Nick Pohl Interview
This is file #25, cycle 3. Today’s date is March 6, 2018. This is Jean McMillen. I am interviewing Nick Pohl who is the current director of the Housatonic Youth Service bureau. He is going to talk about the se vice bureau and the changes that he had made since he took over in 2010 from Cynthia Bianchi. But first we’ll start with the genealogical information.
JM:What is your name?
NP:My name is Nick Pohl.
NP:I was born Sept. 1, 1977.
JM:Where were you born?
JM:Your parents’ names?
NP:Bob and Anne- Marie Gagnon Pohl
JM:Do you have siblings?
NP:I do. I have three brothers. I am the youngest of four. MY oldest brother is Christopher, the brother underneath him is Benjamin, and brother above me is Jonathan and then there is me.
JM:Tell me a little bit about your career path that brought you to the Housatonic Youth Service Bureau.
NP:My career path really started with my education. I received an under graduate degree in Social work from Concordia College in Bronxville, New York. Then quite soon after that I entered a Master’s Degree program at Fordham University in social work. I worked in Rochester Country New York for a couple of years after graduating from Concordia while I was working on my Master’s Degree. I worked at a school in Millwood, New York at the Devereux-Millwood Learning Center. It was for students designated on the autistic spectrum. I did that for a couple of years. I had always wanted to go overseas and work overseas, so I accepted a job teaching English in Japan. I spent a year in Oyama, Japan, which is just north west of Tokyo, teaching English which I loved. It was a really great experience. I can see myself at some point in my life or career doing something like that again. Following my contract there, I came back to the states and ended up working in the foster care system. I was working for an Massachusetts – based agency. I started a new site in Greenfield, Massachusetts for their intensive level foster-care program. Greenfield borders Vermont so I actually lived in Brattleboro, Vermont, at the time. This was about 2006-07. My daughter was born in 2008 and her mom and I felt that we wanted to be closer to family and her mom grew up in Cornwall which brought us here. Around that time I had a security job with Prime time House, although they are based in Torrington, this
program that I was on was based in Lakeville. I was tasked with starting a supportive program for people with disabilities. While I was working there, I noticed the executive director job position at the Housatonic Youth Service Bureau. I really wanted to move into an administrative track and give myself that professional exposure and experience. I was fortunate enough to be offered the position in 2010.
JM:Did you have to apply for it?
NP:I applied for the position. There was a formal interview process. I believe there were a couple of candidates for the position. There was a very large group of people I interviewed before. At the time the agency was located in a small white farmhouse “The White House”. I guess technically it was on the grounds of the high school, but just on Warren Turnpike Road. It was very small. The administrative offices for Pupil Services were on the ground floor. They administered the Special Education delivery service for the region. In the upper level of the farmhouse we were given three small rooms, probably at one time they were bedrooms; that is where the organization humbly began in 1991.
JM:Well actually it began in the Superintendent’s office with a desk, a phone and a phone book, according to Cynthia Bianchi. (See file #24, cycle 3, Cynthia Bianchi)
JM:Then she moved to “The White House”.
NP:Got it OK.
JM:You came in on the better end of the deal.
NP:The pre-prehistory. That must have been shortly after they were founded.
JM:Within 6 months
NP:We were blessed to be offered the space in “The White House” because we were not charged rent or anything. That was great. It was very convenient for services that we were delivering. But it was an old farmhouse complete with the sounds of scurrying feet in the walls to mice running around. It was very much an old farmhouse.
JM:That is where the capital fund drive must have come in.
NP:That is really what precipitated that. There was a cat that used to live there, but the cat was clearly not doing its job because there were plentiful mice. I have heard stories of a raccoon or two that invaded the building at some point. The cat almost followed the path of the organization. That cat was about 18 years old. When I came on board the cat lived a couple more years and then passed away.
JM:The cat did not transfer to your new building.
NP:No he did not make it to the new building. This is an interesting moment in the history of the organization. I think it was in 2014 that the capital campaign began. Going back to the farmhouse because of its age, the school district wanted to dispose of the building. It had to go. It was past its shelf life. It was even past renovating. There was a lot of work that needed to be done. It was a better option for them to just raze the building and construct a space for Pupil Services within the high school. That is what they did. They told us a year in advance that they were going to do this. We are going to start construction and Pupil Service is going to be out of the building. We really had 12 months.
