Illuminating Leaders is a series of interviews with women who are making a difference and creating change just by being their natural selves. We learn about what leadership means for women, where we get stuck, where we inspire and where we create change.
Velma Bailey is from St. Louis. She earned her undergraduate degree from St Louis University, and a master’s from Webster University. She worked as a teacher in the St. Louis public schools for 27 years,and served as the Alderwoman of the 19th Ward for six years.
She feels her greatest accomplishment is serving as the President and CEO of the nonprofit she founded, the Saint Louis Torchbearers 2. Their mission is to train youth to serve as leaders among their peers, in the community and throughout the world.
While participating in programs with the Saint Louis Torchbearers 2, children learn to make healthy decisions, which equips them with the ability to lead others in activities. Torchbearers 2 has added a 240-hour homework helper program where 12 to 15 campers are taken to a college campus to receive one-to-one assistance with homework. They also have Super Saturdays where children go on field excursions in the community (approximately 20 Saturdays per year), and overnight camping events.
Velma’s work was greatly influenced by the childhood she experienced with her parents, her church, and serving on Kaleo Council for Kids Across America Christian Sports Camps (KAA). According to Velma, “One of the things that helped me when I was young, was that I saw my parents, and the people in my community, really rallying around children, trying to help them be all that they could be. Providing resources and activities during non-school hours to help kids grow and mature, develop a sense of wanting to take the mantle, and do the same kind of work. But not as work for pay, but as a value to themselves and to other people. (In addition to being members of a community) being more like a family: Supporting each other. Loving each other. Cherishing each other’s dreams.”
DLA: When you retired from work and started the Torchbearers 2, where did the name come from and why is there a 2?
VB: Well, the name Torchbearers came from a friend of mine, Dana Thomas, who was actually an executive director of Kids Across America (KAA). When I was working on the Kaleo Council at KAA, I had the great opportunity to meet lots of ministries and get kids to a seven-day camp where they would be away from the city out in nature getting a chance to really explore and see who they were. They would develop friendships with kids from across the country. And, they could see that the problems that they had were shared. And see their feelings as not so much of a problem but more of a stepping stone, a developmental stage. And then see other people have those same problems because there are a lot of times when you’re by yourself; you kind of think, “I’m the only person who has this kind of issue that just doesn’t seem to go away.”
We started a group called the St. Louis Metro Area Coalition for Kids Across America. We were trying to get kids to share common experiences and then started working with them during non-school hours. After about eight or nine years he said, “Velma, why don’t you start the Torchbearers?” And I said, “Torchbearers?” He said, “you’ve been working for so long, volunteering and doing all this organizing. You need to organize your city.” And, I thought, I’m one person how can I take on organizing an entire city. Well, it’s just like eating an elephant one activity, one kid at a time.
DLA: So the name Torchbearers came from…
VB: It was a suggestion from a friend of mine and then as I started praying about it, God gave us a little tagline “Passing the FLAME to Our Youth.” And we thought of the Olympic torch and we see the kids Passing the Flame. We are passing the flame to them, the communities passing the flame to the children, the children are learning, and then they’re passing the flame back to other children, and to people in the community.
DLA: I love that there was a reciprocity. I call it a sacred reciprocity. It’s giving and taking because you were also getting by giving back… and the number 2 at the end of the name?
VB: Well, the number 2 is a reminder for us. I started the organization and at one point I didn’t have enough resources to keep it going. And God told me, is not over.
DLA: So this is your second life.
VB: This is the second attempt to start the organization and now we’re into the ninth year. The mission of the Saint Louis Torchbearers 2 is to train youth to serve as leaders among their peers, in the community and throughout the world.
While participating in programs with the Saint Louis Torchbearer 2, our children learn to make healthy decisions. This equips our participants with the ability to lead others in activities. Currently, we have training opportunities through two programs: Camp Sun Splash, our flagship program, which is an eight-week leadership development camp during the summer, and Super Saturdays, which are excursions into the community to explore and learn.
DLA: I can see the passion and the love for this mission. What’s your vision? What do you want as your legacy? Where do you see this moving to?
VB: Well, one of the things that I really feel firmly, the vision for this organization, is to continue to help children who are under-resourced. We have no fees associated with our program. And we’re there, at our camp for eight weeks and next year we are starting a nine-week camp.
Our services provide opportunities for our campers to increase their leadership skills as they create viable options to violence, bullying, tobacco, alcohol, promiscuity, boredom, brain-drain, physical inactivity, excessive use of electronics, abuse and neglect. In addition, breakfast, lunch and an afternoon snack will be served to increase access to proper nutrition. .
We’re not trying to be the next Boys’ and Girls’ Club of the world, we’re not trying to be the YMCA or any of those larger organizations that have a great mission, and have a lot of resources. We’re trying to get to that kid that’s fallen through the cracks, that nobody is paying attention to.
When we started our summer camp we knocked on doors in the neighborhood around Fairground Park. And we did that for several years. We had applications for parents. We signed kids up at the door, because there are still a lot of parents in need of support with literacy, so we filled out the application and just had the parent sign it and the kids could come to camp.
