Beginning when she was a teacher, Sandee Kastrul told her students that leadership was making opportunities for others. Sandee integrated this definition of leadership into the workforce development nonprofit that she co-founded as a core part of the curriculum, along with technology and business. i.c.stars serves low income young adults, nearly 90% of whom are people of color, from across Chicago, IL (since 1999), Columbus, OH (since 2016), and Milwaukee, IL (planned for January 2018). Through a project-based model, young people gain the hard and soft skills - and professional network - needed to jumpstart their careers. As a result of the training, wrap around support - during and after the program, participants’ average earnings increase by 200 - 500%, bringing stability for families and helping end the cycle of poverty. Empowering and cultivating this leadership quality in others creates a pay-it-forward ripple effect. Through i.c.stars, young people learn to make opportunities for others and become agents of change in their communities, leading nonprofits, starting businesses, and advocating for better policies.
Sandee’s personal mission is advancing educational equity: to make sure that being born into poverty doesn’t keep someone from reaching their potential. Sandee believes that education is an equalizer, but that public schools in poor neighborhoods don’t afford children the same quality of education as schools in more affluent areas. i.c.stars was established to be an equalizer: to provide the professional network that a graduate of an elite university would have, and the technology and business skills needed to launch a career. Sandee and i.c.stars challenge volunteers, employers and participants to think about their missions, too, in a way that few organizations do. This authenticity is one of the ways i.c.stars goes beyond job skills training. In a workshop during the training, young people identify and reflect on their own mission; in fully stepping into their own unique strengths and experiences, they gain the confidence and empathy to lead.
Sandee has instilled in young people the confidence, skills, and behaviors for jobs that not only have taken them out of poverty, but have empowered them to be change-makers. In short, she has inspired leadership. As one graduate said of i.c.stars, “It taught me that I didn’t have to look like what I had been shown a traditional leader looks like....I carried this with me wherever I worked.” At a recent event, the wife of one of our graduates thanked us for what i.c.stars did for her family - transforming opportunities of her children because of the job her husband secured as a result of i.c.stars. Finally, an executive who heard Sandee’s presentation said this about her impact: “People left feeling inspired and challenged by her message...I would extend that to say that she made me refocus how I operate as a human being.”
Sandee is helping change the narrative on talent, from deficit, charity-based thinking, to asset and opportunity. She brings an educator’s passion for teaching and the ability to instill a love of learning; a social entrepreneur’s approach to problem-solving and solution-building; and a belief in the profound potential of young people who have overcome adversity. She inspires people to believe in themselves, cultivating empathy and breaking down barriers of race and class. This way of being and thinking only strengthens our communities and our country.
To teach transformation, i.c.stars invests deeply in each participant: They receive a stipend during the program, and in addition to many instructors, they have access to a case manager and counselor, who help address poverty-related challenges. This donation would support portions of program training staff salaries - the technology training manager and workforce development manager, for example, as well as operational costs - including technology equipment and rent. Ultimately, the grant would help i.c.stars continue transforming the lives of its participants through job skills training, access to professionals and leadership development. One graduate spoke about the life direction i.c.stars provided. “Before i.c stars I was lost and confused...after i.c stars I have a clearer understanding of my career path. I want to be a Front End Developer and work towards social change in my community.” Beyond the individual stories, and our 90% placement rate, i.c.stars has won recognition from corporate partners, including CareerBuilder, whose CEO wrote that working with i.c.stars was a way to “push educational reform and close the skills gap.” i.c.stars has also been recognized by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation.