Lynda Mann

Daring to Use a Different Lens

“What’s missing?”

This is the first question Lynda Mann, co-founder of the YouthQuest Foundation, asks herself when she meets a young person who’s made the decision to drop out of high school.  In order to effectively encourage the inner reflection necessary to answer this query, she turns outward, addressing the student directly to ask what’s important to them in that moment about their decision to discard their education.  In other words, she knows she has to approach the situation through a different lens—one that will allow the struggling youth to see more clearly.

“In these situations, it’s so easy to focus on trying to push these kids to stay in school, but the reality is that 30 percent of our high school students will drop out this year—a trend that’s been persistent since 1970,” Lynda says.  “Until we can understand what they’re thinking and truly grasp the root of the problem, however, all that pushing only serves to push them farther away.”  By uncovering these roots within troubled youth, the missing piece in the equation becomes clear, allowing Lynda to address and reframe the situation to promote healthier decisions and better futures for America’s at-risk young people.

Though YouthQuest was formally founded in 2006, Lynda, who has served as President of its Board of Directors since its inception, began advocating for troubled youth by challenging society to see their troubles through this alternate lens long before.  As a senior member of the AOC Solutions, Inc. leadership team, she served as the Program Manager of a contract evaluating a program serving at-risk youth since 1993.  Lynda recalls one day in 2002 when she learned that youth from one of the programs couldn’t attend an important academic event because they didn’t have the money for a bus, so she instigated a grassroots campaign to raise the money.  Driven to do more, she and her friends and colleagues began holding golf tournaments and other small events to fundraise.  “We realized that this need is great, not just within this particular program, but across the U.S.,” she points out.  “Thus, our mission today as a national foundation is to provide scholarships, infrastructure funding, and life enriching activities for America’s at-risk youth.”

Today, Lynda and her team focus predominantly on high school dropouts.  With the dropout rate hovering at 30 percent since 1970, the situation is nothing short of an epidemic, casting deep inflictions across the face of American society.  High school dropouts are more likely to enter the prison system, more likely to require government assistance, and more likely to commit suicide than those who finish high school, and to make matters worse, they are also more likely to beget future high school dropouts, perpetuating the cycle.

YouthQuest has taken up a compelling weapon in battling this social issue by identifying yet another social issue—the fact that our nation’s skilled trades pipeline is drying up.  Workers in the blue-collar trades such as plumbing, roofing, pipe fitting, culinary arts, and nursing assistance are aging out of their professions, and there are few replacements in the pipeline, presenting a tremendous void in the marketplace of the future.  “Oftentimes, kids who drop out of high school are very bright, they’re just not suited for the current educational model,” Lynda explains.    “For those youth who are not college bound, we have the opportunity to marry them to a program that is focused on creating an avenue by which they can have a productive, fulfilling life.”

However, while other programs might stop there, YouthQuest envisions going a step further by instilling in its students advanced critical skills including work ethics training, responsible behavior, and attitude management, along with advanced science and math skills and critical life skills such as financial management and goal setting.  “We not only want to provide the training around the skill set; we also want to provide a more progressive knowledge base so that, when they’re considered for a position, our students are seen not only as entry level employees, but as people with the capacity to grow and advance,” says Lynda.  To realize this goal, YouthQuest now has its sights set on constructing a job skills training center aimed at addressing these two social issues.

A 501(c)3 organization for six years now, YouthQuest currently provides scholarship and grant funding for organizations and programs that support GED achievement and job skills training for at-risk youth as it incubates its long-term goal of its training center.  Though most of these children aren’t college bound, several are, like one student who is finishing his JD at Georgetown University.  Another young woman was living in her car at age 16 and found a program to help change her life. She is now married and has a family and a position as a school principal after earning her master’s degree.  “By supporting programs that affect such profound change, YouthQuest seeks to give young people the chance to maximize their potential and create the life all of our children deserve,” offers Lynda.

It is rarely disputed that we work our hardest on issues that hit close to home, and Lynda’s dogged commitment to YouthQuest is no exception.  Her mother and younger sister both dropped out of high school before graduating, and Lynda found herself wondering at a young age what other advantages they could have had in life, had they crossed paths with an organization like YouthQuest.  In this sense, her sister, now a remarkable businesswoman who formulates holistic and natural skincare products, is among her most powerful motivators.  “What would have happened if she had had the opportunity to stay in school to really nurture and grow her gift of understanding chemistry at an elemental level?” Lynda asks.  “There are some questions that will never be answered, and it’s our mission to limit those kinds of questions.  Everyone should have the chance to sort out who they are, what gifts they have, and how they want to share those gifts with the community.”

Growing up as the eldest child in a troubled home, Lynda fell into the role of over-achiever early in life as a coping mechanism to draw attention away from other aspects of her home life.  She finished school and was accepted to college, but the family didn’t have the means to send her, so she instead received an associate’s degree at a local junior college.  Obtaining her degree in the midst of the Vietnam War, and desperate to escape the home life she grew up in, Lynda decided to veer off the beaten path and enlist in the military.

