York Federal Fellows builds next generation of leaders
- One participant said the program gave her more confidence in myself and made her more comfortable taking on emotional and mental challenges.
If you could design your own plan of professional and personal development customized to fit your needs and personality, how much would you grow as a leader?
The York Federal Fellows Program goes beyond simply asking those questions — it invests in those development plans to help them come to life.
Since 2006, more than 70 local nonprofit, educational, and governmental executive leaders have been through the Fellowship with the mission of encouraging and supporting strong leadership in York’s nonprofit sector.
Each year’s class includes three to five leaders selected through an application process. Their stories, while diverse in how they define development, all have one thing in common: building a better York.
Ruth Robbins ’22: Community Progress Council
Ruth Robbins, Chief Program Officer at Community Progress Council (CPC), was named a York Federal Fellow in 2022. She began working at CPC in 2017 with the desire to make an impact on her community. Now, she oversees all the programs that fall under CPC, including WIC, Head Start, and Workforce Development — helping people move from poverty to self-sufficiency.
“I really believe in the work that we do,” Ruth says. “Poverty is a huge issue in our community and around the world.” She loves the strategic nature of CPC’s programs to break the poverty cycle.
When Ruth found out she was selected for the White Rose Leadership Institute York Federal Fellows program, she had a moment of excitement, then panic. For the personal portion of the program, she had proposed a 440-mile pilgrimage along the Camino de Santiago Trail through Portugal and Spain.
Over the course of the month of May, Ruth walked on average 15 miles per day. She only took two outfits. After each six-to-eight-hour day, she washed her outfit, hung it up, and hoped it was dry by morning. With long stretches of solitude, Ruth reflected on stepping outside the day-to-day cycle of putting out fires at work and how she could bring the temperature down.
For the professional portion of the program, Ruth is completing a certificate program through Cornell University on executive leadership. The introspective, two-week courses are helping her evaluate how she can better serve both her team and people who use CPC’s services.
“This made me stretch myself,” she says. “It gave me a ton of confidence in myself. I’m more comfortable taking on challenges after doing that — not just physical but also emotional and mental. Take risks, try things, and have more faith in yourself. Just find a way to go do it.”
Tom O’Connor ’19: Leg Up Farm
Tom O’Connor, President of Leg Up Farm, was among the York Federal Fellows Class of 2019. He joined Leg Up in 2011 after leaving a career in TV advertising and sales for the nonprofit sector. “I was really inspired by what founder Louie Castriota was trying to create here,” he says. “It’s enjoyable to see the life change in the kids we serve.”
Through his nonprofit work, Tom has been amazed by the way York’s nonprofit leaders come together to make a difference. “Nonprofits in this community do amazing work,” he says. “We pick up where others leave off, others pick up where we leave off. I think it’s so intertwined and I think the level of care across the board is fantastic.”
For the professional portion of the fellowship, Tom chose to attend an equine leadership program in California. Even though horses were a big part of the work at Leg Up Farm, Tom had little experience working with the animals. “Once a year, the staff makes me ride a horse, and it’s anxiety inducing,” he says.
Tom went to a ranch in California where the course instructor put him in a pasture full of horses and told him to connect with one. Tom honed in on the smallest horse he could find and tried to get the horse to like him. The more he chased the horse, the less it wanted anything to do with him.
At the same time, a bigger horse began following him around. The experience taught him about being an effective leader. “As leaders, sometimes we’re trying so hard to manage situations,” he says, “sometimes you just have to lead. It sounds silly, but sometimes it really is just a mindset.”
For his personal growth experience, Tom went white water rafting. One of the sayings often used at Leg Up Farm is: it only works if everyone is paddling in the same direction. Riding rapids along the Lower Gauley in West Virginia brought the saying to life. “When you’re in a boat with people, you have to trust that they’re going to do their job,” he says.
Joyce Santiago ’18: Affordable Housing Advocates
Joyce Santiago, a 2018 York Federal Fellow, is the Executive Director of Affordable Housing Advocates (AHA). When she began working there in 2006, it was her third time working for the organization. Joyce first began working for AHA in 1986, while she was struggling with her own housing issues, couch-hopping her way through her senior year of high school.
Never did she imagine that she’d one day be leading the organization that helped her secure a job and housing in a moment of need. “I never get tired of it,” Joyce says of working for AHA. “I understand the clients who call and need housing. I understand where they’re coming from.”
When Joyce learned she had been selected for the York Federal Fellows program, she was ecstatic. She was working as AHA Finance Director at the time and wasn’t even sure she was eligible. She knew that the development she’d receive through the funding would help prepare her for her role as Executive Director.
Joyce traveled to Los Angeles for a housing development finance class. It was the first time she had traveled solo. Seeing the homeless population there helped solidify Joyce’s desire to continue working in the field of affordable housing. Since returning, Joyce has continued to take follow up courses and grow in her knowledge.
For her personal growth portion of the fellowship, Joyce traveled to South Carolina to research her paternal grandfather’s side. She learned about the history of the slave movement in South Carolina and visited an all-Black cemetery where some of her ancestors are buried. The emotional experience helped her feel more connected to her family and her history.
Being a York Federal Fellow and now serving on the board of the White Rose Leadership Institute has strengthened Joyce’s belief that, by working together, individuals and organizations can help solve the problems in our community. “Nonprofits, we’re all wonderful, but we can’t solve all of our challenges and hurdles by ourselves,” she says. “We’re all in it together.”
About the York Federal Fellows
The York Federal Fellows Program offers outstanding nonprofit, educational and governmental executive leaders the opportunity to spend a year developing professionally and personally while expanding their leadership skills. With a grant of up to $5,000, executives can pursue their own development and connect with other executives during regular workshop sessions throughout the year.