Emily Shane: “In every cloud, there is a silver lining”

There will always be children who “fall outside the box” — they learn differently, or are struggling for a variety of reasons I have noted earlier. The only way to “fix” this and help them stay the course is to address the issue when it arises and provide the necessary support and care to help remedy the […]

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There will always be children who “fall outside the box” — they learn differently, or are struggling for a variety of reasons I have noted earlier. The only way to “fix” this and help them stay the course is to address the issue when it arises and provide the necessary support and care to help remedy the problem(s).

While it can be emotionally difficult, even traumatic, to keep a child behind when they do not meet the grade standard to go to the next grade for the next school year, pushing them ahead only exacerbates the situation. They then fall further behind and are lost, and then the likelihood of giving up is increased. There needs to be a stream or program to address this (again, we are there for middle schoolers who fit this profile and are unable to afford the help they so desperately need.)

While we can’t fix the root of the problem, at least we offer a viable solution for those who have no other recourse.

As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ellen Shane, author of Emily’s Gift and Executive Director and Co-Founder of the Emily Shane Foundation.

A native of Montreal, Canada, author Ellen Shane is a dog lover, wife, mother, public speaker, and co-founder and executive director of The Emily Shane Foundation. She provides private grief support counseling and is working on the next book in the series of true stories about their dogs, who came into their lives thanks to their late daughter, Emily. Ellen was recognized as the KNX 1070 Honda Hero of the Week in October 2018 and has received the Lifetime Achievement Award from President Barack Obama in 2015, as well as many other prestigious awards. She has a degree in marketing with a concentration in Organizational Behavior from McGill University in Montreal. Ellen resides in Southern California.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

It was a tragedy that changed my life forever and set me on this path. Our youngest child, Emily, was murdered on April 3, 2010. She was walking to meet her dad to drive her home following a day spent with friends. It was spring break; the Saturday of Easter weekend. My husband waited; she never arrived. An enraged driver hit her as she neared the crosswalk to go to where her dad was parked. The driver’s speed was over 70 mph as he swerved and hit her directly.

What was truly hard to believe was his utter remorselessness after being informed that he had killed her. The sudden and unexpected death of a child is every parent’s worst nightmare. In this case, it was a senseless and unnecessary act of anger.

From that day forward, my life has never been the same. The night of the tragedy, my husband immediately thought of the idea of honoring Emily’s persona by creating a good deeds website, where people could record acts of kindness, and set this in motion.

After a period of time, I personally felt compelled to do more. It was important to me that I do something that would both honor Emily’s memory and help others. It was then that I thought of her academic struggles. Emily was a creative, and basic academics were not something she enjoyed doing. She was smart and could do the work, but it was not easy for her and not something she enjoyed.

After school testing in second grade, we learned that Emily was dyslexic and also had what was termed “processing” issues.

For example, there was a disconnect between what her verbal responses were to test questions and those she would write. The verbal response was accurate, the written one was not. This made doing well in school a challenge. Emily did not need or require special education, yet struggled to succeed in the mainstream classroom. She fell into what can be called a “grey area”.

As I was set on doing something that would be meaningful to her, I thought about the outside tutoring and help she needed to pass her classes. It was then that I realized what I could do to honor her memory. I met with the middle school she attended, and asked what type of support there was for children in the mainstream classroom who, like Emily, risked failure, but unlike Emily, could not afford any type of outside support. There was truly nothing. That was when I knew what I had to do, and that is how the SEA (Successful Educational Achievement) Program was created.

As the Foundation began due to an unexpected and tragic event, the children’s book I wrote, “Emily’s Gift: The True Story of Sherlock and Jackson” came to me two years after Emily’s death in a dream. I literally saw the entire book, from the cover to the end. In my dream, I turned the pages and saw and read the entire story.

I immediately woke up after the dream and turned to my husband, who was still half asleep, and told him excitedly that I had to write a book. When he asked me what I was talking about, I told him about the dream. I wrote down the story, and my husband connected me to animators in Canada he knew. They ended up creating all the illustrations that I described as I had seen them in my dream. I sent them numerous photos of our dogs and family so it would be realistic. They captured my vision so perfectly!

I am excited about launching this book to help support the Foundation, and am now working on the second book in a series, which are all true about our dogs. Each of the stories conveys positive themes and messages for children, as they get to know our dogs and join them on their adventures.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

One of the most interesting things that happened to me relates to an email I received four years ago in August.

A woman wrote to me explaining how she found the website for our nonprofit charity completely by mistake, thinking it was a different foundation. (The other foundation also had the name “Emily” in it.)

