“No question: Up with People made me the person that I am…”
Matthew: Let’s dive right in. Who are you, Vernon? Where are you from and when did you travel in UWP?
Vernon: My name is Vernon C. Grigg III, and I’m from a bit of “Everywhere, USA”—but I’d have to say I claim Tucson, AZ as where I mostly grew up… I was what a lot of Americans call an “Army Brat,” meaning I had parents in the military and that caused me to move around a lot as I grew up. I traveled in Cast B 1981!
Matthew: What would you say are some of your fondest UWP memories?
Vernon: I’d have to say the 26-hour bus rides with my cast during our tour of Colombia; and arranging a surprise multi-cast rendezvous at Disneyworld in the middle of our tour— I can still see the surprise on everyone’s faces when they realized what was going on! Of course, I’d be remiss to not mention Super Bowl XVI in Detroit and my stay with the most wonderful host family ever: The Pettigrews! You can read my Facebook post about that.
Matthew: Some alumni may not know you have actually served some years on UWP’s Board of Directors (BOD). What called you to serve on the UWP BOD?
Vernon: After one of our reunions, I started to re-engage with Up with People. And honestly, I wanted a cast to come to San Francisco! Dale (Dale Penny, that is) came to San Francisco and asked me to lunch. At the time, he explained he had returned to be UWP CEO and was trying to re-energize and build the program. As we connected, I wanted to support him and contribute what I could to the organization that had given me so much—at the time, serving on the BOD was a way I could do just that.
Matthew: What called you to consider applying for this role with UWP?
Vernon: No question: Up with People made me the person that I am. It set me on the path of a fulfilling life of adventure, engagement and service; and UWP gave me some of the best friends a person could have. My life has been wonderful in so many ways. My kids are headed off to college now and my legal career has provided security and been great fun, so when I saw the opportunity to engage in a different way with UWP organizationally, I was immediately drawn to it. What could be a higher calling for me than working to ensure this opportunity is available to future generations—and to give the world the gift of more people who have an Up with People heart? It was a no brainer for me to apply… That said, it was my wife Denise who realized it first and encouraged me forward, because she is the brains of the family!
Matthew: Ha! Wonderful. Now, as you started your role, what was it like getting to know Cast A 2020?
Vernon: Oh man, I love this cast! One of my first memories of my new role with UWP is being there for A20’s arrival day. Seeing the new students’ eyes as they approached the church (our welcome venue), each participant running through a tunnel of love formed at the door by the raised arms of staff and those already arrived—I’ll never forget the experience.
Knowing, as they met each other nervously, they were in the earliest moments of friendships that would last for a lifetime. Honestly, it brought me back to my own arrival day and at times it was a challenge to hold back the tears. I did my best to get to know them during staging. One morning, for example, I hung out with them as they engaged in Community Action at the Denver Food Bank in the sorting room where all the donations, like fruit and canned goods, are put in different boxes for distribution. There was laughter and fun camaraderie as everyone worked with music playing in the background. Out of nowhere, Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” came on. The whole room broke into loud joyous song—they were dancing around the room belting out the lyrics with all they had. Simply awesome! They are truly a special group of young people who quickly formed a strong community. While we couldn’t foresee the abrupt end of A20’s tour, we are hoping as many participants as possible are able to join a future cast and go back on the road.
Matthew: I had the chance to catch A20’s show in Flagstaff, AZ at the beginning of March and I agree: They’re remarkable. Now, Vernon, let’s look forward. How do you see UWP evolving through this world crisis?
Vernon: This is a tough question—I think in every sense of the word, Up with People is at a crossroads. Things were not perfect before I came into this position, and things will not be perfect overnight going forward. However, I always intended to affect meaningful change to UWP; this is why I came into this role. I never could have anticipated our current reality (I don’t think anyone could have), but overall, I’ll say this: I do not see the Up with People that emerges from this crisis to be the same Up with People we were as we entered it. I do not have all the answers right now, but I know as we navigate this unprecedented situation that our next steps will have this in mind.
Matthew: How can alumni support UWP right now?
Vernon: I’ll list out a few…
Help by recruiting students. Please! This all starts with alumni talking positively about UWP and our role in the world, in every conversation they can.
Help by finding sponsors. So we can come to your city, and surrounding areas, and have a solid tour schedule into the future. To bring a cast to a city is not as expensive as you think and it can make a world of difference to lives in your community.
Help by giving a little money. To be frank here, we need financial support and it doesn’t take that much. We have 23,000 alumni worldwide…and truthfully, not all are engaged. If we had just $5 USD per month from even half of the alumni on our IAA FB group (i.e., those who are engaged), we’d produce more than $250,000 USD per year. This would be an incredible foundation for our $4.5 million USD per year budget and would put us in a stronger position to get grants and foundation funding from outside sources (they look carefully at constituent engagement as a measure of a program’s impact). Monthly giving is key.
We also know that you, our alumni network, are one of our greatest strengths. For example, we are currently seeking alumni with grant writing experience, as well as those who have a background in journalism, to help tell Up with People’s story. If this is you, please reach out to Lauren Dow in the Denver office at her email: LDow@upwithpeople.org.
Together, we can create stability and security from which we can grow to increase our impact.
Matthew: I have to ask—do we *really* need $750K?
Vernon: Honestly, yes. I wish our situation were not so precarious, but this is the reality we face as a nonprofit in 2020 during the COVID—19 pandemic. From 11 weeks of lost tour revenue, including sponsorships, ticket and merchandise sales (totaling nearly $400,000 USD), to the lost recruiting opportunities of a cast on the road. Taking into consideration the lost tuition for the fall and future tours, because we don’t have a cast out there recruiting and increasing public awareness of the program, that “net loss” nearly doubles. Toss on top of all that the postponing of reunion this summer. Last year, the generosity of reunion goers brought in $200,000 USD to Up With People via the paddle raise event. Now, we are easily at a $1 million loss for this year alone. The most difficult piece of this is the loss of cash flow; not only the direct dollar amount, but the timing of it all. This explains the layoffs, furloughs, and severe pay-cuts taken by all of our office staff: With no money coming in, it becomes harder and harder to pay the bills.
There are some good reasons for hope, though. We are currently exploring all options available to us. We have applied for relief from the U.S. government through the various federal, state and local economic stimulus packages. We are looking into grant applications, foundation opportunities, and, of course, thanks to our wonderful alumni and friends we have the emergency funds being raised through our GoFundMe appeal.
Matthew: Thank you. Now, in closing: From your perspective, how do you view the Up with People alumni base?
Vernon: I am laughing. With all due respect Matthew, this is a silly question—I AM an alumnus. Frankly, I’m motivated by the same desire of UWP’s success as most alumni. Where we may differ is that I have a deep commitment and belief that Up with People’s moment is not in the past, but likely lies ahead for us. The world NEEDS Up with People’s message and spirit as much as it ever has. I respect that alumni have felt let down by the organization at times. I get that. I, too, have felt this way before. I would just like to ask and invite all alumni, no matter how engaged you’ve been in the past, to open your hearts and minds to building a future together going forward.
Matthew: Of course you’re an alumnus!! Hahaha. Thank you, Vernon, for your continued leadership and for stepping up, especially in this unprecedented time. And thank you for sharing your thoughts with all of us.