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Ellen Sherberg, Bizwomen Contributor
Sep 16, 2022, 8:07am EDT Updated: Sep 19, 2022, 5:15pm EDT

When the mission of your organization is bringing people together, the pandemic poses a major threat. But Gretchen Grad and Hands of Peace have no smaller goal than peace in the Middle East so they tackled Covid with energy and optimism.

My Hands of Peace colleague and I sat at a cafe north of Haifa, juggling cell phones as we frantically tried to reschedule flights for 30 American travelers, all trying to leave Israel as airlines were shutting down service. Everywhere. It was March 11, 2020. The pandemic had become very real.

Offering multi-narrative trips to adults wanting to experience Israel-Palestine through the eyes of locals is a side activity for the organization I founded in the wake of 9/11. We had to spring into action to get everyone home before pandemic entry restrictions took hold. I cleared customs at O’Hare on March 13, 12 hours before borders effectively shut.

The primary work of Hands of Peace is engaging with teens, bringing together American, Israeli and Palestinian youth in Chicago and San Diego for our flagship Summer Program. As an international organization with staff in Chicago, San Diego and the Middle East, we have been operating electronically for years. So the switch to online communications was fairly easy.

The real trouble was that in-person, intensive dialogue sessions with trained facilitators are the heart and soul of our three-week summer programs. Every minute of that time is planned and intentional. It’s where enormous insight and transformation take place. It’s not feasible, nor safe, to attempt that work remotely. So with heavy hearts, we upended our planning and informed 2020 participants there would be no Summer Program. That was crushing.

The next two years were endless cycles of planning, canceling and planning again. We didn’t know when we could have in-person activities, but we wanted to be ready. By late 2020 we decided to create ‘Summer Program Launchpad’ to provide online, in-depth preparation for those who would likely participate in person in 2022.

Another existential challenge was how to keep the lights on. As a small/medium non-profit (annual budget $1M), we’re constantly in fundraising mode. Our biggest magnets are: 1) the Summer Program when dozens of purple-shirted teens are present in Chicago and San Diego, and 2) our spring benefits in each city. None of that happened in 2020 or 2021. Ouch.

Our staff got creative and kept our communities engaged. They designed online events: cooking classes, movie discussions, alumni profiles. Anything to remind supporters we are vibrant, and even without a new summer class, we have a legion of alumni doing valuable work who merit their continued support. We are blessed with the hardest working people I know, especially in marketing and development. They were relentless. They kept us afloat.

The Board also redirected its energy in 2020 towards reimagining Hands of Peace – a deep internal review asking “What can we do better? What would bring more value to our programs?” This yielded valuable information about what our older alumni want: deeper alumni networking and age-appropriate skill building that grows with them, moving from dialogue to action. It was time well spent.

Then, finally, 2022. Thanks to vaccines and protocols, the teens returned in July, 71 new peacemakers meeting face-to-face in Chicago and San Diego. It was like rain in the desert. Everything bloomed. The hallways of our Summer Program were filled with purple shirts and the highs and lows of divided peoples arguing, sharing and learning. Host family beds were full, car pools were humming. We were back. We couldn’t have asked for a more meaningful way to mark our 20th anniversary.

One thing I’ve learned over 20 years since starting Hands of Peace is this: there is an endless supply of threats and challenges that can derail your work. But external problems can be navigated if you have internal strength and teamwork. Internal chaos is the far bigger issue. Nobody could have predicted the pandemic’s endless curveballs. Having people with “the right stuff” who refuse to give up has kept Hands of Peace alive and thriving. It always comes down to the people.

This is a time for virtual community and sharing. If you would like to contribute to this ongoing narrative on the impact of the pandemic, please send an e-mail to Esherberg@bizjournals.com.