Unleashing Every Child’s Potential

We all know the famous phrase by Benjamin Franklin, “…in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” But there’s one more certainty in life, and that’s uncertainty. Merely weeks into her new role as Vice President of Philanthropy at Unleashing Potential (UP), Verletta Cole faced a mountain of uncertainty in the form of a global pandemic. She was grateful, she says, to have the support of YouthBridge and its Nonprofit Recovery and Resilience grant program. (UP has also received grants through funds managed by YouthBridge in recent years.)

“This wasn’t only a grant to help us get by, but the whole process was beneficial,” says Cole. Through several thoughtful discussions, she says YouthBridge helped UP forecast the impact of COVID, plan for unanticipated costs and strategize how to offset losses. “They challenged us to think ‘out of the box’ in terms of our financial resilience and come up with algorithms, in a sense, to aid in planning for disruptions. Even more, they understood the strain we were under and offered us solutions – really lifting us up.”

Lifting others up is at the core of Unleashing Potential’s mission; precisely, “closing the opportunity gap for children and youth by building on their strengths through educational and empowering experiences.” This is accomplished through three main areas: early childhood education, after-school programming and summer enrichment camps for elementary students. It’s a mission Cole couldn’t resist. Announcing her retirement in 2019 after 28 years with the St. Louis Area Foodbank, Cole says she began receiving calls from other nonprofits looking for an experienced fundraising professional. Visiting UP’s Early Childhood Education Center, Cole was greeted by a little boy hugging her legs and “I was hooked,” she says.

The center (named Caroline Mission and coincidentally located on Caroline St. in South St. Louis) provides early childhood education and care for children ages six weeks to five years old, including those with special needs. Services are offered to parents on a sliding fee schedule. Using nationally recognized, evidence-based curricula, Caroline Mission has an explicit goal of equipping children to enter kindergarten emotionally, socially and cognitively ready for learning – with a 100% success rate.

“Our staff takes a holistic approach to empowering our children and families, focusing on essential life skills, behavior management and helping children develop a sense of belonging,” says Cole. Many of the same children will go on to participate in UP’s after-school and summer enrichment programs, which continue to build a strong foundation for future success, she says.

Currently in 11 St. Louis City and County schools, UP after-school programming is available to students from kindergarten through 12 years old, offering three hours of after- school, curriculum-based academic and enrichment activities. “Students have support in completing homework assignments, engage in STEAM learning, exercise, go on field trips, are exposed to specialty areas and cultural arts, and more,” says Cole, adding that the programs offer a safe environment for students during high-crime hours for juveniles, and is provided at little to no cost to parents. Summer camps expand on these activities and, again, are offered regardless of the family’s ability to pay.

Parents play a large part in both the early education and elementary school programming and engage regularly with UP teachers and staff, she says. For single mom Jessica, with two children at Caroline Mission and one in the after-school program, UP has become a supportive partner in her life as well, taking an interest in her wellbeing, even connecting her with financial literacy classes. “Our end goal is really to empower people out of poverty,” says Cole.

Despite the disruption of COVID, UP has remained diligent in shifting programming and assisting families, and was even recognized by Governor Parsons in his State of State Address in January. “I’ve been privileged to witness really creative, vigilant efforts to reach more than 900 children and their families in the last year. I am very glad I said yes to UP because I get to see the educational foundation being poured into our children,” Cole says.

If you would like to donate or have any questions about this organization, please contact Allison McDonald.