scott schilling: giving exploration

 

On the morning of September 11th, 2001, Scott Schilling [Junior Faculty ’97-‘99] woke up to the booming crash of the first plane hitting the World Trade Center. He was living in Battery Park City in downtown Manhattan, just a few blocks away. The sound of the collision rattled his window.

Schilling was planning to work from home that day – a first for his new job. In August, he had left the investment bank he worked for to take a corporate strategy position with another company. The job at the bank had been within walking distance of his apartment – a convenience he appreciated on nights when he worked late and simply needed a place to lie down for a few hours before starting up again. His new job was in Connecticut, and he was already thinking about finding a new place.

As he made breakfast, Schilling watched from his second story window, curious at first and then with a growing sense of anxiety, as people from the street flooded into his apartment building's courtyard. A moment later, his roommate, a friend he had worked with at the bank, burst in their front door crying.

“Something blew up in the Trade Center,” she said. “There's stuff falling everywhere.”

Schilling went outside to get a look. In the street, panicked people ran all around him, while Schilling still struggled to understand what was happening. Then, there was another noise: the second plane flying over his head. He looked up and watched it disappear behind the New York City skyscrapers. After a moment, he heard the crash of it hitting the second tower, and then, in the slow wave of heat that followed, felt the warmth of the explosion on his cheeks and tops of his arms. He ran back inside, grabbed his roommate, and with thousands of others, walked north up the West Side Highway to New Jersey.

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Schilling met Moira Kelly when he was a student at Northfield Mount Hermon (NMH), a boarding school in central Massachusetts. Schilling had gotten himself into trouble, and Kelly, the dean, was in charge of disciplining him. It was not the last time, Schilling admits, that the two would meet under these circumstances.

Despite a less than auspicious beginning, a mutual admiration grew between Schilling and Kelly and they stayed in touch after they both left NMH (Schilling for undergraduate study at Bowdoin College in Maine, Kelly to become Head of the Exploration Junior Program). In the spring of his freshman year, Schilling was looking for a summer job and Kelly was looking to fill a position in her Programming Office. She offered him a position at Explo.

At the Junior Program, Schilling did a little bit of everything. A football player and star sprinter for the track team at Bowdoin, Schilling felt most at home leading sport-of-the-day activities and (his favorite) dodgeball games of “Scott vs. Everybody.” He also had a knack for coming up with some of the zany, creative, (and just plain absurd) activities that are, in many ways, the trademark of the Junior Program – “Visionary Haiku Fingerpainting” and “Puppet Poetry,” to name just a couple. He cleaned, he planned, he performed on stage . . . he did it all.

“Scott was in the varsity athlete mold, so he was a really good role model for doing other things,” says Kelly, who now is the Executive Director and President of Exploration. “He could get boys to do poetry or try art. He was good at getting girls involved in athletics. He showed kids that you could do this or that; that you could be multi-dimensional. In that way, he was really popular with lots of kids. He clearly loved being there and he clearly got excited being around kids, so kids were excited to be around him.”

In particular, for students who might not easily fit in at Explo, Schilling excelled at helping them find a place in the community. In his first summer, he mentored a student with cerebral palsy during the first session and a student with multiple sclerosis during the second session.

“He really made a tremendous difference for those kids,” Kelly says. “He helped them connect to the Program, and he also connected the rest of the Program to those kids. He was very sensitive about their needs, but he also pushed and challenged them.”

Says Schilling: “I talked to their parents afterwards, and they said that those three weeks they spent at Explo were not only the best three weeks of their kids' lives, but that they also transformed the way they approached school and life for years afterwards.”

And it was for that very reason – Explo's ability to transform a child's life – that Schilling called Kelly again in the early winter of 2001.

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Shortly after 9/11, Schilling's company set up a philanthropic fund for the victims of the attacks and their families. Schilling – still new at the company and temporarily homeless, his apartment destroyed in the aftermath of the towers' falling – was asked to sit on the committee that would review grant applications.

Schilling agreed and immediately thought of Explo. He called Kelly, told her about the fund, and said that he thought Explo would be a great thing for the children of 9/11 victims.

“One of the things [the committee] worried about was that these kids would be zoned out at school,” Schilling says. “It's horrible that they lost a parent, but we worried that they wouldn't ever be able to get back on track. My thought was, Explo can teach these kids to enjoy school again and to find meaning in that stuff again. It wasn't just about those three weeks, it was about getting them ready to go back to school for the next ten years.”

The review committee agreed with Schilling – granting Exploration close to half a million dollars to bring children of the victims of 9/11 to Explo on fully-paid scholarships. Schilling’s company (which has asked to remain anonymous) immediately became Explo’s largest scholarship partner. At the time, Exploration had a long history of smaller scholarship partnerships with philanthropic organizations, which often generated anywhere from five to thirty scholarships. The 9/11 Scholarship Fund granted, in total, more than 100 full scholarships.

“We never would have known that this company was looking to do this if Scott hadn't been looking out for Explo,” Kelly says. “He was the one who said, 'You know, this is a really important niche that Explo could fill.'“

Schilling, however, deflects the attention.

“Here was this amazing opportunity to make this enormous difference in these kids' lives – these kids whom all of America wanted to reach out to – and Moira was the one who said, 'Let's just do it. Whatever it takes, let's do it.' We were a check, which is great, but the credit goes to her and to Explo.”

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The summer of 2008 saw the last of the 9/11 Scholarship students experience a summer of Exploration. Over seven summers, more than 50 9/11 Scholarship students attended Explo, some for a single session, some for multiple years. At the Program, the students wore no special tags, had no special marks beside their names on class rosters or living group assignment sheets. And after each summer, Kelly received letters from these students and their families thanking Explo for the experience the Program provided. Though each letter was different, nearly all of them touched on a common theme: that students had discovered a sense of wonder and excitement about the world that had been lost since the tragedy of the attacks.

“Could you have sent these kids to any camp and given them a positive escape for three weeks?” says Schilling. “Yes. But could you have sent them anywhere for three weeks and have it echo back into their education for the rest of their lives? No. That's what sets Explo apart in my mind. If they had tuned out of school, it wouldn't just be that they lost their family member, they would've lost their future as well. That's why sending them to Explo was the right place to send them.”