Working at Amara has pushed me out of my comfort zone while also making me feel at home. Coming into DukeEngage, I fully expected to be just another face in the office: someone insignificant, running around getting coffee and making copies (the usual fear of being an intern). However, Amara, thankfully, shattered my preconceived ideas of a non-profit internship, giving me a well-rounded experience that I will carry throughout my lifetime.
How did they do this? Well, for starters, they treated me like a human being with potential and provided me with respect and friendship. Rather than considering my partner-in-crime, Julia Ryskamp, and I as children to keep busy, the Amara Post-Adoption Team hit the ground running with projects to engage our desires to serve. Each day brought new insights and challenges. How could I merge over fifty Excel spreadsheets into one? How could I thoroughly analyze an adoption file with four kids who were all born thirty years before me? I could not have a higher sense of gratitude for my time at Amara: this internship (although it was more like full employment) exposed me to a world, entirely-foreign to me which is the point of college.
However, my bosses did not simply sandbag us with projects. They wanted to ensure we genuinely enjoyed our experience at Amara and continue cultivating the idea that a happy spirit is essential to complete any difficult task. Frankly, they’re pretty awesome if I can be so candid. Between treating us a welcome lunch and simply putting up with my terrible jokes, they exemplify the model of a great working team: diverse, understanding, and dedicated. Although I could continue for three more pages, singing their praises and leaving cheesy adages, this post will dive into one unique and tasty experience at Amara: my and Julia’s breakfast with John Morse, CEO of Amara.
One of our team members, Rena, suggested we conduct interviews for our final blog posts. Besides showcasing that we had one of the most amazing placements in the DukeEngage program, these interviews would tie our work together and effectively capstone our experiences in Seattle. She mentioned that Julia should interview a confidential intermediary for Washington, someone who facilitates adoptee and birth parent searches., and that I should interview the CEO of Amara, John. One interview would integrate our work with adoption records and legal research with a real face and narratives, while the other would give us a better glimpse into the world of nonprofits from a different perspective.
John Morse exudes positive energy and is an interesting person all around. On our first day, he introduced himself and took the time to learn who these new interns were. Already defying my expectations of a CEO, John continued to be a valuable piece of our Seattle puzzle, constantly chatting and joking with us. One can see that his heart is in the work he does, which makes him an effective leader. When we asked to interview him, there was no hesitation to his yes, but he did make an offer we couldn’t refuse: how about we go out to breakfast? I think I can speak for Julia and myself—and possibly every college student—when I say that we are suckers for a real breakfast. Besides, I would feel strange grilling the CEO in an interview, and pancakes would make it less awkward. So, we scheduled to meet him at Portage Bay Cafe, a classic Seattle spot, at 8 am before work.
Beyond having a great first name, John Morse has led an interesting life and carries a knack for giving fatherly wisdom and insight. After some friendly chatting about our time in Seattle and ordering our food (which came with a fruit bar), we embarked on a conversation rather than an interview. We discussed our work at Amara, what we thought about doing after college, and our plans for the future. Amazingly, John had similar perspectives on life. One thing I should mention about the Julia Ryskamp and John Honeycutt team, we are indecisive. We struggle to decide where to eat for lunch, so deciding on a career path is even more frustrating. John reassured us that our muddled trajectory should not scare us. In fact, he set another deadline: we should not necessarily “know” what we want to do now. Instead, we should experience what life has to offer, find our passions, and continue on a path of self-fulfillment instead.
In fact, John Morse did not see himself as the CEO of a non-profit. A native of Chicago, he knew that he wanted to be his own boss, but he was open to whatever life had to offer. He came to Seattle only after an attempt to emigrate to New Zealand, somewhat of a jump. John Morse embarked on a train to Seattle with no job and after only one previous visit to the city. Personally, such a jump would terrify me, but he took it in stride. He made the most out of his new situation, something from which all of us could learn. His mother instilled in him the value of experience and travel. This new and vibrant city presented him with a vast array of opportunities. Various jobs in the business sector occupied him until he decided to pursue an MBA to complement his BA in sociology. If this diverse plate did not already look full enough, he and his brother opened their own ice cream business, Fratelli’s, in 1981, which they would eventually sell in 1998. The brand became a Seattle staple, and the Morse brothers engaged frequently with the community. Through a great philanthropic gift, they facilitated the creation of Rachel the Pig, a local celebrity in Pike Place Market. However, John remains humble and considers his work to be about serving the community not himself. Throughout all of his ventures, John carried his spirit of individuality and service into everything he did.
The nonprofit world is nothing new to John. Previously, he volunteered his time with Global Partnerships, a Seattle-based anti-poverty organization. However, after leaving the business world, he still felt a need to serve others. So, just like his move to Seattle, he applied to be executive director of Amara on a whim. When asked about his motivations for transitioning into a nonprofit dedicated to helping children, family emerged as the main theme. To John, family meant the world, and he wanted to help all children to have a family to love and support them. Nonprofits operate a similar vein to a business, so his skills have transferred easily. Effective management and leadership exist in both realms, but the difference lies in purpose. Private business entirely operate under the umbrella of profit; on the other hand, nonprofits thrive on human service. People come before profit, both a strength and a challenge. Fundraising presents unique situations for nonprofits. In Amara’s case, over 85% of its revenue comes from philanthropy as the mission is to serve rather than to profit. Fundraising does not stand alone in the challenges plaguing nonprofits.
When asked further about the issues nonprofits face, John Morse raised an essential point that intrigued both Julia and me. He described the danger of nonprofits putting themselves before the communities they serve. To him, one of the greatest threats to a nonprofit can be the muddling of a mission. I believe this idea can be applied to all of our placements in Seattle and to the nonprofit world in its entirety. We should never forget why or whom we serve. The bureaucracy of an organization looms as a real and present danger to its effectiveness. I truly appreciated John’s candor, and his words will continue to echo through my conversations on nonprofits.
I have to mention that this breakfast included his own questions for us. John wanted to know how we had enjoyed our time at Amara to which we eagerly responded that we benefited greatly from it. But moreso, we enjoyed and felt fulfilled by the work we did. The post-adoption team entrusted us with their amazing projects, something I may have even been hesitant to do. I hope that Amara has been by our work as we have been. My desire is that we learned as much as we possibly could, not so that we can say we know what we’re doing. Rather, I hope we will continue to learn and grow for the betterment of others. John’s hopes for the future are optimistic and bright. When asked about the legacy he hopes to leave, his answer was simply that he had made a positive impact in the lives of children and that people remember the feelings of joy from his work. We all hope to be remembered for something, but a legacy of service speaks volumes. I think we all desire to leave this world a little better than we found it.
Well, we wrapped up our breakfast by finishing the amazing pancakes and french toast while our stomachs dragged. John drove us to the office (a nice reprieve from the public transit system). Along the way, he reminded us of some very important things. We should travel as much as possible, so that we can experience all that life has to offer. Another piece of advice, one that I will especially heed, do not succumb to the false pressure to fully “know” what you want to do. Sample all aspects of life, and do not let others determine your path. I hope he knows how much that meant to me as I find myself lost in this whirlwind part of my life.
A simple breakfast can change your perspective. John Morse, a fascinating example of leadership, left an impression on Julia and me. I am so thankful to have this opportunity as well as the vast array of experience DukeEngage has a lotted me. This summer will always hold a special place in my heart as the time when I completely left my comfort zone into an unknown world. The people and places I have seen will always stay with me. How can I top this summer? I guess I will have to go out and see.