“We want more visible presence so that people understand what Moving Dorchester Forward is all about and how they can get plugged in.”
That’s one of Chris Wheedleton’s wishes for the nonprofit group he currently directs. So, here’s a rundown on just what MDF is all about.
Moving Dorchester Forward began as a collective group of people, including local leaders Kevin Beverly, Omeaka Jackson, Greg Meekins, and Steve Rideout, coming from around the area to discuss the gaps in the services and resources available to the community. The group evolved over a number of years before its members decided to organize into a 501(c)3 nonprofit.
“We started with the community conversations,” explained Wheedleton. “Many of those started in the middle of Covid and were fully virtual. And we were averaging 75 to 80 people on those calls.”
Eventually they got more targeted in their discussions, focusing on early education. MDF invested in the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, the first key program they started doing all the planning and support for, funded by the John & Janice Wyatt Foundation.
The campaign proposes the following: If educators and parents can get children reading on grade level by third grade, the doors would be open to many other possibilities. Contrarily, if the kids are not reading on grade level by that time, and they’re coming from low-income environments with extra challenges, they will find it difficult to catch up and have a fully successful life.
Unfortunately, according to a recent Kindergarten Readiness Assessment, only about 30% of kindergartners in Dorchester County are ready for school.
“So, if 30% of the kindergartners are ready for kindergarten,” said Wheedleton, “the basics of sitting in a chair and reading a book and understanding what they’re reading—that’s a community-wide problem.”
One of the efforts MDF is working on in relation to the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading is a countywide reading program.
“Our schools have all they can handle with getting kids back into a normal world and a lot of the social and emotional needs that they have, and all the providers are trying to support them there,” Wheedleton said. “What if now there’s an organization or campaign overall that is getting the entire community to support kids reading more? How much more impact could that have towards kids reading on grade level by third grade?”
But early learning is only one of MDF’s three focus areas, the other two being community engagement and workforce development.
The group is working in conjunction with the Dorchester Chamber of Commerce, local businesses, and the Maryland Apprenticeship and Training Program to get young people into current jobs and permanent careers. MDF also wants to help area employers get the talent they’re looking for. Wheedleton and team member Nancy Shockley will be hosting a workforce-development community conversation focused on summer youth employment and another conversation on mentoring.
“Dorchester County has a high level of poverty,” Wheedleton elaborated, “so we’ve got a major poverty initiative all about really engaging the community to figure out how to create pathways to gainful employment.”
This leads to the third major thrust of MDF—getting the community involved. It includes going out and asking the people what is really needed, whether it be resources, money, action planning, activities, or personnel. The group recently started the PEP (Parent Encouragement Program) to help 27 families through parenting-skills classes and talking about how to balance things, and they provide resources, food, and daycare. MDF also wants to create a cohort of parents to be ambassadors for programs in the community.
Additionally, MDF is zeroing in on grant programs, going after significant sources of funding that they know are available for mentoring and community development. They have two very experienced grant writers who moved to Cambridge and said they didn’t want to work full time but did want to help impact the local community.
The group also creates the awareness of programs. For example, Omeaka Jackson’s Harvesting Hope Youth & Family Wellness, Inc., has reading socials on Saturdays, and MDF advertises them to get more people to attend.
Of course, Wheedleton can’t send a message to everyone in Dorchester County. But, during the community meetings MDF has been part of, more than 900 people have said they were interested in whatever the group was doing. So, Wheedleton can send a message out to those 900 people with the encouragement to send that message to everyone in their own networks. In that way, it wouldn’t take long to reach everyone in a community the size of Dorchester County.
To help accomplish this efficiently, MDF created a database of people who indicated they wanted to get involved and wished to receive communications. So, when a particular meeting is coming up, Wheedleton doesn’t need to invite all 900 people in the database; he can sift through it to pull out the names of people who mentioned particular criteria for their involvement.
“We now have better detail behind what we’re doing, and we can be really targeted in the way that we engage people,” said Wheedleton. “The more we really understand that network of friends and what their capabilities are, the more we can plug them into the things that they want to be a part of.”
While they can send emails, which some people read and some don’t, MDF also uses flyers and posters that can go right into businesses or onto community post boards. They’re still trying to crack the code on communication, however, because people consume information in different ways now than in the past.
One undoubted positive for Moving Dorchester Forward came when it was given the responsibility in Summer 2022 of being the Local Management Board for the county. Just like MDF, the longstanding management board serves the community, learns what their needs are, and then helps make sure available resources get where they should go. But being that board also gives MDF a structure and a foundation, gives them a budget for office space, and allows them to have money flowing into particular programs so they can have a greater impact and draw more people into their “tent.”
The office budget got MDF their new space at the refurbished Packinghouse in Cambridge. Wheedleton likes the vibe there, and he is excited about bringing people and groups in to create action plans and then schedule follow-ups to see how they’ve progressed using those plans. He leads a weekly staff meeting now to talk about key initiatives, and MDF just held its first all-partners conference to discuss what is working, what isn’t working, and what could be done better.
Plus, they continue to have community conversations to share what action plans have been put into place. Wheedleton and his team want all of the local nonprofits to recognize that Moving Dorchester Forward is a complement to what is already being done.
“We don’t want to take over anything, we don’t want to get in the way of a mentoring group that is really focused on a particular subset, but we can create a collective that brings resources so that they can do their vision and mission,” explained Wheedleton. “Through that concept of collective action, we hope to have a collective impact.”
P. Ryan Anthony