From losing program locations due to a lack of funding to the closure of a thrift shop that didn't meet expectations, Philip Herman has been through a lot with the organization he founded 11 years ago to get low-income Northwest Suburban High School District 214 students ready to succeed in college.
Now, as Herman prepares to leave Greater Wheeling Area Youth Outreach to seek a full-time job as a Christian youth pastor, the group is facing another challenge: redefining itself as a Latino organization.
"We will more clearly define who we are at GWAYO -- a Latino organization serving a Latino population," Herman said. "Between two-thirds and three-quarters of our clients have always been a Latin population. We want to increase our potential for funding in doing that."
GWAYO will hold an open house and a goodbye party for Herman from 4 to 7 p.m. today at 646 S. Arthur Ave., Arlington Heights. And anyone who knows Herman will not be surprised to learn he is tying the event to a fundraising campaign for the organization.
The three-member transition team is all Latino, and Herman is working to get people of that background on the board. Among them is Diana Ruiz, a program graduate who today is a mental health counselor with a master's degree.
"I joined GWAYO as a sophomore in high school," she said. "The tutoring motivated me with school and education goals and a concreteness about what I had to do to go to college. I'm the first one in my family to go to college, and the tools and support helped."
Arlington Heights Village President Arlene Mulder praised Herman.
"When you make a list of people who have put their lives on hold to take a difference in more young people's lives, he would certainly be in the top 10," she said.
Herman's worked with young people for almost a quarter century.
Before starting GWAYO, he helped suburban gang members find alternatives to that lifestyle, an experience that convinced him a college education was key to fighting poverty.
"Our goal is to empower the young people to be positioned by the time they graduate high school to both academically and socially be able to be successful in college," he said.
"Part of what we do is to say, 'We're not going to make excuses for failure, we'll talk about what would have to change for you to be successful.' We teach them to take responsibility for their lives."
In GWAYO's 11 years, about half its participants have stayed with the program through high school graduation, and 20 of them have earned college degrees. Only 12 who finished the program have dropped out of college.
One reason Herman is leaving to relieve the organization of the need to pay him a salary during these tough economic times.
His salary is $72,000, but the last four years he has received about half that. The organization's budget for the year starting Sept. 1 is $150,000, compared with $500,000 about five or six years ago.
"I think GWAYO will continue," he said. "I think we have good people here and people both inside and outside of the organization are committed to the vision of why we started 11 years ago.