When Opportunity Knocks
An interview with John Lydon, COMPASS’ Executive Director, by Gregg Grenier, Development and Communications Manager
Growing up in Dorchester, John J. Lydon knows what it means to be immersed in a tight-knit community. For the past 43 years, he has “moved up the ranks” at COMPASS (known as the Community Action Program in the 1970s), starting as a Caseworker in 1975 to becoming the Executive Director in 2004. I had the great fortune of sitting down with John to talk about him time at COMPASS and what keeps him working towards fulfilling its mission everyday.
GG: How has your career developed at COMPASS? What keeps you here?
JL: As I look back, my entire career has been about jumping at any opportunity that has come my way to grow personally and professionally. In my early twenties, I had been laid off from my job at the local phone company, and then I was given the great fortune to begin working for the Community Action Program in my hometown of Dorchester as a Caseworker. Working with youth and families that were in great need – and COMPASS – became part of my DNA. I took every opportunity that came my way to continue to make a positive impact for our clients and students – which meant moving through a variety of programs and locations in Charlestown, Roxbury, Jamaica Plain, South Boston, and Dorchester as COMPASS grew and changed.
For the majority of the first twenty-or so years I spent at COMPASS, I was able to work with Dave Manzo, the Executive Director, who was the best boss I never had. When he left his post in 2004, I was again given another opportunity to take my career to the next level. I have been able to build and sustain a phenomenal team at all levels within the organization that are all moving towards one common goal: provide specialized services for youth and families in need.
GG: Why is COMPASS important?
JL: COMPASS, first and foremost, exists to serve youth and families in crisis. There are times when a client or student of ours may feel like there is no one “in his or her corner”. Our programs and services are meant to afford our clients and students the opportunity to access resources to become self-sufficient and productive members of society and their communities. Whether it is a family involved with the Department of Children and Families (DCF) or a student that needs additional support in the classroom, COMPASS is ready to implement comprehensive, individualized, and high quality services.
One thing that separates COMPASS is the diversity of its staff. It is our goal to have staff that is representative of our clients’ race, gender, ethnicity, language, and geographic location – and we have been extremely successful at this. For example, COMPASS currently has the ability to serve individuals in over 8 languages (i.e. Khmer, Vietnamese, and Haitian Creole)! Our staff have been said to work with the most difficult populations, and they consistently garner praise for their professionalism and courteous treatment of all clients and students, no matter what their background or circumstance is. This all makes COMPASS invaluable to the communities we serve.
GG: What are you most proud of during your time so far at COMPASS?
JL: There are many things to be proud of, but the thing I am most proud of (so far) is rebuilding COMPASS after the 2008 Great Recession. The financial crash rocked COMPASS (among many, many other organizations): we had to let go a large number of our staff. It was an immensely difficult task to tell staff that was deeply committed to COMPASS that they could no longer work with us. COMPASS is a big family; everyone is committed to the same mission. The personal and professional connections that staff makes with one another are at the core of our success.
After having to make tough business decisions to ensure COMPASS’ successful future, we were left with a much smaller amount of staff members. Over the next 10 years, I made it my mission to build the organization up to be as sustainable as possible. I’m extremely proud that we have doubled in size in the last 10 years – if not more. Our Comprehensive Support and Stabilization (CSS) program went from serving 20 families to over 200 families per month! Our School went from serving 2-3 public school districts to serving students from over 18 districts! We were even able to start serving clients from the Department of Developmental Services (DDS) and exploring nature through our Outdoor Education Program. Finally, we went from having fewer than 50 staff to currently having over 130 staff! This positive growth is attributed to the extremely committed staff members and overly supportive Board of Directors that stuck with us through challenging times and made it their mission to see COMPASS thrive and become what it is today.