It was fortuitous because we were given, even though it produced anxiety, it also gave us motivation to embark on a fairly aggressive campaign which served the organization initiative in a lot of different ways. We retained a consultant to help steer that campaign. What we did was at an initial stage was to construct a three year strategic plan. What came out of that strategic plan were three initiatives: 1. Create a new space 2. Expand staffing capacity and 3 create sustainability by establishing a reserve fund. This was a new experience for me. I had never been a part of a major capital drive before. Many board members had not been involved in such a project before. It was a real learning experience for everybody involved. It was something to see the board engage in a way that I thought was remarkable. People really stepped up in a variety of ways in this campaign. It was successful beyond our expectations. At the end of the day we raised nearly one million dollars, $955,000 was the final tally.
It was a remarkable experience for the organization, not only from the fund development perspective that gave us the funding that we needed to construct a new space which was the most critical challenge we were facing, but it also introduced and elevated our organization in a unique way because in part I think the organization had such humble beginnings, a desk, a farmhouse to a new space. It really was the next stage in the evolution in the life cycle of the organization. It had produced remarkable outcomes from just the fund development perspective, but also from a surface capacity because it elevated the awareness of our organization, not only to the donor community, but also to the community in general. Families, who may never even have heard of the organization and didn’t know what we did as an organization, got a chance to learn about our mission and the work that we do and then can access our services. All the way around from our service capacity to our fund development capacity to our board capacity, it strengthened the organization and to broaden its reach in remarkable ways.
JM:How were some of the board members that you work with?
NP:Some of the board members that I work with currently are of long standing. We have a phenomenal board chair Nancy Byrd whose husband was a dentist in Canaan Dr. Byrd. Nancy is great. I think she is everything that you would want in board leadership. She really pulls her weight; she is well regarded in the community. She believes in not only our mission in the organization but also in nonprofits in general. She really understands the unique role that nonprofit organizations play in the Northwest Corner community. Nonprofits foundations are the social network. We absolutely need them: Chore Service, Women’ Support Services all of these organizations are just playing a critical role in
supporting families who are dealing with really challenging community issues. Nancy does understand that. She has been great both in leadership and in recruitment because she is very well connected and had been an advocate for our mission and an advocate for getting some impressive board members involved with the bureau. We have had some long time board members too which is interesting because of this institutional thread that runs back to the roots of this organization in people like Linda Sloane (See file # 15, cycle 3, Linda Sloane) who has been on the board for a long time. Another long term member is Ron Dower. Matt Meddy from Sharon, the Park and Rec Director, has also been on the board for a long time. There are some newer board members who have stepped up to the plate in different ways: Allen Higgins is our Treasurer and a great asset. Bonnie Bellow is transitioning her life up to the Northwest Corner. She had a pretty distinguished career working with the EPA. She is an amazing person when it comes to communication. There is Dev Chatillion who is an attorney and our Vice chair. There is Lance Beizer who is our Secretary. The community has rallied around this organization in unique ways. We saw that in going back to the campaign for a second is how much support there is for this organization from the community. We received support from a lot of different sections of the community from individual donors, from the generous community foundations in our area: Berkshire Taconic Community foundation (See tape 167A, Alice Yoakum), the Community Foundation of Northwest Connecticut, the Community Health foundation of Sharon, they all chipped in for this initiative. All of the towns chipped in and Roberta Willis (See file #63, cycle2, Roberta Willis). She can’t go unacknowledged in that. She was instrumental in securing bond funding that largely covered the cost of the construction for the new space.
JM:Where is the new space?
