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Retreat Redux
How one department turned an annual retreat into a transformative experience.

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Hopkins' WIPES campaign
Candler Gibson, the Heart Institute's director of development, plants flowerbeds, with help from a Violetville Elementary School student.

Over the past 20 years, Dave Carrera has had his share of unimaginative retreats. He admits—as do many of his colleagues—to being cynical about forced games to promote camaraderie and creativity that often accompany these gatherings.
So when it came time to plan the spring 2008 two-day retreat for 215 development employees across the University, Carrera, executive director of the Fund for Johns Hopkins Medicine, and his cohorts were determined to make this one like no other.

The first day of the conference, held at the Mt. Washington Conference Center, featured a motivational speaker, videos and discussion. The focus was on business changes that affect everyone and ways to adapt. “It was a fabulous day,” says Carrera.

But even more gratifying, he recalls, were the next day’s activities. Carrera and his committee had decided to devote that day to volunteering at Baltimore City Schools—cleaning up flower beds, painting playground equipment, organizing classrooms and interacting with students.  Carrera says he was looking for a way to break down barriers on the job so that employees could get to know one another in a different setting. “We also have a duty to serve the community,” he adds, “so we felt compelled to get involved.”

The event required months of preparation and demanded what Carrera calls “Hopkins traits”—cooperation, enthusiasm and attention to every detail. The Hopkins team made copious lists, which included everything needed for various tasks, like outside landscaping and repainting basketball courts. Then they arranged buses from Mt. Washington to 12 different City schools. Some costs were absorbed by the department’s budget; others came out of employees’ pockets.

For seven hours, Hopkins employees partnered with faculty and schoolchildren, performing myriad tasks to enhance the schools. Liz McFarlane, senior associate director of development, FJHM Neurology and Brain Sciences, spent the day running an end-of-school-year carnival at Harlem Park Elementary. She found the principal, her faculty and the students to be “joyful, despite the fact that they have so little. They lack basics, like toilet paper and Band-Aids,” says McFarlane. “The cafeteria doubles as their gymnasium. I had assumed the worst, but I met people who are working really hard against the odds.”

At the end of the day, everyone reconvened at the conference center. Two professional photographers had captured some of the activities and had rushed back to prepare a digital slide show. “The energy was amazing,” says Carrera. “No one wanted to stop talking—we were all so excited by the experience and the kids we met.”

Several groups plan to adopt a school or build a relationship with them throughout the year. And, Carrera says he hopes to make “Everyday Impact” a permanent part of the annual retreat, considering its long-term effects. “I’m seeing more collegiality, trust and everyday mutual respect,” says Carrera. “The retreat has given us the chance to discover what we’re all about at the core.”

—Judy Minkove

 

 

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