Just stand on the block. Sounds simple. Try and get 14 middle school kids to balance themselves on a wooden, 1-foot square block for 30 seconds without falling, and the result is a long, agonizing process.
“Progressively, the more times we tried, the more frustrated people became,” says Megan McCoy, a graduate of Open Doors Academy, a nonprofit youth development program.
After about two hours of trial and error, McCoy, an eighth-grader at the time, helped situate the group. They placed the biggest students at the center with the smaller kids hanging on the outside.
“I saw Megan all of a sudden step up, and her voice came out,” says Annemarie Grassi, executive director of Open Doors Academy. “She said, ‘Stop, we’re going to do this, and here is how it’s going to happen.’ From then on, she gained the respect of her peers and began to foster her own voice.”
McCoy was an introverted sixth-grader when she started with Open Doors in 2002, the same year it opened. “It was so fun to watch her grow up,” Grassi says. “She emerged as a leader in her own development.”
The same can be said for Grassi. At the time, the 23-year-old was volunteering as a youth minister at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Cleveland Heights. St. Paul’s had an after- school program, but it was just a safe place for kids to be and usually consisted of basketball, homework help and a snack. Kids came when they pleased.
Then the head of youth ministry recommended Grassi as the program’s executive director. They hired her and handed her $70,000 to start Open Doors Academy.
“They said to take it and fly, do whatever you think this program needs, and make it whatever you feel it should be,” Grassi says. “I was only 23 at the time. To me $70,000 was like $70 million.”
⊲ Independence is being able to stand on your own two feet without depending on other people financially.
⊲ Having an understanding of how the world works and how people interact helped me understand how to interact with my own world.
⊲ Until you know who you are as an individual and experienced that sense of independence and that understanding that you can do it on your own, it’s hard to define what you’d look for in someone else.
⊲ When I started working for Open Doors, I wrote my parents an apology letter for the way I acted when I was 13.
Under Grassi’s guidance, it’s become a comprehensive youth development program. She partnered with community agencies to get appropriate tutoring in the program. She then connected with families, requiring that they commit 16 hours of service to Open Doors each year. Grassi also brought in inspiring role models for the kids, such as actor Will Smith in 2008 and former American Idol winner Ruben Studdard in June.
“It’s about inspiring these kids with both local and national role models,” says Pam Chaney, a certified spiritual director at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. “A lot of them just don’t know the path, nor do their parents.”
Count Grassi among those students can emulate. “She’s not just the executive director,” Chaney says. “She’s living the mission, and the kids know it.”
After graduating from Ohio University, she earned a master’s in science education at the University of Pennsylvania. She added a certificate program in nonprofit management from Case Western Reserve University in 2005 and is pursuing her Ph.D. at Cleveland State University. “Education is the key to independence,” she says. “Without education, it’s hard to advance in this world.”
If kids go through the program and don’t have anyone to take them on college tours, Grassi will take them herself.
“She put floodlights on the path to higher education,” Chaney says. “What was unseen in some cases by these kids, she lit up so that they could see that they too could have a fun, loving place to be after school.”
When the program was smaller, Grassi also served as a teacher. She would plan special events for her class on Friday afternoons like “messy game day,” which is exactly what it sounds.
Even in a situation filled with laughing and screaming pre-teens, Grassi could immediately silence the class. All Grassi had to do was say “jubilee” — a biblical reference, meaning “joy” — and the class would give her their undivided attention.
“She is so likable and kind; we didn’t want to disrespect her,” McCoy says.
Whether it’s a mission trip to Kentucky or a kickball fundraiser, Grassi is leading the charge. She’s out there kicking the ball with the kids or checking to make sure everyone has their iPods before the bus leaves.
“She’s not holed up in an office somewhere,” Chaney says. For some kids, “she is the touchstone grown-up in their life.”