In the foyer of an old church on 11th Avenue in Hanford, I was excited to shadow my mentor for the day. The first Friday of the month is called Phat Fridays, where all the employees available join for a big morning meeting; this is obviously an event Mr. Garner cares a lot about. He burst into the room and greeted me with a handshake and big smile, something I would see him do with numerous people as the day went on.
Jeff Garner is the Executive Director of the Kings Community Action Organization, an organization whose services span across all of Kings County with dozens of individual programs. It is this distance that makes PHAT Fridays so awesome to watch; Head-Start preschool teachers stood alongside grant writers and economic developers as old friends to get an update of KCAO’s current goals and progress.
The meeting saw praise for individuals from longest tenured employee (present) being honored for her 17 years of service, to acknowledging the Employee of the Year’s two and a half years of volunteering prior to joining the team. Organizational progress was shared through Superhero named teams, with each section taking particular pride in their group. Also of note, besides Jeff himself I met fellow Humanics alumni Savino Perico.
Continuing on into some morning work, we talked about leadership and the empowerment of individuals. He talked about the troubles of leading such a diverse and distributed organization referring to how middle management can empower an executive or serve to create distance and hostility with staff.
As he renewed a contract for a state-administered grant, we talked through the struggles of work, life and faith, and the rumor that a balance exists between them. Jeff’s philosophy follows a servant leadership mentality, where he seeks to spend his time empowering other people to carry out the mission. In this system, relationships rise in priority as his funders must feel a connection to the mission, staff feels included in the decision making and clients see impact.
To cap my visit off, we visited KCAO’s preschool at Lee Richmond Elementary and met the ladies that work there; each PHAT Friday Jeff visits a different satellite office that can’t come to the main meeting. They were a bit caught off guard but one of them seemed to understand what was going on and eager to see us.
While Jeff explained the nature of PHAT Fridays, I saw a progression in reception among the women. At first, they were uncertain as to why their break was being interrupted. As he went on and they hear more about the successes of KCAO, you could see and feel them pull closer and feel their place in a larger mission.
I learned a whole lot about action agencies, funding and management; the most important lesson I learned about CBO’s is that they run on people.