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What Happens Next?

Northside educational nonprofit celebrates 15 years and a bright future

By Maria Seda-Reeder · March 26th, 2014 · Best Of Cincinnati
boc-feature_happeninc_jf2Tommy Rueff of Happen, Inc. - Photo: Jesse Fox
Just a couple weeks before Happen Inc.’s 15th anniversary, Tommy Rueff was asked what his biggest opportunity as leader of the non-profit educational agency has been to date, and his immediate reply epitomized his uncomplicated approach to running a busy educational organization: “Everyday is an opportunity. You never know what’s going to happen next.”'

Rueff founded Happen in 1999 with seed money from the sale of his partnership in Barefoot Advertising. “When I started [Happen], I thought it would only last three years,” Rueff says with a wry smile. “I knew I had three years financial capabilities, so I looked at it that way, not knowing exactly what was going to happen.” 

Despite a few unavoidable hiccups along the way (the dearth of individual donations, which tend to follow episodes of local and global crises like the recession and 9/11), the organization is still going strong. 

Every year Happen offers hundreds of hours of free activities for young people and their families out of its Happen Studio on the corner of Hamilton and Chase avenues in Northside. But Happen’s studio spaces extend to the Toy Lab next door, countless Community Canvas public art installations in neighborhoods and public spaces around the Tristate region, plus four community gardens that make up its Do Goods Garden programs. 

Happen’s leaders also consistently travel with their eight different major educational programs to area institutions like the Cincinnati Museum Center and the Cincinnati Art Museum as well as public spaces like Washington Park twice a month for four months over the summer. 

Rueff and his two full-time, five part-time (11 in the summer) staff members host activities that use art — in its many manifestations — to help bring families together. But the practicing artist and retired advertising executive is quick to point out that their success over the long haul is due to their wealth of volunteers. 

Recalling how the recent recession affected Happen’s core base of individual donors, Rueff notes that funding dropped right when the need for more programs rose. All of a sudden, many area two-income families became one-income families with parents who were out of work or juggling part-time jobs.

Many had more time on their hands — often with their kids and in need of a way to interact with them.

But Rueff also received a lot of volunteers because of the recession, allowing him to continue to grow his programs in the face of what he calls a few “tough” years. Some of those same parents who sought out Happen as an opportunity to engage with their own kids stayed on as volunteers.

And they needed the help. Before the recession hit, Happen had nine full-time staffers, and Rueff says the organization had been growing both its programs and finances at a rate of 25 percent a year. The organization is “slowly getting back there,” he says.

After nine years on the East Side in a strip mall on Beechmont Avenue (the last two of which, Rueff and company operated out of two spaces that were 20 minutes apart), Happen today is fully rooted in Northside. Their office space is just across Chase, and all their employees currently live within walking distance. “That’s not the number one reason that we hire,” Rueff says, “but it is a positive thing that people who work here live here, and they’re part of the community.” 

Community building seems to be an integral part of Rueff’s mission. Discussing some of Happen’s collaborative programs with North Presbyterian Church’s Whiz Kids group, an after-school program for second through fifth graders who attend nearby Chase Elementary, Rueff says, “Community is not just where you live, but how you live with other people, and they’re a great example of that.”

He tells the story of how a snafu with a rented U-Haul left Happen’s organizers high and dry for a way to transport equipment back from a local festival. Administrators from the church-based program heard about Rueff’s predicament and had the entire set up packed and returned to Happen only half an hour later than scheduled.

“Moving here, you’re part of a neighborhood,” Rueff says. “I can look down the sidewalk when we open and it’s like the beginning of Sesame Street. … So to be embedded in the neighborhood, all of a sudden you feel like you’re family.”

To some less-than-fortunate kids who participate in Happen’s educational programs — ones like the “Lights Camera Learning in Action” program that introduces kids ages 8-12 to filmmaking — this might be their most stable environment over the course of a 10-week-long summer program.

Happen works with both Whiz Kids (to do a shorter five-week program) and Faces Without Places — an organization that provides educational resources for youth experiencing homelessness in Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky — to put on “Lights Camera,” a program that Rueff started during the organization’s second year of operation after getting a phone call from one of his volunteers asking how they could help.

“That’s not really our mission,” Rueff says. “And we didn’t really have a budget for anything. But I talked to our volunteers, went out to the first location and it was really life changing.”

Thirteen years later, they’re still doing the program, and Happen provides educational content for all of FWP’s summer programs outside of “Lights Camera,” so Rueff has really cultivated that relationship over the course of the program’s existence.

For Rueff, the key is just trying. 

“I don’t have any background in nonprofit work,” he admits. “But I try.” 

The humble yet hardworking educator has his MFA but no fancy teaching degrees, yet he’s constantly putting himself out there in his mission for nurturing positive experiences between kids and their families.

When asked if he’s not afraid to make mistakes, Rueff admitted, “I’m definitely afraid to fail.”

In the wake of Happen’s enduring success in a field wrought with challenges, the man who’s consistently seen his calculated risks pay off says he’s dedicated to keeping things going. 

“That motivates me,” Rueff says. “We only have one shot at it — we only go around once. … What do you got to lose? Just try.” ©


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