Our office is new; our mission remains unchanged

By Barry Rochford, strategic communication officer

“Thank you for calling the Dekko Foundation. How can I help you?”

For any potential grantseeker desiring more information about our mission, for any grantee wanting to touch base and share their progress, for anyone reaching out to be connected with our proactive initiatives, that’s the greeting they hear on the phone.

Wanting to help — to support the great things that adults and youth-serving organizations are doing so that children are taking steps forward to their eventual economic freedom — has been at the heart of what we do since Mr. Chester E. Dekko started the Dekko Foundation nearly 40 years ago in 1981.

Since that time, our founder’s home on Baby Mountain in Kendallville, Indiana, was where our work was centered. But with our eye toward the next 40 years and beyond, we’ve relocated our office few miles to the south in the Community Learning Center because we think doing so will make us even more effective at fostering economic freedom through education.

Where we work has changed. The work itself has not.

The Community Learning Center

The Community Learning Center in Kendallville.

Likewise, supporting our grantmaking priority areas — those places where Mr. Dekko had business or personal interests — continues to direct our work. Northeast Indiana, in particular DeKalb, Kosciusko, LaGrange, Noble, Steuben, and Whitley counties, will always be a priority for us because it’s where Mr. Dekko launched and grew what would become Group Dekko International. So, too, are Limestone County in Alabama and Clarke, Decatur, Lucas, Ringgold, and Union counties in Iowa because Mr. Dekko located several of his manufacturing operations there. And the same goes for Norman County, Minnesota, because it was home to Mr. Dekko’s family, he grew up there, and he supported the community long before he created his namesake foundation.

So if our mission and work remain unchanged, you may be wondering, “Why move at all?” It’s a great question, and there are a few important reasons why we decided to relocate to the Community Learning Center.

First and foremost, Kendallville is our home. When a more than century-old, nearly 150,000-square-foot former school was vacated a few years ago, we joined with other community members and organizations to identify a new use for it. Those efforts, along with the invaluable support of local elected and education leaders, resulted in the Community Learning Center, which opened in 2019.

Being in the Community Learning Center provides the unique opportunity to work alongside organizations that serve children and young people and are striving to remove barriers to economic freedom. We believe the spirit of collaboration that guides the center and its programming will make us a better funder, as well as have a positive impact on Kendallville, Noble County, and Northeast Indiana.

Mr. Dekko was a strong advocate for communities seizing the initiative to solve their own problems and achieve their own successes. We think the Community Learning Center exemplifies that ideal. What’s more, with its mission of advancing the self-sufficiency of residents of all ages, the Community Learning Center and the organizations offering programs within it will support children and young people as they build knowledge, skills, and character that can set them on the path to economic freedom.

That’s our story. What’s yours? Does your organization have a project that contributes to children and young people growing up to be economically free? We’d love to hear about it.

“Thank you for calling the Dekko Foundation. How can I help you?”

Building skills for future careers

(Note to reader: It’s been an eventful couple of weeks for the Career Development Program at Garrett High School in Garrett, Indiana. First, it’s director, Chad Sutton, was honored by Harbor Freight Tools for Schools as an outstanding public high school skilled trades teacher. Then the program was recognized by the Office of Work-Based Learning and Apprenticeship for receiving its State Earn and Learn (SEAL) horizontal construction certification.

The Career Development Program is featured in our 2019 annual report. We’ve republished that story below. To view the entire annual report, click here.)

Students in Garrett-Keyser-Butler Community School District’s Career Development Program are building skills that can help make them self-sufficient and economically free as adults.

But even more impressively, they are actually building and soon will be at work on their biggest project of all: constructing a nine-lot housing addition next to Garrett High School in Garrett, Indiana.

Chad Sutton, the program’s director, believes such an audacious endeavor isn’t possible without partners stepping up to support the students’ learning and skill development.

“It’s just mind-boggling to think about how many different people are involved in this program,” Sutton said. “This program would not be where it is without collaboration.”

The strength of that collaboration, Sutton believes, has helped the Career Development Program garner state and national attention in the few short years since its creation. And like the program’s six-acre housing addition, called Brennan Estates, he thinks even bigger things are just around the corner.

“All across the state of Indiana, because of these relationships, things are going to change for high school students,” he said.

