Linda Mornell and her husband encountered unexpected challenges while raising their children in Northern California in the 1970s. “Bolinas, California was quite radical in those days and though the kids loved it, they didn’t really fit into that culture,” she says. She enrolled the children in a private high school in San Francisco, but they were somewhat behind academically and needed extra support, so during summers, Linda and her husband sent them to participate in Outward Bound and international service projects. “We found that attending challenging summer programs on their own helped them find confidence and their own unique voices,” she says.
Realizing that all of the opportunities her children had were out of reach to their classmates from less fortunate families, and troubled by this disparity, Linda founded Summer Search in 1990 to give low-income teens the same chance her own children had to grow into confident young adults.
According to statistics, only half of low-income students finish high school, and far fewer finish a four-year college program. “We are losing so much potential,” Linda explains. “It’s a tremendous loss for these individuals and for society as a whole.” As an adolescent counselor in partnership with her husband, a psychiatrist, Linda knew how lack of self-esteem and inexperience with success, fueled by poverty and problems at home, kept teens in a vicious cycle of lost potential and dysfunction. She believed that by providing them with opportunities to grow, she could help break that cycle.
Linda, who was born in 1943 on a dairy farm in Muncie, Indiana, understood much of what the teens were experiencing. She, her parents, and her two younger sisters survived on a pal- try income; her father’s lifelong struggle with a severe addiction to gambling compounded their economic and emotional woes, leaving Linda on her own to pursue her dream of attending college. Resolute on her path, Linda found a nursing program in Indianapolis that allowed her to work her way through school. She discovered her own strength and competence in her service to others along the way.
Applying that strength to Summer Search, Linda recruited 14 low-income high school students for the first year of her program. “I raised money from neighbors, negotiated with outdoor programs to discount tuitions, and sent the kids off to outdoors experiences, community service projects, and overseas home stays,” she says. “The kids came back energized and confident. And then they got depressed. I quickly realized that a one-time intervention wasn’t enough. They came back to the same challenges and environment that brought them down in the first place, and no one at home understood or valued what they had done.”
Linda quickly expanded the program to sustain the gains teens made during their summers. She added ongoing mentoring for Summer Search participants, college advising for high school seniors, and resources for those in college and post-graduation. This comprehensive approach has shown tremendous re- sults: 99 percent of Summer Search kids finish high school and 95 percent go to college.
These results are impressive, but it is the indi- vidual success stories that speak to Linda’s passion for the program. Napol Wills, who received a full scholarship to attend Middlebury College, says, “Summer Search is all about change, but it’s not about becoming somebody new. It’s about learning to be ourselves. Summer Search, through the mentoring and incredible summer programs, gives us the chance to discover who we really are.”
Summer Search now serves seven U.S. cities, helping more than 2,000 students realize their dreams each year. Linda has bowed out of the daily running of the organization, allow- ing a new generation of change-makers to oversee its growth. She continues as an advisor, while engaging in numerous other projects to help kids in need. “In Summer Search,” she says, “the quality I look for most in selecting student par- ticipants is altruism. I believe that compassion, caring for others, is the essence of a successful life.”