Our alumni continue to make an impact across various sectors and communities. We are excited to share about four individuals who are driving change in the local philanthropy space. Year eight alumna Harmony Rhodes is Program Officer at Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan. Year four alumna Kayleigh Roy is Director at NF Forward and Director of Grants and Operations at Gilbert Family Foundation. Year one alumnus Vadim Avshalumov is Program Officer at William Davidson Foundation. Year seven alumna Alexa Borromeo is Communications Officer at The Skillman Foundation. Read on to hear what a few of them have to say about their work and how Challenge Detroit supported their desires to give back.

Tell us about your work in philanthropy.

KAYLEIGH: I am currently the Director of NF Forward (NFF), a non-profit founded by Dan and Jennifer Gilbert in 2017. Neurofibromatosis, also known as NF, is a genetic disorder that causes tumors to grow on nerve pathways anywhere in the body. It affects 1 in every 3,000 people throughout the world, and is more common than cystic fibrosis, Duchenne muscular dystrophy and Huntington’s disease combined. NF can be inherited or be the result of a spontaneous mutation. As the Director, I oversee all aspects of non-profit management from fundraising, donor relations, liaising with the board, awareness campaigns, event planning, and the coordination of all tax, legal, and finance teams.

NFF shares a vision with the Gilbert Family Foundation to eradicate NF by funding groundbreaking, cutting-edge NF research. In addition to the Curing NF related work, GFF also exists to build opportunity and equity for all Detroiters through investments in Public Life, Economic Mobility, and Housing Stability.  In addition to my role with NF Forward, I serve as the Director of Grants and Operations at the Gilbert Family Foundation (GFF) where I lead a team of four Grants and Operations managers who support eight different bodies of program research. I oversee all tax, accounting, finance, grants management, and grants related processes for the GFF team.

I especially love my role at NFF and GFF because it allows me to use my strength in optimizing organizational processes and structure to support strong programmatic work in the medical research field and in the City of Detroit.

HARMONY: My work in youth philanthropy began in high school. I had become increasingly frustrated with the educational inequities I saw in my school and neighborhood, and I was eager for something to change. I was recommended by my social studies teacher to complete the Summer Youth Dialogue’s program at the University of Michigan’s School of Social Work. Through the program, I gained a more thorough understanding of social justice issues in education and the environment — issue areas that my classmates and I grappled with on a daily basis as students living and attending school in Detroit. I became hyper-focused on taking steps as a youth leader to address the Opportunity Gap for myself and my classmates, so I came up with an idea.

At my high school, I launched a social justice club that met regularly to define concrete goals designed to promote social justice. We created a student exchange program with other schools in the region to build cultural awareness. The program hosted exchanges of 10-15 students at several sites, including University Liggett School, Edsel Ford High School, Fordson High School, Novi Public Schools, and Chelsea High School. Students also participated in social justice exercises, simulations, dialogues, and – eventually — a cultural festival supported by a grant we received from the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan through its YouthVoice initiative. After that project was over, CFSEM even invited me and some of their other youth grantees to participate In a Town Hall meeting on DPTV (as seen in the photo above), alongside Joe Hudson, Mariam Noland and Stephen Henderson. You can see that video here!

In my current role at CFSEM as a program officer, where I work alongside other advocates for social justice in education, health, human services, and other subject areas, I lead our grantmaking efforts in education and youth programs. I also oversee the Youth Advisory Council (YAC), which invites young people to review grant proposals from organizations that benefit youth in southeast Michigan. Most importantly, though, I help ensure local youth have a voice in community development.

As I’ve learned through my own experiences as a student and young professional, youth voices are critical for identifying and implementing transformative solutions to social issues. But that doesn’t mean those voices are always heard. I’ve seen firsthand how authentic youth engagement can lead to effective change. I’ve also seen how funding youth leaders and programs created opportunities for young leaders to grow into and take on active roles in community development.

I’m honored to be engaged in my work as a program officer and advocate for youth voices. I enjoy challenging nonprofit leaders and youth to be innovative and creative in addressing matters of racial and educational equity together. I also like encouraging the organizations I work with to address topics directly affecting youth and students such as mental health, social-emotional support, job readiness, and college and career readiness.

I hope to make a transformational difference for youth in philanthropy and to continue working for our young people during one of the most challenging and vulnerable times in their lives.

How did the fellowship experience help prepare, motivate and/or inspire you to work in philanthropy?

KAYLEIGH: My time as a Challenge Detroit fellow set me up for success in my field in a number of ways including exposure to the existing non-profit landscape, experience working on a team to build organizational capacity, and most of all the importance of empathy in the design thinking process when working with community partners. Being a Challenge Detroit Fellow solidified my desire to stay in the non-profit and social impact sector as opposed to returning to the for-profit world. I connected with tons of other individuals like me who are motivated, hardworking, and want to use their skills to make a difference. I think about other Challenge Detroit fellows often and am constantly motivated by the roles and work that my cohort, and other fellow classes have moved on to after their time in the program. I am thankful for the outlook I have on all projects I work on whether at work or personally because of Challenge Detroit.

HARMONY: Challenge Detroit was instrumental inspiring me to transition my work to be a program officer. My host company was the DTE Energy Foundation. The team was wonderful to connect me with interesting areas of work, mentorship, and exploratory opportunities. I started out the year focused on education and communication strategies with an emphasis on research. As a Year 8 Fellow, I had the pleasure of the first half of the fellowship being in person. Working collaboratively on the social impact projects around Detroit every Friday really motivated me to align closer to grantmaking. In an effort to get closer to community and working with youth directly, I started my role at the Community Foundation. The spirit of Challenge Detroit stays with me as I center grantees and applicants in my advocacy while using philanthropy as a vehicle for social change and innovation.