As I perused my emails and what not at the beginning of the day, I was made aware that it is “National Bow Tie Day.” I checked one of my Holiday Apps, and it appears to be a real thing. Regardless of my actual affection for bow ties, I knew this was a great opportunity to tip my hat to one of my favorite people Dr. J. Michael Durnil, who runs the wonderful Simon Youth Foundation. He proudly wears a fetching bowtie every day.
Years ago, at my previous “day job,” I came upon the Simon Youth Foundation, the charitable organization connected to Simon Properties, the publicly-traded company that is the largest owner of shopping centers in America. The Simon Family, long a pillar of Indianapolis, grew a remarkable company that most likely owns a mall near you. Some years ago, Deborah Simon, a second-generation member of the family, came upon a philanthropic initiative that compelled her and has now become the lynchpin of Simon’s good works in the education field. According to their website SYF gives a variety of scholarships to the children of employees of Simon Properties—they have awarded over $19 million to nearly 5,600 students since 1998). However, it is their work with students from fragile circumstances that makes my heart sing. Their mission statement simply says, “SYF believes that all youth, no matter their personal circumstances, should have the opportunity to pursue their dreams through education.”
The SYF Youth Academies model is a simple, but elegant model. Using space in existing Simon Properties malls, alternative-type high schools are established, serving students for whom a traditional public school was not a good fit. The students have many compelling stories—economic responsibilities to their families of origin, parenthood at a young age, skirmishes with the juvenile court systems, bullying, illnesses, emotional challenges and beyond. But these folks also have a desire to learn. Supported by a dedicated faculty and staff, all of this work is done through local public school districts. The stories are universally compelling—I’d strongly encourage readers to visit the website to hear some of the video testimonials…and bring tissues. The pieces will stir your heart.
There are many reasons why my friend Michael Durnil was a perfect choice to lead this organization some years ago. He is a consummate educator and an activist and has a heart that is full of love and optimism. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, he circled the globe, attending SYF graduation ceremonies in more than a dozen states, as well as constantly seeking philanthropic and charitable contributions on behalf of this remarkable organization. He reports that SYF has an astounding 90 percent graduation rate in its 42 Simon Youth Academies in 15 states. They’ve helped nearly 22,000 young people graduate, over the years. Durnil is there all along the way making this possible—and always, always donning a bow tie.