They live throughout the country — Vermont, Alaska, Massachusetts. They work in a variety of fields: Internet technology, teaching, government. And they all have one experience in common: all were part of the El Pomar fellowship program.
The El Pomar Foundation marked 15 years of the program last weekend with a reception for current and past fellows. Of 117 past participants, 92 returned to Colorado Springs for the event.
“The program gives a lot of opportunity to obtain leadership skills,” said 2002 fellow Tevea Loeum Delgado, who stayed in the Springs and is working at Pikes Peak Mental Health as a counselor while pursuing a master’s degree in counseling. “In 2004, I had this amazing experience to go to Cambodia — my native country — to help women learn to read and start their own businesses.”
Delgado’s comments about the program were echoed by other El Pomar fellows.
Simon Tafoya was a 2003 fellow and is working toward a master’s degree at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton. He plans to work on Capitol Hill when he’s finished. The El Pomar fellowship was a key experience for him.
“I worked on a variety of programs, all related to philanthropy, mostly in the southeast region and the San Luis Valley,” he said. “I think from a professional development standpoint, it’s been beneficial. You leave here with a strong set of skills — leadership, management. You learn more real-world networking, more than what you’d learn in a college course. We learned to listen to those we were serving, and that’s a strong model to follow.”
El Pomar fellows are selected based on a number of criteria, including graduation from a four-year university with a Colorado connection. They should demonstrate strong leadership capability and potential, the ability to work as a member of a team and have an interest in public service. Fellows also must demonstrate strong verbal and writing skills, personal initiative and be able to travel throughout Colorado on official El Pomar Foundation business.
Each year, the foundation selects 12 to 14 individuals to join the program. Most stay for two years, but a few are asked to serve for a third year.
“The fellowship … is designed to bring together highly qualified individuals with diverse backgrounds and interests, and shape them into effective leaders for the public, private and nonprofit sectors,” according to the foundation’s Web site, www.elpomar.org. “Fellows operate the foundation’s community stewardship programs, conduct outreach initiatives and bolster the foundation’s grant-making throughout the state, investing in the people and organizations of Colorado’s urban and rural communities.”
El Pomar started the program because it “recognized that there’s a responsibility to develop leaders who will participate and serve the community,” said Gary Butterworth, vice president of the El Pomar Foundation.
“We have a mission to serve the citizens of Colorado, and we want to develop young people who will develop the responsibility to give back and become the most effective leaders,” he said. “All three sectors are involved in solving community problems — public, private and nonprofit. The fellows program gives them a chance to see all three sectors. You rarely see a single sector working in isolation. If a nonprofit takes the lead, the board is made up of business leaders. We want them to observe all three sectors and when they leave, we want to have created leaders in the community.”
Many of the fellows work to raise money for rural volunteer fire departments throughout the state. Jessica Keileher, a 2002 fellow, worked on the program shortly after the Hayman fire, which decimated millions of acres of forests.
“The national aid relief wasn’t getting to the departments as fast as they needed,” she said. “So we needed a ‘rapid fire’ effort. El Pomar helped coordinate that.”
Keihler’s experience highlights why El Pomar considers the fellow program to be essential. The group of young adults allows the organization to expand its services, said El Pomar Vice President Cathy Robbins.
“They bring so much to El Pomar,” she said. “Their youth and energy gives us the ability to expand our service projects throughout the state. This group is our staff for 13 community programs — from our local high school program to regional programs in other parts of the state. It’s important for any organization to utilize resources, and these young people bring us so much.”
A Denver native, Keileher has an undergraduate degree in geology from the University of Colorado at Boulder and is attending Stanford University, where she studies climate change. For her, the El Pomar fellowship was a chance to combine her science background with volunteer, nonprofit work.
“I learned so many skills,” she said. “It was a glimpse into a world I didn’t know. And now I know I can work nonprofit development as part of my life and my career. I am going to find ways to merge scientific interest with philanthropy. It definitely opened up my world.”
While first-year fellows “learn the ropes,” second year fellows become coordinators of regional activities — working on the Empty Stocking fund, writing grants and directing other community stewardship programs. The third year fellows spend time in the state’s rural communities, developing projects and exploring collaborative opportunities.
Paul Zechser was a 1999 fellow and now works at a Boston Internet marketing firm. The fellowship gave him “real leadership skills.”
“I learned that leadership is about self-sacrifice,” he said. “And that’s one I still apply in the private sector. If you learn a consensus building style of leadership, you get more out of it, the company gets more out of it and so do your employees. I’m practicing that right now.”