NP:We are located on the campus of the Housatonic Valley Regional High School. If you pull into the campus and stay to the right, you will see a 6 bay brick garage building. That building was constructed n the mid1990s and primarily used for storing tractors, and equipment for the Maintenance Department. There was a second level up on there but it was little utilized; it stored robotic department items. It was not a well-defined space. After the Mahoney-Hewett Center was constructed and the robotics department moved over there, it was really a prime space for us to renovate. It has been great because it keeps us on campus which is ideal. At the same time it is separate from the high school which is important for a lot of students that we work with because there is a level of confidentiality and anonymity that students typically want. They don’t necessarily want their friends to know that they are dealing with a counselor. It offers us a chance to deliver services in a way that is protective of the confidentiality and anonymity.
JM:What are some of the changes that you have made when you took over in 2010?
NP:The amazing thing about Cynthia was how she was able to do it all at the organization. She was the executive director, she was the counselor, and she was doing programs. She did it all which was an amazing accomplishment. I think the organization required that at the time. She made my job easier in
a way because she had established a firm and solid foundation in the community that the organization still benefits from today. It is an organization that is so ingrained in the community and that is largely due to the amazing work of Cynthia and the founding board members. It was a grassroots initiative that launched this organization. Cynthia embodies that in many ways. The work that she and the board did at that time was a great service to the institution in general.
When I came on board in 2010, one thing that we did was a strategic decision to move to create a designated executive director position because I was thinking a lot about the sustainability of the organization and where, if you have too much centralized in one person, you need to delegate. You need to have at some level of redundancy so not too much capacity should be centralized in any one person. If that person leaves, there is a gap. There goes that institutional continuum. We created an executive director position that could focus on fundraising and growing the organizational capacity in delivering services. As a part of that we created a clinical position. The clinician did the counseling, and ran the programs. My position focused on internal structures that needed to be developed and also a lot of relationship building with the donor community to increase our fund development as an organization. That was the first big change that we made.
From there we launched new programs. We launched the “Youth and Philanthropy Program” which is in partnership with the Community Foundation of Northwest Connecticut. It is an initiative that introduces young people to the world of philanthropy. It does that through a three step process. We will gather a cohort of students at the beginning of the school year; we work with the students to identify a community need. That is where it starts. The need is from their point of view; it is generated entirely by the students. We want to demonstrate how the world of philanthropy addresses needs within the community. We want them to learn that at a young age. After the need is identified, the students devise a fundraiser. They figure out what types of fund raisers are there. What can we do to raise a goal of $500? The final stage is a grant making stage. The grant making stage takes their $500 and matches it with $2,500 from the Community Foundation of Northwestern Connecticut. That $3,000 is given to an organization that addresses the community need that the students had identified at the beginning of the school year. The entire process takes about an academic year. Part of that process is learning about and evaluating different interventions. They know they have this $3,000 grant to award to an organization so it gives them a chance to learn about different organizations in the community that are doing something about the need which they have identified. We may have the executive director of some organization come and speak to the group; they will do some research on different organizations that are out there. Then once they have done their due diligence and made a decision on where they want their money to go, they make a recommendation to the foundation saying “This is where we want our gran money to go.”
I can give you an interesting example. One year the group really wanted to tackle prescription drug abuse. They felt that that was a challenge that they saw in the community and with their peers. Throughout the course of that academic year, they did their fund raising and they researched various interventions that would address that specific types of drug abuse. What they ended up doing was to
give a grant to the McCall Center for Behavioral Health in Torrington to implement substance abuse prevention curriculum in the high school for the next year. So they were able to actually see and experience the full cycle from identifying the need, to raising the money, to making the award and then seeing the intervention the next school year being implemented at the school.
JM:After it was implemented at the school, did the program continue or was it dropped after the one year?
NP: The way this was structured it was a one-time grant. What we did was roll it into the Health Curriculum where a trainer from McCall would come in to the Health office and do a specific evidence based curriculum for the students in the Health classes. We augmented the Health curriculum by adding this piece.
JM:Tell me about the “Summer Intern Program”.
