If you described the typical community leader, adjectives such as dedicated, inspiring and hard-working would undoubtedly come to mind. You might also depict that person as a Baby Boomer with graying hair.
The first sentence applies to Tom Coale; the second does not.
Coale, an associate with the Baltimore law firm Goodell, Devries, Leech & Dann, is barely out of his twenties. But he hasn’t let his youth keep him from doing what he is passionate about: being a leader in his community.
His involvement had its start in 1997, when he was part of the second-ever class of Leadership U, Leadership Howard County’s program for upcoming juniors in high school.
Fast forward a few years — college, law school, marriage and a move back to the Howard County he loves — and Coale was ready to act on the principles of leadership and involvement that he had been honing, first in high school, through college, and now at his job. So he filled out an online application to the Board Bank (which acts as a clearinghouse for Howard County nonprofit and community boards) and waited for the phone to ring.
“I waited a year,” he laughed, “and when nothing happened, I filled out the application again. It was the same application, and all my information remained the same, but this time, I omitted one detail — my age.” That age? Twenty-five. This time, however, his application generated more interest, and he was contacted by several organizations.
Voices for Children
Among those who called him was Pam Grady, executive director of Voices for Children, an advocacy group for foster children. When they talked, Coale was upfront with her. But Grady was more interested in his leadership qualities than his birth date. He became a board member in 2008 and currently serves as its secretary.
Voices for Children (VFC) is part of CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate), which recruits and trains volunteers who represent foster children in court. These advocates are not intended to replace social workers, but to act as an additional resource.
Advocates take on only a few cases at a time, which they follow closely, getting actively involved in the child’s life and only then making recommendations to the court about what is in the child’s best interest.
Over the four years that Coale has been active with VFC, he has helped to create the Special Events/Fundraising Committee, served as board liaison for Fostering Futures (an organization dedicated to supporting children who have aged out of foster care), and solicited silent auction items for VFC’s annual fundraiser.
His dedication already has gained community-wide attention, as he was awarded the prestigious Leadership Council Philanthropic Award in October 2011, presented by The Columbia Foundation, a charitable organization devoted to promoting connections between potential donors and worthwhile associations. This philanthropic award was instituted just this past year as a way to recognize next-generation people (25–45 years old) who have demonstrated leadership and commitment to Howard County through their service on various nonprofit boards.
And while his work with VFC is certainly impressive, it’s not Coale’s sole contribution to the life of Howard County. In addition, he maintains a well-respected blog, HoCoRising, which he’s been writing for the past four years. He comments on a wide variety of Howard County (and beyond) issues. Recent blogs have included topics such as property taxes, teacher pensions, same-sex marriage and the Baltimore Orioles, to name just a few.
Coale said his blog has been an “interesting journey” and one he undertook as a way to “make local issues more accessible.” In addition, he wanted to provide a forum where people could “have a real conversation without yelling at each other, and find room for middle ground.”
Each morning when he writes his blog, he asks himself, “What can I get other people to think about, and more importantly, care about?” His point is that you can’t get people actively involved in their community if they don’t understand the issues it faces. Nor will they get involved if they feel their efforts won’t matter.
That was certainly one of the points he stressed to a recent class of Leadership U students. Coming full circle, he was the keynote speaker this past summer at Leadership U’s graduation ceremony. Looking out at the 40 to 50 teenagers attending, he spoke from experience when he told them, “You don’t have the option to sit back and do nothing when bad things happen. You have an obligation to get involved, and you can do it.”
By the time the Leadership U students graduate from the program, they have worked together to create and implement a community service project. Watching a project go from a mere vision to a supportive and caring reality further boosts their self-confidence and leadership skills. “This program,” explained Coale, “teaches them that they can do it — that they can make a difference.”
Coale hopes that his relative youth will continue to encourage others to get involved in their communities now, rather than waiting until they’re older and more experienced. Though he concedes that occasionally people might “take you lightly” because you’re young, he’s also learned that attitudes change rapidly when you “knock down barriers” and demonstrate what you can do.
The catchphrase that Coale remembers from his time at Leadership U — effect positive change — remains a guiding principle for him. From his blog to his service on the boards of Voices for Children and Dorsey’s Search Village, Coale sets an example of leadership that he hopes will encourage others, no matter their age. Probably the only change he might make to the mantra would be to add, “effect positive change now.”