MICHIGAN CITY — Although he is retiring at the end of February, Herb Higgin, director of the Safe Harbor After-school Enrichment Program, has a full whiteboard of notes in his office about a new April activity. One of the notes says people who will help out in "Camp Downtown," during Spring Break, include retirees.
Coworkers say all of Herb Higgin's work as director of the Safe Harbor After-school Enrichment Program is always about the youth, and his decision to retire at the end of February was also about his vision for what the program can do for youth.
Higgin said he wants to open the job to someone with greater ability to use social media and thus reach more people. Now 66, he said someone younger might be better for this. He also felt that 15 years was the right time, since he started in February of 2001.
"I've had a lot of rewarding positions in my life, but this is the most rewarding," he said.
Higgin grew up in Chicago and, in 1972, began working at the Gateway Foundation, where he did counseling and facility management. He went to Northeastern Illinois University in 1983-1986 and graduated with a degree in social services. He later received a master's in health science from Governors State University in 1998.
He chose counseling because he wanted to help people. He said a major accomplishment from his career in counseling was being the startup director of Interventions, a 175-bed facility in Chicago's Englewood for detoxification for people with substance-abuse problems, from 1990 to 1999. The facility was successful and is still operating, he noted.
Even before coming to Safe Harbor, he had worked in youth prevention programs. When he saw the job posting for Safe Harbor, he thought his experience would fit. After all, he pointed out, after-school is a key alternative.
"If you provide these opportunities to kids, they're less likely to be involved in things that may be harmful for them," he said.
He attributed the success of Safe Harbor after he started to the dedicated people with whom he works. Whenever a need in the community arises, the staff considers whether it meets the mission of Safe Harbor and wants to be part of the response.
"I'm proud to call them colleagues," he said.
The staff makes the program look good every day, he added. Their hard work is why people use the name "Safe Harbor" at the dinner table.
"It is trusted and reliable and steady. It's a solid program, and solid doesn't come easy," he said.
Sherri Silcox, Safe Harbor program manager, has worked for Higgin for seven years. She just counts herself lucky to have a boss who cares about children, their families and also his staff.
"His heart just comes out in everything he does. We're going to miss him," she said.
She described the "Camp Downtown" idea as a monster because of how involved it is, so she is glad he has promised to help out in retirement. The idea is to have programming for students who have nothing else to do during Spring Break.
Higgin is well-known in the state, she said. He helped start the Indiana Afterschool Network and is currently on the board. She went with Higgin to the Because Kids Count Conference in Indianapolis on Dec. 8-9, and she heard Higgin described as "the dean of after-school" and "the grandfather of after-school."
He expects a large degree of effort from his staff, but he never asks something he does not give himself, and he works long hours, she said.
The person who taught him the most at this job might have been Curriculum Director Jan Radford, who hired him. She has always been a mentor, and she is a strong supporter of out-of-school programming, Higgin said. He said he especially appreciates that she let him run the program with autonomy so he could explore ideas and be creative.
Radford said Higgin's personality and ability to unite the community stood out. She said she agrees with Higgin's vision of using social media more and will work with Silcox to find his successor.
Safe Harbor had three sites when he started. The number of sites has increased, but that does not even describe how Safe Harbor has grown, Silcox said.
Higgin explained that the early programming included things like dance, music, art and languages, but the program now has before-school programming, STEM, horticulture, community service and robotics.
He said the program served about 300 children when he started. It now serves about 550, although at one time it served 850. The number rises and falls with grant money, and after-school received more grant money before 2007.
There is also a good reason local grant money is smaller, Higgin said. More communities have after-school programs and are competing for those dollars.
The RoboBlitz Robotics Team, finishing its fourth year in spring 2015, had its first graduation, and all seven seniors not only graduated but all went to college, Higgin said. An eighth student finished high school early and also went to college.
Al Walus, a mentor for RoboBlitz, said he met Higgin several years ago and saw how Higgin's work made a difference for students. Robotics is just one example, and that has paved the way for the effort to teach robotic coding to third- and fourth-grade students, Walus said.
"Herb has impacted the lives of multiple generations of youth in Michigan City, and his efforts will continue to positively impact youth for generations to come. Quite a legacy for an individual dedicated to inspiring and helping our youth," Walus said.