Exploring their interests

Founded in 2018, the Career Development Program helps students in grades 5-12 explore the construction and manufacturing fields by integrating academics with vocational skill building. Students take part in hands-on learning and receive career guidance in areas including construction, welding, architecture, engineering, and design.

Enrollment in the program has grown quickly to more than 150 students, with about a third of Garrett High School students opting to pursue vocational skill building through the program. Sutton said the program offers choices to students to pursue their interests, and it creates educational and career options for them after graduating from high school.

“The goal is to provide an atmosphere where students can learn in a way that brings out the passion that everybody has,” Sutton said.

Connecting with employers

Employers, too, were quick to embrace the program because of its ability to connect them with young people who have in-demand skills. Employers have worked with students on projects, given presentations about their companies and industries, and taken part in a “signing day” in which students announce the businesses they have chosen to work at following high school.

“It’s about keeping things as relevant as possible for students, from learning, to speakers, to academics, to skill development,” Sutton said.

Companies also are partnering with the school district on pre-apprenticeship experiences where students in the Career Development Program can spend a summer working for a local employer.

Because of the depth of learning and skill building that students gain through the program it has been certified by the state of Indiana’s Department of Workforce Development. And the program has become a model for other schools wanting to expand their vocational offerings for students.

“This is a real option for all students,” Sutton said.

Practicing philanthropy in their communities

(Note to reader: Our 2019 annual report features examples of collaborations in our grantmaking priority areas that support the development of children and young people. Among the most significant and longest-running collaborations are the community foundations and school districts that work together to provide young people with opportunities to learn about and practice philanthropy. To view the 2019 annual report, click here.)

In 1994, the Dekko Foundation launched an initiative aimed at helping young people deepen their understanding of philanthropy and forge stronger bonds to their communities through service. Over the past 25 years, more than 1,000 young people in Indiana, Iowa, Minnesota, and Alabama have seen the impact they can make by giving their time, talent, and treasure. And it wouldn’t have been possible without collaboration.

These young people have been supported in their philanthropic journeys by their respective community foundations and schools through mentorship and being empowered to make a difference.

Through this collaboration, youth philanthropy groups have been formed and have flourished in each of the 13 counties in the Dekko Foundation’s grantmaking priority areas. Among the many ways community foundations and schools support these groups is by identifying adults to serve as “navigators” for young people and act as a resource and guide as they learn about — and, more importantly, practice — philanthropy.


Shannon Erb, navigator of the ROCCS (Restoring Our County, Community, and Schools) youth philanthropy group in Decatur County, Iowa, said the middle and high school students in the group develop decision-making, leadership, and communication skills as they learn about nonprofits, grantmaking, and fiscal responsibility.

Likewise, communities benefit from the youth philanthropy groups’ efforts. For example, ROCCS members, who hail from three different school districts in Decatur County, have stepped forward to help residents from across the county make healthy choices for themselves and their families through community meals, cooking demonstrations, and health fairs.

“Bringing in youth and actually listening to what they have to say is so important,” Erb said. “Kids have a lot of creative ideas.”

Empowering young people

Coming up with those creative ideas requires collaboration among the youth philanthropy group members themselves, said Elizabeth Simpson, navigator of CCOPS (Clarke County Organization of Philanthropic Services) in Clarke County, Iowa. Students in the group are charged with choosing what they want to accomplish during the school year and handed the reins to make it happen.


For CCOPS members, that includes creating a food pantry at Murray High School, organizing a financial literacy fair, collecting Christmas toys for families, hosting the annual Hound Hussle run/walk for participants and their pups at the Clarke County Fairgrounds, and partnering with youth agricultural programs to establish community gardens. Members work together and hold themselves accountable for ensuring the success of their efforts.

“We’re giving them the skills so they can become the leaders of tomorrow,” Simpson said.

Creating youth philanthropy “champions”

As they explore and practice philanthropy, HANDS (Helping Achieve New Directions through Students) members in Whitley County, Indiana, lead a yearly program for local eighth-grade students in which the students learn about philanthropy and how it connects to nonprofit organizations and the broader community.