This was such a blessing because over the years some the kids kept coming back. They may move away, and they come back. It was really heartwarming this year because some of the kids called me on the phone. These are 9- and 10-year-olds, calling to ask, “if there would be camp again?” Now, these are the same kids that were complaining last year saying, “It is too hot out here!”
DLA: Oh, they miss it.
VB: They do. They love the camp. The kids swim every day. As I mentioned, we take 20 field trips a summer. We use Metro a lot. So the kids are planning the trips. We have to make our bus or train connections. One time we missed the bus and those big kids were like, we’re never missing the bus again. So, if we’re late, they’ll pick up the little kids, and put them on their shoulders and then run so we don’t have to wait for the next bus.
DLA: I’m loving it. There’s nothing like learning from something like that, and learning how to do it differently the next time. So tell me a little bit about your vision long term: where do you see the Torchbearers 2 growing?
VB: Well, we’ve grown from 17 kids and some Bibles and space in the park to now almost 50 partners who provide services for the children, and major institutions in the city of St. Louis who donate. These are institutions and individuals who care about stopping the violence, who care about the people in this community. Some of these are the “least person.” The person who doesn’t have money to spend, or who have a living wage but no disposable income.
DLA: I understand that. That’s where you are now, and I’m going to ask you to step into five years from now, what does Torchbearers 2 look like?
VB: Well, I’m trying to dance around it because …
DLA: I know and I know part of this is also because you don’t know what inspiration you’re going to have. I get that. But if you had a dream of where this could go, what would it be?
VB: We do have a vision but sometimes I have to admit that although we have confidence that we’re doing the right thing, it can be frightening.
We would like to create is a camp counselor-in-training program for our children 14 and 15 years old. Have them work with some of the younger kids and get some real training to help with the trauma that they’ve experienced. The highest level of learning is when you learn a skill and you can teach it to others.
We also want to take a group of kids on a domestic mission trip. We already do some volunteer work and activities in St. Louis and we help maintain our park. But we would like to take them outside of the city. Take all of our kids that are between the ages of nine and 18 to our summer camp, Kids Across America in Golden, Missouri up in the Ozarks. Give them that 7-day experience where it’s just them and nature, and having to rely on other people.
We also would like to expand our after-school program beyond homework help to offer one-on-one mentoring. Someone who can help them understand that just because they can’t get a problem right the first time or it takes a little longer than the next person, they still have the ability to do it. A mentor to give them coaching and encouragement to increase their academic achievement.
DLA: That’s true, especially because there’s those ages where they give up so easily, and to really believe in them is what’s going to help them through those times.
VB: Well a mentor will stay with them longer – like an instructional coach.
DLA: You’re the glue around this whole multifaceted program that you created and grown, so tell me about your leadership. What makes you a good leader?
VB: We offer the opportunity for people to come in with the gifts and talents that they have because we don’t have a very formal structure. My style leans toward participative decision making or “employee involvement.” That includes analysis of problems, development and implementation of solutions. Everyone is encouraged become stakeholders at all levels of the organization. That way when people get involved we create a space that will give them meaning. We allow people to work and just be themselves.
DLA: You have created this culture where people feel welcomed. They feel like they can contribute and it’s inclusive.
VB: At whatever level they come in and whatever skills they have. For example, we have a volunteer who creates art projects for us. She buys all the supplies then comes to us and teaches. And that is just as valuable to us as the Magic House.
DLA: So, what would you say would be something you’d like to grow in yourself as a leader so that you can actually grow the organization to the next level?
VB: I really don’t like to admit this, but I will. One of my biggest challenges to overcome is asking people for money.
DLA: You’re not alone. I think most every executive director, every nonprofit out there always has a little angst when it comes to that, especially with larger donors. And, to do that from a place of comfort, (or at least a place where it’s more comfortable to ask for money), what needs to shift in you?
VB: I need to realize that it is a muscle that has to be exercised like anything else. I met some nuns with the order of Little Sisters of the Poor. Part of their mission was to give people an opportunity to sow into the work that they were doing. So they would go door to door, to ask for donations. There’s a scripture that says, “know that there is always a seed time and a harvest time.” They gave people an opportunity to grow. And when you do that, there’s something that grows inside of you. For me, when I give it makes me feel good and makes me feel grateful.
DLA: So, for you to practice that “ASK.” But, I’m looking for the word or the trait that you would like to strengthen so that this becomes more of who you are.
VB: Well, maybe giving people an opportunity to sow into me.
DLA: To receive. Women are so good at giving, but their receiving muscles could use a little support. So here is an opportunity to inform people on how they can reach you if your vision and mission is something that lights them up as well. How can they support and reach you?
DLA: Thank you so much, Velma! I hope this will allow our readers to see that for every one of us who has a big vision, calling on the collective is a way to get it done. We don’t have to do it all ourselves. Our leadership needs to grow and evolve as our organizations grow and evolve so we can keep up with the complexity of what we’re creating.