The afterschool community lost one of its greatest champions when Bonnie Reiss passed away on Monday, April 2. I am proud to call Bonnie a friend, a mentor, a collaborator and a board member who made the Afterschool Alliance even more strategic and powerful. Our achievements were her achievements and she improved prospects for children, families, communities and our country immeasurably.
Bonnie inspired everyone who came into her orb. She was fearless, confident and effective. Her passion was making our world a better place, and she dedicated her life to that work. Bonnie was a leader on so many issues – from education to the environment to political reform, and more – and those of us who had the honor of working with her know that she gave every issue 150 percent.
In the afterschool world, Bonnie created a legacy at the local, state and national levels. She helped create and was the first executive director of what is today After-School All-Stars, a tremendous program that serves more than 70,000 middle school students in 12 states. Building on the success of the All-Stars, she was an essential part of the strategic team that conceptualized, wrote and passed California’s Prop-49, creating the After School Education & Safety Program (ASES) and making California home to the largest state funding stream for afterschool in the country. Bonnie was also a tireless champion for federal funding for afterschool. When afterschool was threatened with a deep cut in 2004, Bonnie helped organize the first-ever National Afterschool Summit, bringing together leaders from Congress and the Bush Administration, alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger, to oppose the cuts. It was a success and the cuts never happened.
Three years later, Bonnie was honored with the William S. White award at an event with the U.S. Department of Education, in well-deserved recognition of her national leadership to promote and advance afterschool programming.
In 2013, the federal afterschool funding stream was again under threat and in danger of being eliminated. Bonnie led a team from the University of Southern California to Washington where she, Arnold Schwarzenegger and other afterschool leaders made the case for afterschool. In an age when so much in Washington is partisan, we had personal meetings with Education Secretary Arne Duncan, with Republican and Democratic House members in the office of Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), and a bipartisan meeting with senators hosted by Majority Leader Harry Reid.
It wasn’t enough. Afterschool funding remained at risk, so Bonnie spearheaded the second National Afterschool Summit. Once again, Arnold Schwarzenegger and former-Education Secretary Paige kicked off the event, this time at the University of Southern California Schwarzenegger Institute. The goal was to highlight why afterschool programs are so important to children, youth, families, communities and for the long-term strength of our country. The Summit had considerable impact; the final federal education funding bill that year, passed by Congress afterward, not only included language for afterschool but also many of the suggested changes, from the field, to make the federal afterschool program even stronger.
Bonnie’s final masterstroke was the 2017 National Afterschool Summit, held immediately after the new administration proposed eliminating all federal funding for afterschool. Joined by sports heroes, celebrities, military leaders, educators, researchers and representatives from all 50 states, this Summit drew national attention. It was no coincidence that, several weeks later, in a bipartisan agreement, Congress increased afterschool funding.
All of us who worked with Bonnie remain in awe of her professional accomplishments. Yet they pale in comparison to her personal commitments. A dedicated, unfailingly supportive friend and family member, Bonnie always made time for the people in her life. The hundreds of tributes on her Facebook page give a small indication of her magic, and her ability to make everyone in her life feel unique, special and cared for.
Bonnie will always have a special place in my heart. I feel blessed to have known her as a friend and colleague. Bonnie’s life touched millions and the fruits of her afterschool efforts will continue improving the lives of students, families and communities for decades to come. We take pride in continuing Bonnie’s work because, like her, we know that every student we serve, every funding or policy fight we win, every afterschool educator we support advances her goal to help others. She did that, throughout her incredible life, and that is her proud legacy.
Bonnie, I will miss you but I will carry you with me always, harnessing your strength, taking inspiration from your fierce commitment to a brighter future and doing everything I can to make sure your afterschool legacy continues to grow stronger and stronger.
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