NP:That is another new program. This is an exciting program in its fourth or fifth year. It began simply and humbly with a conversation that I had with at that time the Director of the Sharon Historical Society, Liz Shapiro. I knew Liz; we had a good relationship. She called me up and said, “I want to start an internship thing, what do you think?” “Great! Let’s give it a shot!” We started the first year with 2 interns at the Historical society in Sharon. It grew from there. The way the program is structured is we will recruit and start working with a cohort of students, even before the summer begins. We recruit the students first: then we move into the stage where we introduce various learning modules. The learning modules are professional development focus: it could be resume writing, or financial literacy, or stress management techniques, or workplace communications strategies or whatever. We devise a series of modules that will start arming these students with practical skills that they can start applying and using when the summer internship starts. They must complete 120 hours at a nonprofit in the community, generally aligned with their career goals. For instance if we had a student who was interested in working with animals, we partner with Little Guild or if we had a student who was interested in working with kids, we partnered with the Audubon to help run some of the summer programs. We give the student a grant at the completion of the program of $700. The grant is really used for their personal growth, whatever that is. Some will apply that for school, or a laptop, or whatever, but something they earned the money for. Last year we had half a dozen interns and we are getting about the same number of nonprofits. The nonprofit organizations really enjoy it because these organizations are doing critical services in the area and have limited staff. They are stretched thin and having an intern, doing meaningful work, whatever that is, is adding value to the organization.
They like it because of the increase in their capacity to do something great. We love it because it plugs the young people into the community in a unique way. The students love it because they get paid and they also have a unique opportunity to give something back to the community. These internships just aren’t jobs that th3e students are able to get otherwise. We are partnering with each nonprofit in a way that is going to construct the internship that will be meaningful. These are not go-for-coffee types of work; they are meaningful work.
The genealogy project that we did with the Sharon Historical Society had a student creating a website for the organization. We had another student that was cataloging gravestones. These were really interesting projects that students are able to get involved in.
JM:It is on a different level than the Summer Youth Program here in Salisbury which has been going since 1972. Originally it was for at risk boys; it has changed over time, but it is the same sort of thing. Your learning models are at a more advanced level than what the summer Youth Program does.
NP:What is also interesting pretty much about every year we have run the program at least once a student had remarked about either how they didn’t know this particular organization existed. It does educate them about their community. Another interesting point is how often times the student and the site supervisor, there is a supervisor at the nonprofit that is appointed for that responsibility; develop a relationship, like a mentor relationship which is great. It becomes a potential reference resource for them. It may become a unique relationship that they share with somebody. It may become a career choice.
JM:It is a wonderful opportunity because it broadens their horizons in many ways.
JM:You said there were barriers to getting help, what are those barriers and how have you overcome them in this area?
NP:When I look at the Housatonic Youth Service Bureau and what we do is largely generate access. That is a real focus that the organization accomplishes. There are real access challenges in a rural community. Some that we have identifies are transportation challenges, cost as a barrier to access, and limited service providers that we need to acknowledge that fact. Living in a rural community there aren’t as many service providers as there would be in a more populated area. These are three primary access barriers which we want to work around.
JM:How have you addressed the transportation problem?
NP:We have allowed these barriers to inform our services. They shape our services. We did this as all services are free, that takes care of the cost. In terms of transportation, we designed our programs and our counselors as mobile. They go to all the elementary schools at least one day a week; they are working with kids in their schools which totally take away the transportation piece out of the picture. Related to the transportation thing is we are located on the high school campus. This is partly why we didn’t want to move away from the high school campus. We are able to leverage the regional aspect of the high school and work with the young people from every one of the 6 towns that we cover in a broad geographic area. I was trying to figure that out the other weekend, it is 270 square miles of area that we cover from South Kent to North Canaan. It is a huge area so for us to be able to leverage the capacity of the regional high school is huge for us and our services. We are able to work with teens across our region during their school day or just after school at the high school. The other piece is limited service
providers. We have added a second clinician so we have two full time licensed clinicians providing free behavioral health care in our community. In a lot of our programs just at face value and a bit of a back door is that they build relationships between people. It happens in a nonthreatening way. Our clinical teams are running there programs and they are building relationships with young people. Many times out of that the counseling relationship is started. They will start meeting on a regular basis to talk about important things going on in their lives.
JM:Is there anything that you would like to add to this interview before we close?
NP:We have covered a lot.
JM:Thank you so much.
NP:You are welcome.