledge led to the creation of a weekly brown bag series we call "Food for Thought." Now, every Wednesday, staff use their lunch hours to learn from colleagues and guest speakers.

These kinds of opportunities are vital to keeping us fresh and sharp in our professional and personal lives. An article in this issue shows just one of the dangers of letting yourself grow stale on the job. Burnout is a serious problem among child and youth care workers, as it is in many professions, but one of the best ways to stave off the symptoms of burnout is to find new challenges. If you recognize a weakness in your skills, seek out more training and resources. If you are frustrated by something in your agency or your state's child-serving systems, learn how you can channel your frustrations into advocacy work. You may be surprised where it leads.

As a prosecutor, I certainly didn't know my concern and frustration over the kids and families who filled my caseload would bring me to the helm of CWLA. But my efforts to learn as much as I could about the problems facing vulnerable families and the systems that served them helped prepare me for this job. Of course, that preparation only went so far. I was so terrified and exhilarated by my new role, I don't think I slept much my first week. Two-and-a-half years later, those feelings haven't faded. This work is still teaching me and challenging me every day. It is what makes me love my job.

How will you challenge yourself this summer?

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