By: Melody Reed, Director, Resource Development: Student-Community Partnerships
In the first few months of 2013, I was given the opportunity to work with four extraordinary volunteers. They were ambitious, driven, hard-working, influential and all-around inspiring. Their goal was simple: to encourage their peers to get more involved in our community and to learn to love volunteering.
I’ve now worked at United Way for the better part of a decade and I have had many opportunities to work with volunteers who could be described in this way. It’s humbling to work with people like this – people who give up significant amounts of their own time to serve as champions for the greater good in our community. These people stand up, unsatisfied with the way things are, and put in their own hours and dollars to make life just a little bit better for all of us. And not only do they give of their own resources, they also ask their friends, family, peers and neighbors to get involved as well. These people really make a difference and it’s been my honor to work with them.
These particular four volunteers were distinct, however. They were not the usual hard-working professionals or influential community activists that I had been working with before. They were high school students! My meetings with them were typically in coffee shops, after school and after the after-school activities, with backpacks stored under the table, laptop keys clicking away and the excitement in their voices undoubtedly capturing the attention of the other customers. They wanted to start a movement. The four of them - named Ariane, Cassidy, Jackie and Maria – were all Student Government and Student Council Presidents and VPs of their rival schools, Lusher Charter School and Benjamin Franklin High School. They were committed to inspiring a passion for philanthropy in their fellow students – and they wanted to do it in a fun way. The result of those meetings was a one-month service hour competition that they named, “Mission Ignition.” We all wondered if anyone would want to participate. Would anyone even care who got the most service hours? By the end of the month, we had our answer with 2,373 completed and reported community service hours.
In less than 3 years since that very first Mission Ignition competition, the number of schools has jumped from two to eight (Lusher and Franklin were joined by Thomas Jefferson High School, Patrick F. Taylor Science and Technology Academy, Haynes Academy, Grace King High School, Riverdale High School and East Jefferson High School) and these students have contributed about 8,000 service hours to our region, equivalent to nearly $100,000 in economic impact, just during the short competition period alone.
At the helm of this program are 3-5 student leaders from each school that participate in the United Way Mission Ignition student board. At the end of each board cycle, board members will have developed their ability to:
• work collaboratively with peers from across the community to envision goals as well as to create and implement strategies for accomplishing those goals;
• experience the rewards of successful collaborative effort;
• engage previously uninvolved peers in collaborative effort on behalf of the larger community;
• recruit volunteers;
• secure resources for a philanthropic program; and
• transfer knowledge and passion for volunteerism to their post-high school experience (work, college, etc.)
From the group of Mission Ignition student board members, interested students may be selected as summer interns for United Way. These students will gain even deeper experience by contributing in a meaningful way to the direction, strategy and implementation of United Way’s work and mission. They will also lay the framework for the continuation and expansion of the next year’s Mission Ignition, provide support for upcoming volunteer projects and learn more about the key role that nonprofits play in our community.
And this is the point where Jenny Ly came into the picture. Jenny joined the United Way Mission Ignition board as a Junior at Thomas Jefferson High School in 2014 and was selected as a summer intern for our United Way this year. And, most recently, because of Jenny’s leadership, she was selected to represent our United Way and our region at the US Department of Education, joining other high school students from across the country to discuss global education challenges and develop creative solutions that could be useful in addressing our own community challenges. “Thinking Globally and Acting Locally,” they called it.
I had the honor of attending the event with Jenny and her mom to help document the conference for those at home who wanted to #FollowJenny (check us out on Twitter @MissionIgnition!) and although I was continually impressed by her bright, enthusiastic contributions to the discussions, I was never surprised. I have often heard the students that I work with through Mission Ignition referred to as “future leaders,” but what I quickly learned, and is constantly being reinforced to me through students like Jenny, is that they are, simply, leaders.
I’m so proud to work for an organization like United Way of Southeast Louisiana that recognizes the contributions that young people can have – and are already having – in our community. Bringing young people to the table of leadership doesn’t diminish the importance of our more experienced leaders; it ensures that our community will maintain strong leadership for generations to come. Without a doubt, there is much that respected and experienced community leaders can and should teach young leaders, but I believe that young leaders can also bring value through their perspectives – I’ve been witnessing it firsthand!
The hashtag we chose to use in documenting Jenny’s journey to the Department of Education was #FollowJenny, as I previously referenced. I think it’s fitting, too, considering the leadership role that Jenny has taken in her school and in her community. Though she was born when I was in high school, I find myself learning from her on a regular basis. She always looks for ways to make things better, never satisfied with the status quo. She is the first to raise her hand to help if there’s a need. She’s not afraid to ask her peers to come out on a weekend to get their hands dirty to help renovate a school. She
channeled her personal pain from the loss of a friend to drive her to create a suicide prevention program at her school in partnership with United Way Mission Ignition and VIALINK/2-1-1. Time and time again, her actions challenge me and inspire me.
Jenny and so many students like her are leading the way toward a movement of community change. Not just a future leader, a student leader or a young leader, but a true leader. I’m proud to #FollowJenny… and I hope you are, too!