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Michael Earl


Achieving Preschool Excellence (APEX)

114 Orchard Lake Rd.
Pontiac, Michigan 48341
Every child, and every family, deserves a chance to achieve. It’s that fundamental belief that drives everyone at Oakland Family Services, up to and including CEO Michael Earl. He’s inspired by seeing children who face difficult circumstances believe in their ability to achieve whatever they set out to do. 
Michigan Nightlight: What does being a leader mean to you?
Oakland Family Services President & CEO Michael Earl: I can answer that on a couple of different levels. From a personal standpoint, there is a saying that the highest form of giving is those who give to people who they will never meet and will never know their name. As the leader in this organization, personally, I have the unique pleasure to be associated with so many people who support our organization who represent that highest form of giving -- who are helping other people and
My dream for kids is that every child should have the opportunity for success: that they get the fundamentals; that they feel loved and nurtured and safe and encouraged; and that they embrace life, take risks and be successful.
they will never know their name and never meet them, but they have a belief in supporting the well-being of our community overall.
From a tactical standpoint, I think the role is to create and maintain an organizational culture. I have tried, working with our leadership staff, to create a culture of innovation, excellence and results, and I think that’s reflected in the core values of the agency, that our cultural values are encouraged and promoted for everybody on staff regardless of their position. And it’s inspiring to people.
Personally, getting to spend time with and know people who are genuinely concerned with the community; it’s all about culture from an organizational standpoint, and doing everything that we can to work with families that come to us to help them achieve their optimal level of living.
What is your dream for kids?
My dream for kids is that every child should have the opportunity for success: that they get the fundamentals; that they feel loved and nurtured and safe and encouraged; and that they embrace life, take risks and be successful. Every child should have the opportunity to realize their dreams. Some kids are in circumstances where they haven’t even created a dream for themselves, and to see these kids go out of here embracing a dream, excited about the next step in their journey for education, and feeling confident in themselves and feeling capable -- it’s a marvelous thing.
What is one concrete thing that could be done to improve the environment for social sector work in Michigan?
Defragment the system, and by that I mean, when you stand back and look at sort of the entities that plan for communities, we have organizations that plan the roads across jurisdictional boundaries, we plan sewers, we plan water, to have a comprehensive plan as a community for the well-being of families. What we have is thousands of nonprofits providing some aspect of support for families. We have places that do homeless shelters, that do food – we have 1,200 food banks in Michigan – we have family services agencies, and historically we have worked in sort of an isolated mode. To bring alignment to these organizations under an overarching comprehensive plan to effectively and efficiently meet the needs of families and children who are struggling would be wonderful. We’re all doing very good work, and bringing a comprehensive plan together would be wonderful.
How do you know you’re making progress? 
Virtually every service that we offer has measurable objectives. We’re a pretty broad-based organization. In our substance abuse treatment program we can affirm whether somebody is abstinent or not through these various tests. I can verify that for our early childhood programs through objective screens and measurements. I can see that young children are achieving developmental gains in motor skills, verbal skills or self-regulating -- we can monitor and have measures to check that, and that we’re sure we’re making progress. That is quantitative; the other is seeing resilience of families. I had a father that said to me, he’d had a son involved in substance abuse, and after a year, he said “Thank you for giving my son back to me.”  You have the quantitative and then just the experience of hearing from families that work with us that we have made substantial changes in their life.
What are you most proud of?
I’ve been at Oakland Family Services for 32 years, so there are a couple of responses. One is the privilege of working with children and families that have the courage to confront their circumstances, whatever those might be, and never give up, and to be part of an organization that will never give up on them. That’s the board, the staff the volunteers -- everybody is inspired by the work and the courage of the people that we work with.
Also, to see there’s this notion that as a community we simply can’t afford to write off children born to unfortunate
...there’s this notion that as a community we simply can’t afford to write off children born to unfortunate circumstances. That’s my fundamental belief
circumstances. That’s my fundamental belief. To see four year olds who leave here have established skills fundamental to their success in school and life. And even there, states -- the one I am most recently familiar with is Indiana -- in order to do long range planning for how many prison beds they’ll need, they look at the functioning of the third grade class. And the third grade class is significant because up until third grade, children are learning to read -- in third grade that’s the first academic year they read to learn. If you have their skills set by then, it’s a good predictor of how things will go for them academically and in life. We track our kids through the third grade and the last time I looked, 91 to 92 percent made it through third grade, and these are kids in some very unfortunate circumstances.
What role have networks played in your professional career?
I would say that throughout my career I have sought and found mentors and have had at different times a network of mentors -- people associated with me as professional colleagues and board members that are local or part of national organizations. We belong to the Alliance of Families and Children, and I have had the privilege of having people I am able to call and just run things by. Networks have played a critical role; from a professional standpoint this is not easy work and from a personal standpoint, I couldn’t do this without the support of my wife and family. It’s work I don’t always leave at the office when I go home at night. It’s 24-7 kind of work.
The generosity of mentors throughout my career has just been exceptional -- I can’t imagine doing this work without networks and mentoring. Sometimes it comes from unusual and unexpected places. I was with a guy a couple weeks ago -- we happened to run into each other on a golf course and ended up spending the week golfing and just talking about leadership. He has a foundation in India -- sometimes that kind of opportunity just presents itself, which is wonderful.
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