She told me that she had been a teacher for many years, and that she had taught in the lower socioeconomic areas of Los Angeles. She was keenly aware of the lack of resources for children who fit our SEA Program’s profile and expressed a desire to be involved with our mission. In addition, she offered to volunteer to help us for our fundraiser events and explained that she had volunteered for several non-profits. She particularly liked our approach that involved both academic and personal mentorship.

Here is something she wrote to help solicit support for our work: “This non-profit established in her (Emily Shane’s) memory promotes good deeds and assistance to middle school students who are at risk due to their academic struggles. The Emily Shane Foundation prevents students from establishing negative behaviors such as low self- esteem, joining a gang, or abusing drugs.

Therefore, the Foundation contributes to the physical and mental well- being of each of the individuals in the program. As a former teacher, I found this to me a remarkable non-profit.”

She also liked our emphasis on kindness to others, via the good deeds requirement.

Her learning about our Foundation by accident was a gift that came out of the blue, and was a complete surprise. To this day, she is tireless in her support.

As a former teacher, she is my “editor in chief,” reviewing and ensuring everything I send out is grammatically correct and error-free. She seeks possible funding sources and works to obtain the majority of amazing items we include in our auctions at our fundraiser events. She is invaluable to our foundation. In addition, she included her daughter (who currently works as an elementary school teacher) in the package and she now helps with areas such as social media, managing our donation software, and so much more. It is hard for me to express how grateful and indebted I am to them both.

Here is the kicker to this story: the woman’s name is Emily!! What are the chances? When I think about it, it seems unbelievable. A woman finds our foundation by a fluke of an error, contacts me, and is now a key player to our operating. I consider Emily a gift from my Emily. How wonderful and fortunate!

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Something that happened that makes me laugh when I look back was when I had received a mentor/tutor application from a university graduate named Ashley.

We arrange to talk as it was not clear from the submitted application that accompanied the resume if the after-school time commitment would work.

When I called, a male voice answered. I asked for Ashley. He said “This is Ashley.” I had never encountered a male Ashley previously, and had assumed the applicant was a female. I took a bit too long to respond, as I was taken aback, and without thinking, I blurted out “I thought you were a female applicant and was not expecting a male voice to respond.”

He told me he was from Australia, and that there the name Ashley was not related to a specific sex. The lesson I learned was never to make assumptions — and not only with names!

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

As we serve a disadvantaged community, the students who comprise SEA are often heading in a very negative direction. Some have already joined gangs, use or deal drugs, have given up and stopped completing and submitting school work, stopped studying for tests, skip class, etc.

In addition, they may have low self-esteem due to their poor grades; they may act out or bully others, or possibly be bullied themselves. While some come from caring families, others come from dire home-life situations and may also have social/emotional issues as a result.

For example, students in SEA have had a parent in the penal system, may be living with foster parents or family members like grandparents or other relatives. To take children who fit this profile, and provide them with the caring and personal support of a mentor, who is truly invested in their academic and personal success is the key to building a rapport that will ultimately lead to their increased motivation to succeed.

A Time magazine article, dated April 24, 2017, quotes Colin Powell. When asked “What is the single most important thing we can do for our kids?” he replied, “Research shows that the presence of stable, trusting adult relationships in the lives of young people is a key factor — perhaps the key factor — in keeping them in school.”

Truly the secret to SEA’s success is the bond between mentor and mentee. That accountability and the fact that the child now has a “personal cheerleader” to motivate and inspire them is why we succeed.

The mentor/tutor must strike the balance between ally and confidante while commanding respect. and ensuring the student steps up. They cannot do the work for the student, but teach them so they CAN do it. The motivation stems from the student realizing positive results — it clearly contributes to their desire to do even better and continue on the right path. To empower these children to succeed in school provides them a pathway to a better future. This is the “ticket” to change communities, as these young students will have the tools to become contributing members of society.

In addition, the “good deeds” requirement (one per session per student) fosters a social consciousness and our hope is that as these young students grow up, they will maintain that mindset, which will bring kindness to their communities and the world.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

I will share two stories that will convey the impact of our SEA Program.

One relates to a young student who was in seventh grade in Santa Monica, CA. I will refer to him as “T.” He had an elderly father who was disabled, a mother who was also disabled and bedridden, and an older brother. The family was struggling to afford the basics to survive. T was on the wrong path, and had given up even trying in school, despite being capable and bright. When I first met him, he barely looked up from the ground when he spoke. He seemed very melancholy and distracted. He was convinced that school wasn’t important and did not see the necessity of trying. He noted on his “Student Orientation Questionnaire” that he had difficulty with the organization. Like him, many children need to understand that they don’t have to like school — but they still have to get through it. It’s like doing what you must to win the prize, with the prize being having choices about your future and being successful at whatever you decide you want to do with your life. I assigned him a tough and terrific mentor/tutor named Tatijana. It took a while for her to get through to him, but she did. At the end of the school year, we hold “End of School Year” events, where we present certificates of accomplishment to each SEA student, as their mentor/tutor conveys and applauds their progress and successes. When I saw “T,” it was like seeing a new person. He was standing upright, smiling, confident and happy. He looked me in the eye. Tatijana shared his remarkable transformation and improvements in his grades. He had Fs in science, math and history — and now had As and Bs. I felt so happy and know without SEA, this improvement would not have happened.

