When Ryann Denham Sanchez travels to big cities like New York; Chicago; Boston; Dallas; Orlando, Florida; Los Angeles or Washington, D.C., she finds herself looking for the signature red jackets of City Year members.
She’s been working with the 27-year-old national service organization for six years and loves how it unites young adults to work in high-poverty communities to bridge the gap between the support students actually need and what their schools can provide. The result is increasing graduation rates across the country, which means a brighter future for many students.
“I like being a part of something bigger than myself,” says the 29-year-old Sanchez, who became executive director of City Year Baton Rouge in July. “I’m very passionate about K through 12 education, and City Year offers a lot of history and tradition in improving educational outcomes.”
Sanchez grew up in Ascension Parish, the daughter of René and Randy Denham, and attended St. Amant Primary, Middle and High schools. She cherishes the good education she got and feels strongly that all students deserve the same. “They’re the reason I feel I am where I am in life,” she says.
She met her husband , Bradley Sanchez, while doing community theater in high school but they didn’t start dating until they were at LSU, where Sanchez received her undergraduate and graduate degrees in communication disorders and higher education and student affairs.
While at LSU, she served as the graduate assistant for Parent and Family Programs and as a teaching assistant with Career Services.
“I always knew I wanted to work with college kids,” says Sanchez, who also had a dream to live in New York City. “I had a friend who served in AmeriCorps. She told me about City Year and suggested I try and get a job with them in New York.”
Like many people, Sanchez knew about AmeriCorps but not City Year. AmeriCorps is actually an offshoot of City Year. As she explains, President Bill Clinton heard about City Year 21 years ago and was so impressed he thought the year of service program should become a national movement and get governmental funding. AmeriCorps was born.
Sanchez spent two years working as the site operations manager for City Year New York, managing a $9.1 million annual budget. In 2012, Sanchez returned home to serve as chief of staff for City Year Baton Rouge, where she oversaw an annual budget of over $2 million. She also established partnerships with the East Baton Rouge Parish Metro Council and School Board to ensure their continued financial commitments.
Two years later, Sanchez moved to the position of development director where she led a team of three development professionals in securing $1.49 million in donations from individuals, corporations, foundations and government. She also worked closely with the executive director and City Year Inc. to develop and implement City Year Baton Rouge’s long-term impact plan and its 10th anniversary fundraising campaign. Her success in these roles made for a seamless transition to executive director this past summer.
“I’m unique in that I hired into a staff role right out of grad school, and I never served as a member of AmeriCorps,” says Sanchez. “They’re the greatest people in the world (AmeriCorps members). That’s why I stay with City Year.
“I believe all students deserve a ‘near peer,’” she continues. “That’s what we call our corps members because they’re relatively close in age to the students they work with.”
“Near peers” come from all over to serve but about 20 percent of them are from Louisiana.
“We recruit heavily from LSU and Southern. A lot stay here because they want to serve their local community and others take the opportunity to go to another city,” explains Sanchez. “I like finding people in Baton Rouge who did City Year somewhere else.”
Since it seems she changes job descriptions every couple of years, where does Sanchez see herself in 10 years?
“I don’t know,” she begins slowly. “This is a youthful, energetic place to work. I’m always learning. I know I’ll still be working in the education space somewhere. There’s a lot of exciting things happening in education in Baton Rouge, and I want to be a part of that, but in 10 years, I’m not really sure.”