What It Takes

AIDS educator Adam Tenner

Adam Tenner began volunteering with nonprofits as a teenager. After a favorite teacher died of AIDS while Tenner was in college, he focused on helping young people develop habits to keep themselves safe from the disease. He worked with homeless teens in Seattle, a city credited for its progressive work with HIV/AIDS, before heading east to the District, which has the highest rate of infection in the nation.

In 2001, Tenner took over as executive director of Metro TeenAIDS, which he calls the nation's only outreach program that deals exclusively with youths. Tenner, 43, is married and has an infant son. He lives in the U Street corridor in Northwest Washington.

Why he's successful: "I can remember at some point early in life deciding that having passion was crucial to a fulfilling life. And I still think that is true, whether in the job or outside the job. I bring tremendous passion for what we do. What I have helped Metro TeenAIDS to do is develop a vision for the future and a sense that [the AIDS situation in D.C.] doesn't have to be like this; it can be different and it can be better. And I am relentless around that mission."

Biggest obstacle he had to overcome: Tenner has to raise the $3 million it takes to run his agency each year, and that has become progressively more difficult in the economic slump. "In the early days, I had some difficulty because I was new. D.C., on a local level, is slow to warm up to new people. It took a few years of showing my face ... Also, there was a sense of 'Who is this little Jewish guy and does he really care about our kids?' It took a few years to build up trust. Now, you can come down any day and see kids from any of the local neighborhoods. Another obstacle was answering the phone and having angry people saying 'You owe us money.' Now the challenge is this constant tension between putting ourselves out of business and sustaining ourselves while we do it."

His first job: Tenner was born in Morristown, N.J., the oldest of two sons. His dad was in sales, his mother worked in retail. His younger brother is a salesman. "My first job was babysitting kids in the neighborhood, and I was terribly underpaid at $2 an hour ... Then I worked for a kids clothing store at the mall. I am from a very working-class family. Dad grew up in the projects. I always worked and I always felt it was productive to work. It was what you did. It was, 'You are 16. You have to work.'"

What made him start volunteering: "In high school, I had a very inspirational history teacher who dragged us out to get the experience of volunteering. He took us to a food bank and our only job was to put one paper bag inside another paper bag and you can imagine that as a group of teenagers, there was nothing more boring. Then one of the staffers came over and ... told us how important it was what we were doing. Doubling the bags made them stronger and they would hold more, so more food would reach families who really needed it. She made the connection between taking the simplest action and changing people's lives. I got hooked on volunteering after that."

Settling on a career helping others: Tenner went to Sarah Lawrence College, working his way through school in food services. After he graduated in 1990, he worked as a cook and considered becoming a chef. "I was working in restaurants and catering and then started volunteering and at some point something went off and said, 'You could do this for work.' In 1992, I took my first paid job with a nonprofit working with homeless kids in Seattle helping to provide them with HIV information ... I have always worked with outreach services that focused on teaching young people about valuing one's life, investing in yourself, helping them to navigate the difficulties of what it means to be a human being and providing that in a really supportive way for young people."

Learning the ropes in Seattle: "While I was working for the homeless youth serving organization, I rose in five years from outreach worker to program director. I learned grant writing and budgeting and all that good stuff. I left that group and worked for the health department for a few years doing HIV work. It was a much milder epidemic in Seattle than we have here. On a human level, size never matters, but it was a good learning [experience] because Seattle was so far ahead of the rest of country understanding ... what was really happening within the epidemic.

Moving to the nation's capital: Tenner was sitting on the board of the D.C.-based National Youth Advocacy Coalition in 2000 when he was offered the position of interim director. "I realized that I had fallen in love with D.C. and wanted to stay here ... I had been doing a bunch of consulting around town and I had heard that the Metro TeenAIDS director was leaving and I talked to them about being the interim director. They hired someone who ended up not staying and called me in to be the interim."

What he inherited: An agency in debt. "The phone was ringing off the hook with people wanting to collect. And we had about a $150,000 deficit of a $600,000 organization ... My promise was to help the organization or to close it as gracefully as I could. Nine years later, here I am."

Smartest moves: Cleaning house financially. "We got the vendors on a payment plan. The previous director had maxed out the credit, so we had to fix that ... I said, 'Let's prioritize and triage what needs to be taken care of immediately.' One other thing I did was to make sure that we always have young people on staff because the core of what we are doing is reaching young people ... Today, we've got 30 adults on staff, but we have 40 youth on staff."

What has changed: "Nine years ago, when we went to churches, it was primarily around the AIDS ministry and how they could help their parishioners. It tended to be very victim heavy ...We've seen an increase in the number of pastors who get tested from the pulpit and talk about the importance of taking care of yourself. Also, some churches now provide HIV education, some even within the context of Sunday school. There is a realization that there is nobody in D.C. who is not at risk for HIV if they are sexually active and a growing realization that giving young people the information they need to protect themselves is the right and moral thing to do."

What's next: Tenner is now working with schools on AIDS education and he pushed an initiative to allow teachers to dispense condoms after taking a training course. He'll continue to take his message to everyone from teens to government officials. "I have to sell Metro TeenAIDS, and what we do every day."


Avis Thomas-Lester

 |  November 10, 2010; 12:00 AM ET  |  Category:  success stories Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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