In this next round of Feature Friday interviews, we’re shining a spotlight on the people who keep Sister Schools’ wheels turning: our staff. We would not be able to execute our mission of “opening eyes and changing lives” without these passionate, dedicated individuals who work on behalf of Sister Schools.
First up is a familiar face, someone we all know and love, our Executive Director Ella McGill. Known to many as the beloved daughter of Sister Schools Founder and Program Director Terry McGill, Ella has charted her own path within the organization. Let’s just say she has come a long way since she “helped” her dad sort and box donations as a kid!
Find out more about what Ella does today as Executive Director!
What is your earliest memory of Sister Schools?
Maybe not my earliest memory, but my most vivid was at our old warehouse in South Seattle. This was a government building and it was huge, probably 100 tenants renting spaces. I was in elementary school, so it was the early 2000’s. It was loading day and we had a lot of volunteers sorting and boxing the last few schools, and then we had to load them into someone’s van and drive them out of the building to the parking lot where the container was parked. There was a lot to do!
My friend Lindsey and her family were there, and she and I were just getting into so much trouble! We were too small to carry any boxes, couldn’t focus long enough to sort anything, and were generally getting underfoot. Finally our parents were fed up with us – they gave us some paper and crayons, and told us to go sit in the corner and stop distracting people.
A couple hours later, everything was packed, the container was gone, and we were all enjoying some well-earned treats. And that’s when our dads realized that Lindsey and I had dragged a bunch of packed boxes out of the pile and made ourselves a table and chairs in the corner. I’ll never forget the look on my dad’s face! He had to change the shipping paperwork because the manifest was no longer accurate and those four boxes sat in the middle of the empty warehouse for a year until the next container!
What do you do as Executive Director?
As Program Director, my dad works with kids and really gets to implement our mission. That’s what his job is – to teach compassion, service, and social responsibility to children and young adults. As Executive Director, my job is to ensure the lights stay on so that we can teach compassion, service, and social responsibility. My job is broken into three big parts: handle administrative tasks, work with the Board of Directors, and develop our resources.
There is a ton of work that goes on behind the scenes – someone has to pick up the mail! There’s paperwork that needs to be filed to keep us legally in operation. And we have to budget – this is my main task right now as we approach the new fiscal year. There’s a lot of moving parts and the COVID-19 pandemic has thrown even more variables into the mix. Plus, there’s all the work throughout the year to make sure we’re staying on track. It’s not very glamorous, but if the administrative stuff doesn’t get done, then neither does the program.
The second major thing I do is work with the Board of Directors. The Board really serves as the link between Sister Schools and the community. On the one hand, they represent the interests of the community, making sure we’re spending our money wisely, ensuring our program is effective, and planning for the future. As a staff member, I’m immersed in the daily operations of the organization but can get bogged down in what is happening this week or month. As the Executive Director, I work with the Board to determine what what is happening in the future: what needs we can meet, how those needs fit into our mission, and how to fund them. The Board also represents Sister Schools to the communities around us; they might join me at a Rotary Club where I give a presentation, bring their friends to our Gala, or recruit their child’s school to the program! Anything that helps Sister Schools gain a presence in the area and share our mission, the Board does – and I provide the support they need.
The final part of my job is resource development. Now, you might think that this is all about fundraising, but that’s not true! Money is a resource only in an economic sense. Our true resources are the people we partner with – the school coordinators, warehouse volunteers, board members, Sunday school classes and Rotary Clubs, and yes – the donors.
When I’m developing resources, what I’m really doing is building relationships. I do that through these Feature Friday newsletters, calling donors to say thank you when they make a donation, and treating it like a friendship! And yes, I do have to raise money; Sister Schools does not charge a fee to schools to participate in the program, so 100% of our operating funds comes from donations.
Fundraising can be intimidating, but it’s much easier when you have a relationship based on a shared vision. And while it takes a lot of work upfront, it is well worth it in the long run!
How did you adapt during the pandemic?
This pandemic has been really difficult for me! I recognize that I am privileged in so many ways – I already worked from home, we don’t have kids who are doing virtual school, both my husband and I remained employed and were never at risk financially. But it’s been tough staying focused and motivated. I do this job because I believe in our mission and our program – that’s always been my “why.” But when local and Ugandan schools closed and we pivoted our program, it was harder to find purpose. It felt like we weren’t doing enough and that was really disheartening. Starting our Feature Friday newsletters helped me find that motivation again because it reminded me of the impact of our mission and our program. I was able to adapt and use stories from the past to keep me moving forward. I’m serious when I say that Feature Fridays are the highlight of my week!
What are you most looking forward to when the pandemic is over?
Definitely looking forward to seeing my friends! I haven’t seen my best friends Stephen and Miles since February 2020. We met in science class during our freshman year of high school and this is the longest amount of time we haven’t seen each other! All three of us will be fully vaccinated in June, so I’ve got the day marked on my calendar. I can’t wait to see them, give them a hug, and catch-up in person.
I’m also tentatively planning a trip back east. I went to college in Pennsylvania and my whole friend group still lives there. I am used to not seeing them often, but I try to get out there once a year – that obviously didn’t happen in 2020! They always do a beach week and it’s never worked in my schedule to join in. If it can happen this year, it is definitely a priority!
What is your favorite part about your job?
Hands down, my favorite part about working at Sister Schools is seeing the impact on local students. At any time during the course of the year, you can see it: the way they react to the pictures of Uganda in the fall presentations, the amount of supplies they donate, the stories they tell you as they get their picture taken, the other ways they find to help people, and then of course the Return Presentations.
Ah, the Return Presentations! Magical things happen in the spring. When the slideshow starts, all the kids are quiet and attentive. Then they start recognizing pictures from last fall and remembering stories from Uganda. The whispers have started. When photos of their friends and classmates start appearing, the excitement starts to build. You hear gasps and giggles. By the time the music videos start, it can be out of control. Kids are shouting, cheering, and clapping along with the beat. It’s incredible to see how excited kids get when they know they have made a difference half a world away.
When I get bogged down in the behind-the-scenes work, taking a day to visit a local school picks me right back up—because I know that seeing our local kids change the world is exactly what I need to get moving again.