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Interview (continued) with Michelle Gonzales: A Dedicated Life

5 Oct

Now, to continue my interview with Michelle from Seesaw. We talk about her favorite part of the job, the hard times, and what she needs most for Seesaw. Alright, let’s get into Part 2.


There have been some amazing success stories from the Seesaw program like, “The foster child that at only 13 years old is doing really well. He has his own micro-enterprise with his first clients. Then there’s the teen that now has a sense of hope when they go back to the shelter. I could tell you one about every child that’s stepped through the door.”

It’s at this point that I looked around her office, during the interview, with fresh eyes. What once seemed to be a cramped office with bit too much clutter now appeared to be more like a shadowbox filled with warm memories.

There are some challenging parts of the job, too. “In the beginning of the year we do recruitment and the stories I hear behind closed doors, they’re things I need to know……it’s hard. It’s offered up by parents, or something that a DSS worker wants me to know about that special child, but sometimes after they leave I have to go in a corner…” There’s a pause and we move on to another subject.

Then we get to the elephant in the room. Money. The annual operating budget is $70,000. That covers every thing. Through Michelle’s, program coordinator, and volunteers’ efforts they are able to get products and service donations worth an additional $70,000. Most non-profits will tell you that there’s never enough. Of course they’re right, but I can’t help but feel like Michelle is on another level. There have been times, too many times, where she’s gone without a paycheck so that Seesaw can remain afloat. Terms get renegotiated—60 days for repayment becomes 90.

Let me stop here. I want to make one thing clear. I’m only describing the situation as it is. They are doing good work with what they have at Seesaw. They don’t need your sympathy, but I’m sure Michelle would love your help. “You can donate through our secure service, Network for Good, you can also mail-in a donation to Seesaw at P.O. Box 3456, Durham, NC  27701. Or, if you want to come in and drop a donation we’d love to have you, we’ll do coffee and chat.”

Another way to get involved is to spread the word. “Don’t have the money to spare? We understand. Too busy? We understand that too. We’ll still love you. You never know which person you talk to might be that angel to Seesaw.” Sometimes just being there makes all the difference. “Come by, see our classes. It shows the kids that the community cares about what’s going on here. Tuesday—Thursday 3-6 p.m. come by.”

Her only wish? That she could see more kids. They have the space; they could easily double the amount of teens in the program. It’s the money again. Using more space means paying more for her retail rent and for supplies. Also with some volunteer and monetary help she would love to open a vintage boutique in downtown Durham where Seesaw can help students get a retail education while providing a source of income.

This is the $100 question I ask to every non-profit I interview. “What would a gift of $100 mean to the organization?”

Given Michelle’s reaction, there’s not much $100 can’t do at Seesaw.  “Let’s see. $100 will pay for the phone bill for a month.” The office phone is her lifeline to parents, guardians and caseworkers to see how their son or daughter is doing. “$100 gift pays for the toolkits for four teens. A hundred dollar gift could go to a box of t-shirts that turns into a micro-enterprise for a child. A hundred dollar gift could add 5-10 books to our design library. A hundred dollars goes a long ways.”


A huge thanks goes out to Michelle for sitting down with me for an honest, wonderful interview.


Interview with Michelle Gonzales: A Dedicated Life

4 Oct

I sat down with Michelle Gonzales from Seesaw Studio for a quick interview. Well, it turned into a two-part writeup. What can I say? We chatted about the program, successes, hopes, Michelle’s past, and why she’s driven to help teens realize their success. Let’s get into Part 1.

Walking into Seesaw Studio you get a sense this is a special place. You can feel the hopes and dreams of past students. Each workstation, scarred and marked up, tells a story of the budding teens who’ve become successful young adults under the program. Seesaw is a free after school studio that teaches teens from all walks of life the design and entrepreneurial skills they need to create success for themselves and their families.

To put it simply, in Michelle’s words, “…is to provide teens with the tools for future success.” She goes on to say, “Not everyone of them will become a designer. Some may become vets, doctors, or chemists, as some have over the last eleven years. What we give them are the basics—how to talk to people, how to think through a problem, how to produce, and how to think beyond their six blocks.” Pride and passion are flashing in her eyes now, “If they get nothing else out of it, then I’ve done my job.”

From the first moment you meet Michelle, it’s apparent that she gives everything to the kids who walk through the door at Seesaw. She’s one of the good people you read about—the ones who are changing lives in their communities

Before coming to Seesaw, Michelle worked all around the “non-profit mafia.” She’s been an AIDS activist, worked in AmeriCorps, and started the DIG (Durham Inner-city Gardeners) program at SEEDS.

Executive director at Seesaw for the past 3 years, Michelle has increased the enrollment from 2 when she started in 2007 (dark days for Seesaw) to around 30 today. For her, Seesaw is a way to give what wasn’t available to her.  “Every time I come here I feel so privileged to be able to offer this up.”

It becomes apparent later in the interview why working with teens is so important to her. “My mother died of AIDS and I took care of her during my teenage years. I guess that’s why a lot of my work has focused on teens, because I didn’t get to be one.” There’s a pause here as we both reflect on her introspection. Then she lightly adds, “Some people say I’m still trying to be one.” Laughter cuts through the pause and we continue.

Two moments where touchstones in the interview. One was talking about her past and the other was the pride and sheer joy in her eyes when talking about kids graduating from the program. “What’s the best part about the job,” I asked? She just lit up. “The beginning…and the end. There’s just so much hope and potential on their faces when they walk through the door for the first time. And also the end. To see them walk out a different person – confident and ready to take on the world.” It became obvious that those two emotions came from the same place in her heart.

Tune in tomorrow for Part 2 of the interview where we dive into the programs, successes and what Michelle needs most at Seesaw Studio.

“Major” Art Flash Mob

19 Sep

To kick off this new year of art and design at Seesaw Studio, we created an art flash mob with the teen students. They set up their workspaces all around “Major” the bronze bull statue in downtown Durham. Some easels hit the ground thanks to a windy day, but the kids worked through the problem and ended up with some amazing art for their first week of the program.

Check out the video and pics.