The second story is about a student named Vanessa, who came to SEA in Oxnard, CA. She was in 7th grade and really struggling. The SEA Program provided the caring support and guidance she needed, and as a willing student, she quickly improved. She stayed in SEA until her 8th-grade promotion and set off for high school well prepared and ready. What speaks to the results of SEA is that this past school year, she was a college freshman and joined our SEA Program as a mentor/tutor. Following her own success resulting from the SEA Program, she returned to work as a mentor/tutor for students in her own community. Here is what she wrote on her application:

“I am planning on making special bonds with students that were once in my shoes. I am excited on applying my skills and knowledge to students who want to better their learning. I am committed to changing students’ mindsets on school, because I know how hard and intimidating it can be. Also, I want to inspire future STEM students, especially girls who are in the minority to step out of their comfort zone and try new things.”

Vanessa will be entering her second year at Cal Lutheran University, and we are so proud of her! She exemplifies what is possible to transform failing middle school students to have the opportunity to pursue higher education.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

There is no quick fix to address the root of the problem. It is really the entire school system that needs an overhaul, and that is expensive and difficult to accomplish. If I had my way, I would change the way things are done, utilizing much of what Sir Ken Robinson conveys in his TED Talks. That is why I have found a framework to work within the current structure, as the need is present and current. Waiting is not an option!

Of three things I would do, one is that I would definitely advocate for funding to help pay for after-school programs like ours. SEA would not exist if not for our foundation being a nonprofit charity. We do our best but are limited in our reach as it depends on funding we obtain primarily through fundraisers and grants. School boards can’t afford individual, one-on-one approaches for large numbers of students. If you go into any middle school classroom, you will find those who “fit the mold,” and some who just don’t. They may learn differently, be below grade level, have a language or processing challenge (like Emily). As we only serve those who are not in need of special education, these are children who just need extra help/guidance. There are many like this!

Another thing to address the root of the problem would be to have aides to teachers present in the classroom who can sit with children who are way behind, who don’t speak English or who are lost and do not understand what is being taught. They would have to be qualified to do so. Sometimes children don’t understand a teacher, or the teacher is truly not nice to them. An outsider is the only solution. Emily literally had teachers who picked on her because she had trouble, and they actually made things worse.

There will always be children who “fall outside the box” — they learn differently, or are struggling for a variety of reasons I have noted earlier. The only way to “fix” this and help them stay the course is to address the issue when it arises and provide the necessary support and care to help remedy the problem(s).

While it can be emotionally difficult, even traumatic, to keep a child behind when they do not meet the grade standard to go to the next grade for the next school year, pushing them ahead only exacerbates the situation. They then fall further behind and are lost, and then the likelihood of giving up is increased. There needs to be a stream or program to address this (again, we are there for middle schoolers who fit this profile and are unable to afford the help they so desperately need.)

While we can’t fix the root of the problem, at least we offer a viable solution for those who have no other recourse.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

A leader is someone who finds a balance with commanding respect and being the driving force while being truly empathic and also attentive to all who work with them. A leader can set the tone of the entire organizational culture, and it is critical for them to be positive, supportive and effective. I believe a good leader must be a good listener and be open to new ideas and feedback. It is always helpful to have a sense of humor! When conflicts and problems arise (and they will!), a leader takes charge, is solution-oriented, and maintains their “cool” while doing so. A leader nurtures a “team” approach while embracing individuality in pursuing the mission. Most importantly, a leader should possess a genuine passion for what they are doing.

Years ago, when I was a teenager, I attended a retreat that focused on leadership skills for a youth group in which I was involved. I remember the man who led the first seminar noted how critical it was for a leader to lead by example. This has always stayed with me. I recall that despite his position and authority when his first talk was over, he requested we all move our chairs to the side of the room and stack them. He then picked up his own chair, and another, and proceeded to do what he had requested. Instead of just telling us what to do, he did it himself. It was a small gesture but indicated something very important.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

Here are five things I wish I had been told when I began:

– Don’t expect funding or support to come from those you know or sources you expect to do so.

