Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Guest Post: Lindsey Lane on Turning The Bright Idea Of Creating A Legacy Award Into A Reality

Betty with the 2016 award recipients
By Lindsey Lane
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

Bright ideas are wonderful things. They spark imagination, energy, and excitement. That’s good, right?

Executing ideas and fulfilling their promise takes a lot of hard work. The more excitement the better because, along the way, you will learn a lot and some of that knowledge will be hard won.

In 2012, I had a bright idea to create an award in honor of the oldest member of Austin SCBWI community: Betty X. Davis who, at the time, was a stalwart ninety-six years old. She joined the first year Austin started an SCBWI chapter twenty years ago. She has cheered and supported all of us at our book launches, read manuscripts for school writing contests and been a thoughtful critique partner.

Really, in terms of support, Betty X. Davis is a pillar of our community. Why not create an award in her honor? I had never done it before but how hard could it be? People do it all the time, right?

By the time you finish reading this post, hopefully, you will be a whole lot smarter about creating honorary awards.

Maya, grade 3
Because I knew Betty would definitely have an opinion about this award, I took her out to lunch. I will admit that I had my own notion about what this award should be. I wanted to offer a scholarship in her honor to, say, a writing retreat or an SCBWI conference or workshop.

“Boring,” she said and dismissed my idea with a wave of her hand. Then she leaned in, “But I will tell you what I would like.”

Uh-oh. I knew right then that whatever came out of Betty’s mouth was going to have to happen. After all, it’s an award to honor her, right? Now I would have to obey her wishes.

What Betty wanted was an annual writing contest for youngsters. You see, what is important to Betty is encouraging young people to write. She believes that a love of writing and reading is essential to a well-lived life. If people wrote more letters to the newspaper, the world would be a better place. If people wrote kind thoughts to one another, the world would be a better place. If people wrote good books with exciting characters, the world would be a better place.

So for Betty, creating a contest that would encourage young people to write and award them for their efforts was absolutely essential.

Frankly, this idea looked like a lot of work: creating a submission system, reading manuscripts, choosing winners. The Austin SCBWI membership is entirely volunteer-based. We are writers and illustrators and many of us have day jobs and families.

Creating a contest looked like a big job that no one, including me, had time to execute. But I knew I wasn’t going to walk away from that lunch without saying yes to her.

While I was feeling a little daunted, Debbie Gonzales, the Austin SCBWI Regional Advisor at the time, jumped in. “No problem. Let’s find an organization which already has a strong outreach with kids and who can easily corral the submissions.”

Fortunately Austin has two very good organizations which fit that description: BadgerDog and Creative Action. Both were willing.

“Partnering with like-minded organizations not only builds community,” says Debbie. “It ignites enthusiasm with the donors and creates a domino-effect of good will.”

With Debbie as my partner in award creation, we turned our attention to funding the award. What would the contest winners receive for their efforts? And who was the contest open to? Even if we gave a blue ribbon and a certificate to the winners, these items cost money.

Austin SCBWI is not a wealthy organization. It couldn’t fund an annual reward. It has to be self-supporting. Fortunately, Betty has a large loving and supportive family and they were willing to seed the award for five years.

“No matter how much trouble it takes to establish an award like Betty’s Young Writers of Merit Award,” says Debbie. “It is worth every turn and twist along the way because young lives are changed when their voices are recognized and celebrated.”

Gabrielle, grade 11
Once we had the seed money commitment, it was time to get busy implementing the award. We joined forces with Creative Action, which has a huge presence in Central Texas schools. Currently they employ eighty teaching artists and serve sixty five schools in three districts. They reach twenty thousand students in forty elementary schools, eleven middle schools and fourteen high schools.

We decided to give an award to one student at each of these school levels: elementary, middle and high school. The three winners would each receive a personalized writing journal and a certificate. The elementary and middle school winners would receive a gift certificate to BookPeople, Austin’s independent bookstore, and the high school winner would receive $500 upon matriculation to college.

Betty was not keen to attach a monetary prize to the award. The journals, gift certificates were fine. But money? “What did money have to do with the joy of writing?” she wondered.

I convinced her that a monetary award to a high school senior on their way to college, would be really meaningful and give the Betty X. Davis Young Writers of Merit Award a bit of heft and prestige.

“Oh I suppose that’s all right,” she said.

From that initial lunch with Betty to the first presentation of the Betty X. Davis Young Writers of Merit Award at the annual Austin SCBWI conference took seven months. It was fast but bright ideas can have a limited shelf life. They need to be acted on when the enthusiasm is high.

Current Austin SCBWI Regional Advisor Samantha Clark agrees, “It's a lot of work to put these awards together, and it makes it a lot easier if you're really dedicated because you believe in what you're doing.”

Samantha has been instrumental in getting information about the award up on Austin SCBWI website, creating a donation button making it super easy to contribute and thanking all of the donors.

For the past three years, Betty X. Davis has presented the Young Writers of Merit Award to a diverse group of students from a wide variety of schools, including Austin School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, Garza Independent High School, Westlake High.

This year, at one hundred years young, she will present the elementary award to Maya McNeil, a third grader at Ridgetop Elementary; Keelin Bell a sixth grader at Dailey Middle School and Gabrielle Lewis, a junior at Meridian High School. Once again thanks to the vision of Betty X Davis, young writers will have their voices recognized and celebrated.


Finally, here is quick list of helpful things to remember if you wish to create an award in someone’s honor. Thanks to writer Sarah Azibo for contribution to the list.

Her expertise in this area comes creating many such awards both on her own and through the Denver Foundation, a philanthropic enterprise, which helps set up legacy gifts as well as provide a not for profit tax umbrella.

The Austin counterpart is the Live Oak Foundation. Many cities have these foundations.

Keelin, grade 6
  • Secure seed money for the award. It takes a while to build momentum until people remember to give on their own. If you are creating a mentorship award, secure commitments for a few years of mentoring.
  • Take time to develop a strategy for the fund.
  • Create a tracking system to manage donations.
  • Designate one person (a bit removed if fund is in memory of a dear one) to be the administrator of the fund.
  • Determine who, what, when, where funds are given as specifically as possible from the start.
  • Envision ways to keep the fund alive and actively growing with continued donations.
  • If it’s not managed through an organization, set-up a separate checking account for the fund.
  • Title the fund so that people know who and what it supports.
  • Thank all donors with a personal touch.
  • Never toil in isolation. If your award is meant to benefit a group of people, reach out to other organizations, which can share the labor and the benefits.
Cynsational Notes

Betty X Davis Young Writers of Merit Award from Austin SCBWI. Peek: "Betty has judged many young people’s writing contests and believes these contests help them feel successful at writing, an important lifelong skill."

Donate Here!
Member Interview: Betty X Davis from Austin SCBWI. Peek: "I’ve always been a great letter writer. A cousin even found one of my letters in a treasured box of Test family archives. I began serious writing in the late 1970s and 1980s when I was teaching (a speech therapist) and needed a curriculum."

Lindsey Lane on How a Picture Book Author-Playwright-Journalist Became a YA Author from Cynsations. Peek: "Now I look back and I can see that it all made sense. That each page in each genre taught me a bit more. I can see it because in my YA novel--all of those teachers showed up."

Photographs by Sam Bond Photography; used with permission.

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