Tag Archive for: Advancement


By Stefanie Takacs


Master’s students in small groups in their recent Touchstones workshop at UNLV

Managing challenges during COVID has been significant—in terms of time and resources. Striking a balance between safety and knowing that some forms of work are best accomplished in-person remains a daily focus. We’re grateful we’ve had a few opportunities recently to work face-to-face with some groups, including in a two-day Touchstones workshop on collaborative leadership for Master’s candidates in the Emergency & Crisis Managers program at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. That workshop engaged 31 students from two cohorts in an extended examination of how and what we think and why, while also exploring how and what we don’t think and why. The students, who range from young professionals just starting their careers to veterans from the armed forces  and upper tier emergency managers from around the country, reported a deepened awareness of themselves and others coming out of their Touchstones workshop. “Communication,” one student reflected afterward, “is a transactional process in which two or more parties must be fully involved.”


Earlier that week, we visited Learning Community Charter School in New Jersey in person—to present Colin Hogan with the Touchstones Teacher of the Year Award. While there, Debra Valentine, Howard Zeiderman, and I participated in a Touchstones discussion led by Colin with Ms. Shalini Jasti’s 8th graders. The students heard and read a short passage from the autobiography of Harriet Jacobs and considered what it means to live life on the run and with little or no protection from a threat of re-enslavement. Several students demonstrated great empathy for Harriet and said they would have offered her hugs and reassurance and told her not to give up, had they known her. In those moments, when youth show us what compassion looks like, the importance of the inclusive and open discussions framed in a Touchstones classroom once again hits squarely home. Being there, together in person with these students and learning together reminded us not to lose hope.

Closer to home base, we’ve run three in-person workshops and delivered classroom coaching— both at Washington Latin Public Charter School in Washington, DC and at Elizabeth Seton High School in Bladensburg, MD. We delivered those group and individual professional development opportunities at no cost to more than 25 teachers, thanks to gifts received earlier this year in memory of Kathleen Golden, a Washingtonian passionate about public-charter education, the Argentine tango, and Touchstones programs. We know Kathleen would have loved hearing 7th graders at Washington Latin explore a passage from The Odyssey when Odysseus has returned to his family after 20 years away. As they reflected on the text, students made connections to the changes they’ve recognized in their own lives—during a year of remote schooling and now being back in person. Though still young adults, these 7th grade students revealed a developing maturity in their recognizing parallels between themselves and others—even characters in a story more than two millennia old. And while losses we’ve suffered during the pandemic remain wounds to heal and gaps to close, the delight these students expressed at being together again in the classroom is an enormous indication of the good things to come—for them and all of us. Here’s to a healthy close to 2021 and a New Year filled with many joyful hours spent in the company of others, face-to-face!

Growth In Time of Uncertainty

By Jenn Macris

I think we’re all done hearing about “these unprecedented times,” but the truth is, few nonprofits know what to do in “these times” to continue to set and reach important goals. COVID has forced all of us to become even more flexible. Touchstones’ flexibility actually allowed us to surpass our previous goals in establishing our Women’s Prison Volunteer Corps. Thanks to our online format, we were able not only to establish a Volunteer Corps, but to double our initial goal of training five volunteers.

This six-week training program was funded by a generous grant from Anne Arundel Women Giving Together (AAWGT), as part of securing the future of the Touchstones program at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women. Trained volunteers help run Touchstones programs even when there is little or no funding available to cover staff time. And these programs are invaluable to the women in the prison, as they contribute to improved decision-making and parenting skills and lead to reduced recidivism.

For the volunteer training program, 13 women total joined the 90-minute, weekly training meetings to learn more about the women’s prison environment in general (from specifics on how to enter the prison building to the key predictors of recidivism) and learn and practice how to facilitate Touchstones discussions in this unique  community. Two of the participants included teachers from the school at MCI-W, where they’ve had the opportunity to see Touchstones programs benefit their students since 2015.

This group of Touchstones volunteers, a mix of new and seasoned participants, immediately took to the Touchstones discussion format. Using lessons from Touchstones Volume B, which is also used in the prison classes, our participation began the same way it does for the women in prison. Together, we reviewed the Touchstones Ground Rules. We then moved to individual and small group work and ended with a full group discussion and a closer look at our group interaction overall. We also each reflected on how we could improve our own interpersonal skills to help the group’s outcomes.

The growth over the six-week training program was incredible! As one participant commented, “My biggest personal surprise is how I actually learned something about myself – that at my age, we can still learn to slow down and listen to others calmly. It’s just a very different environment from what I’ve spent most of my life in… [it’s] a calmer, quieter behavior when you’re in a group.”

Touchstones thanks AAWGT and all the women who participated in this training program to help ensure the long-term sustainability of our Women’s Prison Program. We look forward to bringing our volunteers and their new discussion leadership skills into MCI-W when it’s safe to do so.

Announcing A New Legacy Gift

By Alexandra Fotos

Linnea and George Takacs have been involved with Touchstones for many years and recently decided to seal their commitment by including Touchstones Discussion Project in their estate plans. On September 8, I interviewed Linnea Takacs to learn what brought her and George to Touchstones and ultimately to make a gift for the future to ensure Touchstones continues its work.