Through the program, called Charitable Champions, the eighth-graders research local nonprofits, learn more about the organizations’ missions at a nonprofit fair held at the middle school, and write grant proposals for the organizations they want to support. Teachers select eight to ten proposals to be presented to the entire eighth-grade class and HANDS members. The HANDS members then ask the eighth-grade presenters questions, evaluate the proposals, and select which ones will receive funding.

September McConnell, chief executive of the Community Foundation of Whitley County, said the youth-led collaboration with local nonprofits and the school is just one example of how HANDS members are building skills that will help them be successful now and throughout their lives.

“They’re seeing the efforts of their work paying off to help so many in this community,” McConnell said.

Please pardon our mess

Today we’re in the process of switching over to a new grants management system. We apologize if this transition has disrupted your ability to send us an application or complete a reporting requirement. If you were working on either of those, you will be contacted by our grants associate about how to ensure we receive your information.

The good news is starting tomorrow, June 12, we’ll have an updated, more user friendly online portal where you can send us your proposals and complete your grant reports. If you have any questions about this transition, don’t hesitate to contact our grants associate, Nan Meyer, at 260-347-1278 or nmeyer@dekkofoundation.org.


Keeping the school community connected

The past several weeks have brought some major changes to our way of life. Many of them have been — and continue to be — challenging. But there are positive things that are happening, too.

In Indiana, schools are closed for the remainder of the year, and the state is presently under a stay-at-home order. And yet, organizations that serve children and young people are being innovative and adapting so that they can continue meeting their needs. We asked Candice Holbrook, head of school at Oak Farm Montessori School, how her staff has adjusted to the changes in how they interact with students and parents, as well as what they’ve learned along the way.

How did the staff work together so that Oak Farm could shift what it was doing and teach students remotely?

Candice: First, I want to share that this really is an evolving process. Everyone is doing the best that they can during this time of disruption. With that being said, we are constantly learning and growing from this experience. Feedback from students, parents, and faculty has been helpful throughout this process so we can reflect on services being provided and make adjustments along the way.

I would like to say that we have been proactive in a lot of ways, however, in unprecedented times such as this, we have had to react and learn from those experiences. What we choose to do with those experiences is up to us, and that has been our approach all along.

First, we had to acknowledge what our reality as a school looked like and then continue to identify what is within our circle of control. We supported one another so that we could personally engage in the situation we all found ourselves in. This teamwork was important to meet the needs of our students and our families. This allowed us to problem-solve barriers and challenges that we might encounter so we could ultimately put a plan into action with our school community.

How did the staff extend the quality learning environments at Oak Farm to their online interactions with students?

Candice: Relationships are so important for learning and even more critical during this time. Without connection and attentiveness to meeting our families where they are at during this pandemic, the likeliness of our children learning and retaining academic content decreases.

Oak Farm is providing an array of opportunities to keep students and parents connected to the school and inspired to continue their learning and follow their interests.

We have focused on building connections with our students and parents so that efforts in providing meaningful distance learning opportunities are accessible and purposeful. As a school, we have provided weekly parent support groups such as Positive Discipline, continued publication of our weekly memo for news and updates, social media activities to stay connected, and a Google school site that puts everything our parents need in one place. Teachers are offering classroom community meeting times, personal opportunities to connect to students one-on-one via FaceTime or Zoom, and games or experiences that build community and keep us connected, such as “Jeopardy,” BINGO, and a camp-out challenge.

As a Montessori school, distance learning has been a huge challenge. In the Montessori classrooms, we believe in the importance of following each individual child in their learning and interests, while also providing choice along the way. It is important for students to learn from, and with, their peers. We have been able to stay true to these beliefs, but the biggest challenge is the prepared environment that our teachers develop to create order for our students.

Since our students are learning from home, our teachers have been creative to provide a sense of order as much as possible during this difficult time. Technology has been a tool to provide lessons, share individualized learning plans, and come together as a community, but learning experiences are so much more than that.

While a traditional lesson might be a worksheet or essay, we look at lessons more organically: outdoor exploration work, cooking for the family, gardening preparation work, sewing masks for your own family or those in need. We truly believe that the world is our classroom and learning can take place anywhere!

How are you still accomplishing your mission in this time of change?

Candice: We are committed to our mission of providing a Montessori environment that inspires children to reach their potential through meaningful work even during this time of distance learning. We also believe that we are accomplishing that goal! However, this looks very different for each of our families, as we serve infants through high school students.