When we began, I naively was certain that those in our fairly affluent community, many who are well known, would step up and want to support our foundation. Everyone knew about the tragedy locally, as it was in the media and we live in a small town. This did not happen at all. Funding came from the most unexpected and unlikely sources. For example, instead of those ones we would consider “wealthy,” those who could barely afford to do so, but felt touched by Emily’s story and the work we set out to accomplish in her memory would contribute whatever they could (sometimes literally 10 dollars) to help fund us. Others we did not know who had found success due to a mentor in their lives would do the same. One last example is that the cost to become an official 501(c )3 was about 10,000 dollars — money we did not have. A philanthropist, whose daughter knew our oldest daughter, unexpectedly contacted us and paid the entire amount as a gift to us. This was completely unexpected and helped set us up to operate as an official nonprofit charity. His only condition to this was he be the first to donate to support us, which he officially was. It is sad that he has since died, but his gift will always be remembered.

– There are layers and layers to making things happen!

I had no clue about the endless protocols required to operate in schools, work within school districts and to partner with other organizations. I had to learn as I went along as the foundation grew organically. An example is one school where the need for SEA was great — a middle school in Westchester. As an LAUSD (Los Angeles Unified School District) charter school, the SDA (Service Delivery Agreement) and MOU (Memorandum of Understanding) were so long and involved, and I had no clue how to complete them accurately. As with other “gifts” that have come my way in doing this work, a woman in the office who processes these type of contracts literally took me under her wing. She was moved by my genuine passion to help the children at the school, and by Emily’s story. (She had looked up our foundation online.) She promised she’d do all she could to help me properly complete the paperwork and submit it. The process was lengthy, but successful. I do not think I would have had a chance to be accepted if it was not for her patience and efforts in guiding me through those agreements.

– It is very expensive to operate a nonprofit, even if on a shoestring budget! There are necessary tax filings, accounting costs, payroll….even simple things like stamps, letterhead and stationery, etc. The children we serve lacked basic school supplies in most cases, so we began providing them. These and many other necessities add up increasing the basic cost of operating. All funds we raise are directed to the SEA Program to operate — there is literally no waste. I had to learn to write grants, and this has been a help in obtaining much-needed funding.

– Don’t expect those who offer to help to follow through. While I now have a dedicated and committed committee to help with our fundraisers, over the years there have been many who made promises and never came through. One woman seemed so genuine as she shared these amazing connections she had who would want to support our work. After several meetings and talks, and my time invested in following up with these, she simply stopped communicating. I am always open to any possibility of support, whatever it may be, and have learned to appreciate when it is real so very much.

– It is important to foster relationships with outside organizations important to our cause. For example, I am affiliated with different branches of the Boys & Girls Clubs in various communities. While our foundation’s focus is unique, we share a common goal of supporting the needs of students and helping them develop to be the best of who they can be in every way. We often operate on the premises of the Boys & Girls Clubs and they welcome our work as we serve their members. It is a win for everyone.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

There are many areas that would help bring good to people. In consideration of my work and life’s passion, I would aim to take advantage of the current climate to draw attention to our work and show that it would eliminate the reality of academic potential being correlated with financial status. Students who comprise SEA are disadvantaged and the majority come from Hispanic and African American backgrounds. They deserve the opportunity to obtain our help to be academically successful and have every opportunity to pursue their dreams and goals.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My favorite life quote is: “In every cloud, there is a silver lining.” This is so true! The tragedy of losing Emily has brought me those silver linings: from how I met the woman named Emily who helps our foundation along with her daughter, to the naming of the EMILY robot, a water rescue lifesaving device that was named in Emily’s honor by its inventor and is used to save lives around the world, to the bench at Bluffs Park in Malibu bearing a plaque commemorating Emily that the local Kiwanis Club presented and installed for us, to the Malibu City Council voting to approve my campaign and presentation to honor Emily with her name on a street sign at the intersection steps away from where she was killed. Lastly, a dream that I had has become reality and is now a children’s book. I wrote “Emily’s Gift: The True Story of Sherlock and Jackson” as the entire book came to me in a dream. My wish is that the book will not only entertain those who read it, and convey positive messages, but help fund our SEA Program. I have an outline for a series of six other true stories that all relate to the first one.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

I would want to have a private breakfast at lunchtime! (I never eat breakfast, but it’s my favorite meal and I usually have it at lunchtime!). It’s hard to choose one person, but I would pick Linda Darling-Hammond, the current head of the California State Board of Education. I would want to discuss my work, and see if she could help direct me to possible government funding or grants to provide much-needed funding to ensure our continuity and to ideally grow to serve the many in need of our SEA Program not only across Los Angeles, but the entire state — and possibly beyond!

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Instagram: My personal: ellen.r.shane

Instagram for the Foundation: emilyshanefoundation

Facebook: emilyshanefoundation

Twitter: emilyroseshane


This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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