Paws for a Cause is a series where we chat with our friends, clients, and peers in our local Colorado community. It’s a chance to check in and see how everyone’s doing in business and life.
Today we’re talking to Heather O’Mara, Founder & CEO of HOPE Online Learning Academy Co-op. We’ve collaborated with HOPE Online on a huge span of projects, from yearbooks and fundraiser event invitations to graduation programs and even customized graduate yard signs.
YellowDog: Hello Heather! Give us the short version of your nonprofit’s mission. What population or cause do you serve?
Heather O’Mara: HOPE Online Learning Academy Co-op is a public charter school that serves 2,001 students in grades 6-12 at community learning sites across Colorado. The majority of our students, 74 percent, qualify for free and reduced-price lunch, and 8 percent experience homelessness. HOPE pioneered the blended learning model when it opened in 2005 and provides academic programs, student resources, and community support to prepare, challenge, and inspire students as they work toward a life of opportunity, purpose, and self-determination.
YD: How and when did your nonprofit start?
HO: HOPE Online Learning Academy Co-op was founded in 2005 as a concept that had never been attempted in Colorado: a public school with both online academic instruction and in-person support and resources—all at small, community-based learning centers staffed with community mentors. Since its inception, HOPE has graduated over 1,500 students.
HOPE has expanded to serve 2,001 students at 23 community learning sites across Colorado—from Pueblo to Greeley and Aurora to Grand Junction.
YD: What was your journey into your role as founder of this program? How did you get here?
HO: Prior to co-founding HOPE, I spent eight years at Jones International Ltd. As President of Jones Knowledge, I was responsible for facilitating the innovation and growth of one of the country’s first online education businesses and encouraging high schools and universities to adopt online education.
I saw firsthand the benefits of online education, yet I also saw that it was largely inaccessible for students in underserved communities. I founded HOPE with the goal of making this new blended style of learning available in a tuition-free, charter public school so all students could have access to an educational alternative—not just those who could afford a private school.
YD: COVID-19 has been a part of our lives throughout 2021. What have you learned about your organization, and/or how have you adapted in 2021?
HO: The pandemic has tested our organization in countless, unimaginable ways, yet it has also validated the importance of our work and the design of our educational model. Because we delivered most of our classes online even before Covid-19, we continued to provide instruction for our students pretty seamlessly after schools needed to cease in-person learning. The challenge was making sure our students—most of whom come from low-income households—had all the resources they needed to continue learning at home. That meant delivering more than 500 desktop computers to our families, creating meal pick-up and delivery services, and adapting our counseling and support services to a remote model.
We’re continuing to grow and adapt as the pandemic evolves. Flexibility is now ingrained in all aspects of our organization, so we feel confident about our ability to navigate what’s next.
YD: Describe your organization in three words.
HO: Belong. Believe. Become.
YD: Love it! Thanks for sharing your story!
Now for some friendly rapid-fire questions:
Are you a dog person or a cat person?
Dog; big dog
Early bird or night owl?
Favorite local beer?
Wine, not beer.
What’s your best party trick?
I’m not that much fun…. I love parties but don’t have a party trick.
What show are you currently binging?
You on Netflix.
Any book you’re currently reading?
The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid. Although I should’ve answered with the title of a very insightful business book, reading fiction is my guilty pleasure…
What are you looking forward to most in 2022?
More face-to-face time with family and friends. Live concerts again!
YD: Thanks, Heather! It has been wonderful to learn more about your inspirational and flexible education program! We hope your work continues to spread and thrive across Colorado.
We’re always looking for local nonprofit organizations to feature in this series. Get in touch to find out more!