Searching for a way out, Lynda made the decision to enlist before she had ever heard the term Officer Candidate School (OCS)—the program that would soon change her life forever, although not without the help of the recruiter who interviewed her when she applied to join the Air Force.  “The man had a quota to fill, and as a woman, I fit it perfectly,” Lynda recalls.  “Yet in the Air Force, you aren’t qualified to apply to become an officer unless you have a four-year degree, while mine was only two.”  Setting his own self-interest aside and daring to don a different lens of his own, the recruiter asked himself the very same question that Lynda would ask of troubled youth so many years down the line—“What’s missing for this young person?”  By taking the time to look at the situation a different way, the recruiter quickly noticed officer potential in Lynda and told her to go enlist in the Army, where the OCS application process only required a two-year degree.  “I didn’t understand how drastically my life changed on that day until much later,” Lynda muses now.  “That’s the kind of giving that changed my life, and it’s the kind of giving I try to return as often as I can.”

Because of the recruiter’s altruistic spirit, Lynda was one of only 15 women per year accepted to OCS, and along with her access to the GI Bill, she was able to earn her bachelor’s degree in Occupational Education, her master’s in Sociology, and to complete the coursework for her doctorate in adult education.  She spent 26 years proudly serving her country and was the first military woman to become a National finalist in the White House Fellows program, in which applicants submit recommendations to the President for making the country a better place.  True to form, Lynda’s piece explored the possibility of mandatory public service for every American citizen, which could be as local as assistant teaching at a public school or clerking in the local city or county offices.

The fellowship experience was a defining moment for Lynda in hinting at the impact she could potentially have, and her advocacy of the importance of service draws from a belief in giving back that remains as integral to her character as breathing.  “I truly believe that, in order to be a fully successful and actualized person, one needs to achieve that wholeness that can only come from giving back,” she affirms.  “You can’t do everything, but you can do anything.  If you believe you can make something happen, you will.  Fusing these two concepts, the importance of giving back and the impact of taking action is not only clear, but urgent.”

Underlying this urgency is a belief in the power of one person to make a difference, and Lynda periodically gauges and channels this power through an examination of her progress toward her life goals.  “Perhaps the best thing I’ve ever done for myself was to spend some quiet time with myself 30 years ago, figuring out what I wanted to do and who I wanted to be and putting my goals in writing,” she says, drawing out the dog-eared three-by-five index cards that bear her life’s most sacred intentions.  Lynda carries these cards with her and rereads them several times a year though she already knows them by heart, examining how she’s doing in terms of her health, her relationships, her work, and her giving back.  “This practice has allowed me to be a better businesswoman and a better community activist,” she continues.  “It’s critical to have goals that really reflect who you want to be, and if you constantly remind yourself of those things and act on them, you will become the person you were destined to be.”

When YouthQuest first formed its goal of constructing a job skills training center, it pursued this goal with a similar tenacity, seeking out large donors and backers to realize its vision.  As fate would have it, however, the stock market plunge of 2008 hit just as the project was gaining momentum, and the center’s funding faced considerable setbacks.  Undeterred, however, Lynda and her team began focusing instead on perfecting the project’s groundwork.  “We’ve been working on infrastructure documentation and planning during this interim so that, when the money becomes available again, we’ll be able to hit the ground running,” she says with confidence.  “I do believe things happen for a reason, and we’re taking this time to really get our planning aligned so we’ll be ready to launch once we find that funding source.”

Lynda’s analytical and optimistic perspective is as inspiring as it is pragmatic, and it is a wonder how she maintains these important qualities even in the face of the uncertainty of our time.  Indeed, in YouthQuest’s journey to facilitate the connection of communities for a better future and in Lynda’s personal lifelong journey of achievement and service, she admits that she, like anyone, can fall into a rut.  The solution?  “I take some time out to do something completely different from what I do on a daily basis,” she explains.  Having always been fascinated by professional bull riding, Lynda, along with two girlfriends, own an event winning 2,000-pound bucking bull.  “Watching a professional rider on a rank bull gives you a completely different perspective on the relationship between power, skill and pure luck.  It’s a great reminder to pay attention to what you can influence.”  Also an avid scuba diver, Lynda has been diving all over the world, and truly enjoys her treks under the sea.  “It’s a humbling environment, and it allows me to see the world through a completely different lens,” she explains, true to form.

The fresh perspective she continually seeks can come from as simple an activity as flipping through a biology book—another technique Lynda uses to achieve the same effect.  “I’ll be struggling with a problem and come across a picture of the musculature of the human arm, and I’ll suddenly understand what it is I was missing in the organization because I’m finally seeing things through a different window and from a different perspective,” she says.  Lynda’s path has certainly been unique, demanding, and trying at times, but perhaps it is just this kind of path—one that is entirely its own, and one that dares to use a different lens—that makes lasting change possible.

Lynda Mann

Gordon J Bernhardt


President and founder of Bernhardt Wealth Management and author of Profiles in Success: Inspiration from Executive Leaders in the Washington D.C. Area. Gordon provides financial planning and wealth management services to affluent individuals, families and business owners throughout the Washington, DC area. Since establishing his firm in 1994, he and his team have been focused on providing high quality service and independent financial advice to help clients make informed decisions about their money.

No items found.