First, tell me a little about yourselves.
Our careers have been in education. George received his Ph.D. in Educational Administration at the University of Connecticut in 1971. I was a stay-at-home mother and completed my own education in 1988, culminating with a Ph.D. in English from Fordham. I also taught there, including in a summer bridge program called Higher Education Opportunity Programs, for incoming freshmen. For most of George’s career, he was running International Schools in South and Central America. Our longest stint was 11 years in Chile. When we were in Quito, Ecuador, I chaired the English department at a university and developed the libraries in his schools in Chile and Brazil.

How and when did you learn about Touchstones?
Our daughter, Stef, was a student at St. John’s College in Annapolis from the mid to the late 1980’s. One of her tutors and a co-founder, Geoffrey Comber, told her about Touchstones. We were living in Venezuela and Geoff had some correspondence with George, but it didn’t lead to anything then. A number of years later, when George was running the American school in Recife, Brazil, he was finally able to bring Touchstones into the curriculum. That’s when we really started to learn about Touchstones.

What was your first impression?
We were excited from the beginning to know the founders created Touchstones from nothing and we’re still amazed at its evolution into so many different programs and areas and its potential for growth.

Is there a particular program you are drawn to?
The programs designed for schoolchildren of all grades, especially Touchpebbles. It’s exciting to see young children’s thinking stimulated. We also like the Veterans Program because of what could be possible for veterans using Touchstones—what it really means for them to come home. And I know that teachers, donors, and volunteers in the current Saturday discussions online find that program very beneficial and supportive.

What inspired you and George to leave a planned gift to Touchstones?
Educators. They are the people who want to be involved in Touchstones and this gift will support their access to the programs—even when there’s no public funding for education. Making Touchstones accessible to educators helps ensure its implementation and success in the future. We decided to designate our gift to teacher scholarships for workshops and free Touchstones materials for their classes after they complete the workshops. This gift is specifically to benefit and empower teachers who want to use Touchstones and Touchpebbles in their teaching but have limited funding.

What words would you share with our readers about making a planned gift to Touchstones?
If one has any resources, there can’t be a better cause that reaches so many different areas of daily life. Touchstones educates in so many ways that go beyond traditional academic boundaries. It provides a framework where one can develop their interpersonal skills and better understand how best to communicate and listen.

Transformative Giving

Elliott Zuckerman Self-portrait as Landscape #1. 1999

By Alexandra Fotos

Last year, Touchstones received an extraordinary gift from the estate of Elliott Zuckerman. Dr. Zuckerman, an accomplished painter, musician, poet, and tutor emeritus of St. John’s College, made a gift through his estate to Touchstones Discussion Project of more than 180 of his original paintings. His wishes were for Touchstones to sell his paintings to support community discussion programs, teacher workshops and coaching, and new educational program development. So far, sales of Elliott’s paintings have brought more than $15,000 to Touchstones!

Elliott understood the importance of Planned Giving, as estate gifts help secure a non-profit’s long-term financial health. Planned gifts can be any amount of money, appreciated securities, artwork, charitable lead trusts, IRAs, and life insurance policies. Gifts like these help Touchstones staff to provide teachers annually with class sets of our discussion programs and on-site training and coaching even when school funding is scarce—a growing reality in the U.S. Estate gifts also ensure continuation of our free public programming for under-resourced groups and communities, including veterans, homeless adults and youth,

Elliott Zuckerman, Plant & 2 Fruits. 2001

detained youth, and incarcerated adults. In addition, legacy gifts provide funding to make new discussion program development possible—from early childhood education to specifically tailored programs throughout all stages of adulthood.

Planned Gifts can be made via a will, bequest, or trust and are among the most significant gifts a donor can make. They are a way to demonstrate one’s support for an organization and mission in

perpetuity. Touchstones began in 1984 and with your support of a legacy gift Touchstones will continue its important work for many more decades to come. Please feel free to contact us with questions or for more information. We want this opportunity to be as meaningful for you as it will be for the people whose lives will be transformed through your estate gift to Touchstones.

Supporting Anne Arundel County’s Women and Families

By Jenn Macris

Touchstones is honored to receive a 2019 grant from the local Annapolis-area giving circle, Anne Arundel Women Giving Together, a “philanthropic giving circle with more than 200 members who annually pool their funds and award grants to nonprofit organizations seeking to improve the lives of women and families in Anne Arundel County.” This generous $20,000 grant allows Touchstones to achieve two important goals at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women (MCI-W) in Jessup, MD. The first is the continuation of a weekly program with women in a General Education Development (GED) class that prepares them for a high school equivalency diploma. Their work in Touchstones builds essential self-expression, literacy, and interpersonal skills.

The second is to expand and sustain programming in an Employment Readiness Workshop—an eight-week course that helps women develop and practice skills essential for gainful employment post-release. With this funding, an estimated 200 women incarcerated at MCI-W will participate in Touchstones programs over the next year. This unique and transformational program develops life, work and parenting skills, and promotes healthy decision-making, all which directly reduce recidivism. Touchstones has been invited to participate in the AAWGT Grants Showcase on Sept. 11, to highlight the vital work we do in support of those most in need in our communities. Local partnerships like this one with AAWGT allow Touchstones to develop a “boots-on- the-ground” core of friends, donors, and volunteers—an essential complement to our growing network of charitable support from around the world.