As mentioned previously, it is the prepared environment that is the biggest challenge, but disruption calls for innovation, and that is exactly what we are doing. For example, our infant and toddler teachers have been preparing at-home learning kits that they deliver to their students. They are increasing parent support during this time to help our parents prepare an environment their child can thrive in that also works for their family.

Our elementary students are still continuing their Kids Investigate Natural Disasters (KIND) work, which involves research, persuasive writing, public speaking, and debate to be shared with an authentic audience.

Our secondary students have shared that, while they deeply miss the face-to-face social interactions, they feel their learning has continued on as normal as possible. These young adults are used to having independence and ownership in their learning, so a change to their physical location does not affect their ability to pursue their passions.

What are some of the things your staff is doing to make this situation successful for themselves and for young people?

Candice: In full disclosure, I think this is an ongoing process. We are constantly trying to find that balance of working remotely, supporting our families and students, while also trying to be parents ourselves and support our own children. This is downright hard for everyone. In addition to keeping relationships and community at the heart of our work, we are providing grace to one another during this time.

We have created a school version of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs based on the principles of Maria Montessori to support families (faculty and students included) during this time. The purpose was to reassure families that we are prepared to meet them wherever they might fall on the hierarchy and that they are doing enough. For example, some of our families may be trying to figure out how to manage the pandemic crisis and the impact it has on their family. They really need to focus on meeting their spiritual and safety needs before they can start engaging in the lessons, and that is OK.

Is there something in particular that’s working for Oak Farm that others may want to try?

Candice: Honestly, I think schools are doing everything they know how to do to serve their school community. According to the New York Times, people need a schedule, a distraction, and a community to remain positive. A focus for us has been keeping our community connected as much as possible.

On its Facebook page, Oak Farm is engaging students and parents with weekly “Jeopardy” games where they learn about the school.

We have a weekly OFMS “Jeopardy” Night that families can participate in and learn more about our school. Some of the topics include Montessori Materials, Staff 101, Classroom Pets, etc. We also have weekly virtual escape rooms, “Then and Now,” “Where’s Oakey?” (our school version of “Where’s Waldo”), and virtual cooking lessons with our school chef Noah.

When the stay-at-home order is lifted, we have other exciting opportunities planned, including a school parade and scavenger hunt on campus. In addition to the individual classroom sessions, we are offering live Zoom sessions in art, music, Spanish, theater, eco-literacy, and science. This is an opportunity for our related arts teachers to connect with the students as well as an opportunity for students to connect with their peers.

What are some of the positive things you’re hearing from students?

Candice: Students feel supported by the teachers and on multiple occasions have expressed gratitude for the strong community we have maintained. They feel that they are equipped with the tools that they need and that learning is individualized to them as much as possible. Based on the way eyes light up on our younger students when they see their friends and teachers during a Zoom meeting, it is evident that they are excited and enjoy the connection.

Now that you’ve been doing this for a while, is there a particular challenge that’s come up that you’re working to solve?

Candice: Feedback is so important during this time, enabling us to make adjustments along the way. For example, we are a school that does not use devices as part of the everyday curriculum for our younger students. This meant that we needed to contact them to ensure that all of our families had access. Similarly, not all of our students had access to a printer, so we needed to come up with a way to get them what they needed to engage in the learning.

Moving forward, the biggest challenge is scenario building during a time of uncertainty. It is not an impossible task, but it is daunting and exhausting to create multiple plans that you hope you never need to implement. However, having a long-term plan puts us in a position to be proactive and better meet the needs of our students and our school community.

Although this situation is not ideal, what are some of the positive things you and your staff have taken from the experience?

Candice: Being a lifelong learner is a characteristic that we value, not only for our students in our Portrait of a Graduate, but also for our faculty. This time of disruption has accelerated learning in many unexpected ways.

From the beginning of this endeavor, over half of our faculty reported that they found themselves being innovative and trying new things. It feels like overnight we had to problem-solve and think critically in order to continue learning to meet the needs of our students and families. With the right mindset, we have been using this as an opportunity while also being mindful of the lessons we are learning along the way.

Our school environment is rooted in principles that have allowed us to be proactive and take action. Together.