Student Leaders program focuses Detroit young people on community service, creating a more civil society

Student Leaders program focuses Detroit young people on community service, creating a more civil society
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“These kids are going to ruin the world when they inherit it.”

That sentiment has been around as long as there has been a next generation. It was said about me, and probably you, and it is never really all that true.

Even the firmest believers that the upcoming generation will be the doom of us all would have a change of heart if they met this year’s crop of Bank of America’s Student Leaders.

(L-R) Gabrielle Wiwigacz, Kyla Hurns, Mark Hardy, Jerry Esquible and Elisa Estrella, metro Detroit’s Student Leaders, learned to build job and leadership skills while having a positive impact on their community.

The philanthropic program helps high schoolers from Detroit and across the nation build job and leadership skills while having a positive impact on their community. This is done by setting up paying internships at nonprofits near them. In Detroit the nonprofit is Focus:HOPE.

“Focus:HOPE is honored to host Bank of America’s Student Leaders, young people looking to make a difference in their community,” says Portia Roberson, CEO, Focus:HOPE. “It is very rewarding to show these future leaders our campus and detail the numerous ways our organization assists people in the community. Operating a nonprofit organization is complex, and we are grateful for the opportunity to educate these Student Leaders on the intricacies of nonprofit management, building upon their leadership skills and promoting community engagement.”

Here the kids helped run the farmer’s market, did office work, helped with food distribution, and worked with kids in the summer camp program.

Every year, the Student Leaders program helps connect community-minded high school juniors and seniors to employment, skills development and service. Only five students are selected from each region.

The youths chosen in metro Detroit were:

  • Jerry Esquible, Allen Park resident and a senior at Gabriel Richard Catholic High School in Riverview
  • Elisa Estrella, Detroit resident and a senior at Cass Technical High School in Detroit
  • Mark Hardy, Detroit resident and a senior at Communication and Media Arts High School in Detroit
  • Kyla Hurns, Southfield resident and a junior at Wylie E. Groves High School in Beverly Hills
  • Gabrielle Wiwigacz, Livonia resident and a senior at Franklin High School in Livonia
The students were inspired by a conversation with Representative Justin Amash from Grand Rapids, who spoke of his choice and the difficulty he had, and continues to have, going against his own political party.

As part of the program students attend a summit in Washington, D.C., where they meet leaders from the worlds of government, charity, and business. The program also lets them interact with kids from across the country and hear from those making a difference on a larger level.

The meeting in Washington allows the young people to gain focus by discussing their experiences with 300 of their peers with similar goals but a diverse range of experiences.

Hearing government, business, and non-profit leaders discuss civil rights and the value of cross-sector partnerships is designed to help them understand the realities of the larger world they inhabit.

One speaker who had an impact on all of the students was Representative Justin Amash from Grand Rapids. Amash recently made national headlines as the first Republican in the House of Representatives to call for the impeachment of President Trump.

While most of the kids did not mention political beliefs, all seemed to be inspired by how Amash spoke of his choice and the difficulty he had, and continues to have, going against his own political party.

The courage to stand, and continue to stand, against an overwhelming tide from those you otherwise agree with and remain strong in your beliefs is what really spoke to the teens.

That trip may have been the most fundamentally adult realization of them all.

Estrella already had a history of working for community outreach programs and learned about the Student Leaders program from young people she had worked with who had already been a part. On the trip she learned to understand the problems with polarized thinking.

She had long been firm in her contempt for corporate America, believing it had little to offer the average person. While still harboring a certain healthy skepticism, seeing how government, nonprofits and business all come together to heal the world’s ills opened her eyes.

She has applied that epiphany to political and global issues as well, with her sighting a desire to look at both sides of politics and take a more complex look at Israel and Palestine as examples.

Like Estrella, Hurns biggest lesson came in Washington.

Her family has taken advantage of FOCUS:Hope’s programs and she seems to have taken to the organization quite naturally, constantly moving around the Farmer’s Market making sure all runs smoothly – even as she was being interviewed.

That may come from her family history with FOCUS:Hope or her passion for the education system and desire to work in it.

Student Leaders with Justin Amash

While in Washington, she learned the value of making such passions known.

“If you are passionate about something, you show it … (you) go for it,” says Hurns. ”No one will know what is important to you if you do not tell them.”

This realization has only added to her desire to work on education policy, specifically a focus on early education. Even before the internship she knew how important it was, but working in Focus:HOPE’s kid-based programs reinforced that passion.

Wiwigacz, certainly the most outgoing and outspoken member of the five, found her way to Student Leaders the old-fashioned way – a story in the newspaper. The opportunity already meshed with her outlook.

“I think you should always give back to the community,” she says.

Her lessons and experiences were not all that different from Hurns and Estrella. Like Estrella, she saw the impact all sides can have coming together.  Like Hurns, she saw how important it is to get your ideas across.

Wiwigacz came to the conclusion it is important to acknowledge your beliefs in how to make the world better. Whether it is talking to someone or just writing it down, it is important that your thoughts are preserved, even if you can’t act on them immediately.

More than that, she embraced the importance of getting to know other people’s perspectives and experiences – not just being aware, but understanding them.

Both the varied experiences of those she helped, and seeing how just being from a different part of the country can affect someone at the conference, showed her the light.

Hardy, a self-described introvert, plans to go into engineering. He has noticed an increased comfort in working with other people and ease in communicating.

His future has also come more into focus. Right now, he plans to attend Henry Ford Community College and major in engineering. After that two-year degree is finished, he will return to Focus:HOPE and advantage of its job training for STEM careers.  To Hardy this is a very viable step to the future he wants.

Hardy and Wiwigacz  also had an interesting shared realization. Their parents went to high school together and their families had a mutual friend. The friend contacted both families after seeing a write-up about the students participating in the Student Leaders program.

Esquible also has a clear vision for his future – investment banking. Unlike the majority of people who look into that world, he already wants to go into funding for nonprofits and has plans with his friends to start their own business one day.

His group would help kids from all backgrounds learn the etiquette and personal skills needed to succeed in the business world.

Esquible says his time at Focus:HOPE has helped him learn how nonprofits run.

Today, 4.7 million, or about 15 percent of all young people throughout the nation, are “disconnected” – not in school or working a job – and run a risk of being left behind, according to Bank of America. Once in that position, it is easier for them to fall into juvenile delinquency and unemployment.

Matt Elliott, president Michigan Market, Bank of America, says the Student Leaders program helps young people develop the 21st century job skills needed for success and that will strengthen the Detroit community overall.

Building skills for the business world early is vital, especially in ways that positively impact the community.

“We know that developing 21st century job skills early will prepare a young person for long-term success,” says Matt Elliott, president Michigan Market, Bank of America. “It is our commitment to invest in the people, places and projects that makes Detroit move, this is one such program that does just that. Investing in our young adults for access to the training needed for tomorrow’s jobs will strengthen our community overall.”

The Student Leaders program has yielded results in the city of Detroit since its inception.

Stephanie Johnson-Cobb, the Focus:HOPE member who has worked with the Student leaders for 11 years, has seen the internship gives young people skills and perspective to not only succeed, but be good citizens. Because the program seeks out highly qualified young people who with good communication skills, they often just need to know how to focus it.

“Everyone needs an opportunity sometime,” says Johnson-Cobb.

The young people often keep in touch. Just a few weeks ago, a participant from the program’s first year called her from California.

“It has been an honor to serve as their administrator … and allow them the opportunity to serve,” says Johnson-Cobb.

With such attempts to build a competent and responsible society, the future is certainly in good hands with the next generation.

To find out more about the Student Leaders program please click here.

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