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Issuing A Challenge to Help Others

Stetson Associate Professor and National Coalition for the Homeless Executive Board Member, Rajni Shankar-Brown, stood before 30 kids in a Volusia County middle school and gave them a challenge: How could they work together to organize a service project and help improve their community this summer?

Stetson Associate Professor Rajni Shankar-Brown, Ph.D., encourages kids to organize a service project to help their community this summer.

Shankar-Brown, Ph.D., Jessie Ball duPont Chair of Social Justice Education, is working with local school children from economically disadvantaged communities this summer to teach them about the importance of volunteering and community engagement.

Weaving together history and current-day issues, including economic disparities and systemic oppression, she taught them about equity and justice. She reminded them that youth have always played a pivotal role in the advancement of civil and human rights. And she issued a challenge to these fifth through ninth graders attending the CATALYST Summer Literacy & Leadership Academy.

 “I am here today standing before you because I want to challenge each and every one of you,” Shankar-Brown told the students at Southwestern Middle School in DeLand. “I want to see you work together collectively, channel your inner light and use your amazing talents to develop a service project that could help improve our community.”

Victoria Brown

Last year, the students collected donations of food and hygiene items, and packed bags for people in need. Victoria Brown, 14, of DeLand, said the students formed an assembly line. Her job was adding granola bars and water to the bags, and she and the other students put positive affirmations in each bag, too.

“It was fun. I liked writing the positive affirmations,” she said, adding that she wrote messages like “You’re loved,” and “Dream big, work hard” on notecards. “I like making somebody’s day better.”

Aja Albright

She and her friend, Aja Albright, 14, were not sure what service project that they would do this summer. But Aja said she would like to collect donations for the homeless and people in need – “try to get them clothes, food and water – mainly water because it’s hot.”

Shankar-Brown said service projects have been shown to raise children’s self-esteem, encourage social responsibility, and provide them with a sense of purpose that can help them achieve academically and in other areas of life. She has partnered with CATALYST founder and CEO Felicia Benzo for the past few years to inspire the kids into action and educate them on justice issues.

Shankar-Brown’s work as an engaged teacher-scholar is highly recognized, receiving Stetson’s Hand Award for Distinguished Faculty Achievement and the Florida Campus Compact’s Engaged Scholar Faculty Award, and is frequently used as model for equity-focused, civic leadership. Shankar-Brown is committed to creating sustainable social impact projects through collaboration with school districts and community partners like Benzo.

About 30 kids are attending the CATALYST Summer Literacy & Leadership Academy this summer at Southwestern Middle School in DeLand. Professor Rajni Shankar-Brown, center, first row, said we must support our youth in reaching their full potential and recognize they are positive agents of change.

Benzo started CATALYST Global Youth Initiatives, Inc., in 2010 to provide mentoring to local children, especially ones in high-poverty schools who may not have consistent and positive adult role models in their lives. CATALYST stands for “Children and Adults Together Achieving Leadership, Inspiration, Success, and Trust.”

The mentoring program now operates in 27 local schools. Kids meet regularly with adult mentors during the school year and can attend the free summer academy, sponsored by AdventHealth and local Rotary Clubs, at three schools in DeLand, Deltona and Daytona Beach.

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Felicia Benzo

“My goal this year is 500 new mentors. We really need to push it,” Benzo said about the need to pair more students with mentors. “Our goal is 10 percent of the children in the school system because I find that’s the critical mass. If you’re at 10 percent in each one of the schools, it changes the culture.”

During the summer academy, kids participate in a variety of activities, including field trips, success coaching, physical exercise and academics. During the final week of the academy, scholars from each of the three locations visited a local AdventHealth hospital in DeLand, Orange City and Daytona Beach and made presentations to the hospital’s presidents and CEOs about what they learned during the program and their hopes and dreams for the future.

The students also would read one book a week, write a report and share this with their peers, allowing them to improve their reading, writing and public speaking – the key ingredients of literacy, said Sharon Brown, director of the CATALYST program at Southwestern Middle School and a teacher at Heritage Middle School in Deltona.

group photo with two leaders and a dozen kids holding a hospital banner
Stetson senior Robert Walsh, far right, said the kids in the summer academy dressed up as surgeons when an AdventHealth Surgical Unit visited and talked about working in an operating room.

“Our scholars know: Scholars make dollars, and readers are leaders. That’s what we teach them every day,” she said.

The program hires college students and high school students to serve as teacher leaders and junior leaders for the kids. Stetson senior Robert Walsh ’20 said he learned during his job interview that the program likes to hire Stetson students because the university is close by and students like him can serve as role models for the kids.

“One thing that Stetson gave me when I first came on was so much confidence. They gave me what it meant to truly be a good leader, not just by setting an example, but being part of it, learning with the children,” said Walsh, a digital arts major, and member of Pi Kappa Alpha and Green, White & You. “I thought this would be a great opportunity for me to give back.”

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Albreanna Jenkins

Added Albreanna Jenkins, a senior psychology major at Bethune-Cookman University, “I see the progress that the kids are making and I would like to help be the change for them along the way.”

Stetson senior Autumn Johnson, once homeless herself as a teenager, was hired to help at the Deltona academy, and a homeless Bethune-Cookman student, with two children, was hired to help in Daytona Beach while she awaits placement in housing, so she can move out of a homeless shelter.

“She and Autumn heighten awareness of the homeless for these children,” said Benzo, the CATALYST founder. “The plight is there for these young people. I’m glad I’m able to help these two people.”

During her talk, Shankar-Brown told the kids about her own parents being homeless, before she was born, when her father was attending college in Washington, D.C. And she taught them about the importance of intentional and mindful community engagement, showed them inspirational videos about helping individuals living in poverty and homeless, and shared a few inspirational words from diverse, influential leaders.

They included one by civil rights leader Mahatma Gandhi, who said, “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others” and one by cultural anthropologist Margaret Meade, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

“No matter what we have, even if it’s not a lot, we can share. While economic sharing is vital, sharing does not always mean money. We can also share our hearts and time. We can share our talents and collectively work to develop social impact projects,” Shankar-Brown told the kids. “There are many ways that we can lead, volunteer and do good. Justice calls on each of us daily to rise with love and take action. I look forward to seeing and supporting the service project you develop this summer!” 

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