18 minute read
Susan Agrest

CALENDAR GIRL Illustrating how kids can help other kids

Even when she was just a child on the playground in her hometown of Falls Church, Va., Annina Burns could see that some of her playmates were lacking toys, clothes and often attention. At age 15 she was still troubled by the inequity, and one day found herself turning to the section on human services in the telephone book. She began to dial. Her call to the Embry Rucker Community Shelter, a facility that houses homeless children in nearby Reston, would better not only the lives of hundreds of children but Annina’s life as well.

The following week she visited Embry Rucker for the first time, carrying a brightpink shoulder bag that served as a magnet for the delighted children. They tugged at her jeans and pleaded to see what was inside the bag. Annina opened it and handed out markers, crayons and paper, enabling the children to make drawings that were poignant and sometimes chilling. For six months, Annina made weekly visits, often bringing along friends to help her play with, read to and tutor the children.

For most teens, those would have been enough good deeds. But Annina went on to start an organization at George C. Marshall High School, where she was a student. She dubbed it Y-NOT. She took the drawings she had collected during her visits to the shelter and used them to illustrate calendars, which the group then sold for the dual purpose of making the public aware of these forgotten children and raising funds for the shelter. She financed the first calendar with $250 she earned bagging groceries part-time and with a donation from her proud father.

By the spring of 1996, Y-NOT had grown to 40 members and was the largest group of student volunteers at the high school. Annina oversaw its transition to an official school club. Since she would be graduating in a year’s time, she also set about to ensure the club’s survival. In her senior year, she persuaded two Y-NOT volunteers to serve as co-presidents and talked the English department chair into becoming the club’s faculty sponsor. Annina also forged a relationship with a company that is, at no cost, printing this year’s calendars. Lastly, just a week before she left for college in August, Annina met with Y-NOT’s new co-presidents and turned over all paperwork and lists of current and prospective club contacts.

Today Annina, 18, attends Penn State tuition free, on a Bunton-Waller Fellows Scholarship (named for two of the college’s first black graduates). She won the award because of her help to minority children. Earlier this year, React magazine donated $25,000 in kids’ clothing, shoes and toys for Annina to distribute at her discretion. She will divide the goods between Embry Rucker and her latest undertaking–an educational media project on nutrition that she is designing for underprivileged middle-school children near the college. She still assists her old friends back at Y-NOT, but now it’s via E-mail. –Reported by Mubarak Dahir/State College, Pa.

ROLE REVERSAL The teachers’ computer guru is only 13 years old

On a rain-soaked November afternoon in Las Cruces, N.M., Aaron Soto, 13, traded places with his former East Picacho Elementary School teachers and for two hours conducted an in-service technology-training conference for a dozen of them, arrayed before him around a horseshoe of computer terminals. Aaron, a freshman at Mayfield High School, ran through a series of sophisticated videoconferencing demonstrations. Later he provided individual assistance to his adult “students,” pacing behind them, peering over the top of his gold-rimmed glasses to look at a screen or click a mouse.

The trick, he says, is to “get teachers to overcome their fears.” Ralph Ramos, a teacher at Picacho Middle School, confesses that his computers were sitting idle in the classroom. “Then Aaron trained me, and now I have my class dissecting frogs on the computer with a CD-ROM program and doing research on the Internet.”

“Computers are what I know,” explains Aaron “The teachers once taught me addition, subtraction, division, so my thinking is now I can help them.” He averages only two in-service sessions a year, but almost every day after school and often on weekends he conducts private tutorials–for free.

Aaron’s gift to his community these past three years isn’t just generous; it fills a void. The school district employs only three full-time network specialists to address the needs of 30 schools. While two of the specialists are also responsible for teaching district employees how to use computers, they rarely visit schools.

One teacher thanked Aaron by nominating him for the state board of education’s Council on Technology in Education, which recommends appropriation of technology funds. Aaron is the youngest council member; he’s also the only one who is chauffeured around the state by his mom to the council’s quarterly meetings. The icing on his cake came last spring when he won a Prudential Spirit of Community award–$1,000 and an all-expenses-paid trip to Washington. “In class I’m the nerd,” says Aaron. “But when I got this award, I realized that being the nerd wasn’t all that bad.” –Reported by Nancy Harbert/Las Cruces

JESSICA’S FEAT Sock It to Me brings comfort to thousands

Jessica Burris, 14, answers the door to her Conyers, Ga., home in her stocking feet. She offers an easy smile with a glint of braces. She is taking a breather, having just returned from an All State Chorus tryout, and soon she’ll be leaving for a party.

Jessica lives life to the hilt every day. She sings in three choruses and at special events sponsored by the city of Conyers; she takes voice and piano lessons, and performs with a kids’ musical group. (Her dream is to be the next Bette Midler.) A freshman at Salem High School, she has joined a literary club and is trying out for the golf team. On top of all this, there is the Sock It to Me campaign.

Her older brother Jeffrey started Sock It to Me five years ago to earn a Boy Scout badge. Nurse Karin Tackett, a next-door neighbor and friend of the Burris family, gave him the idea: homeless people are hard on socks; for hygienic and health reasons, they are always in need of new pairs. If Jeffrey would collect the socks, Tackett would have the Georgia Nurses Foundation, which treats the homeless, distribute the socks at shelters in nearby Atlanta and Athens. Helped by Jessica and parents Herb and Patty Burris, Jeffrey got his badge. But Jessica decided the campaign had merit and kept it going. And growing. Jessica currently has 20 kids her age volunteering for Sock It to Me. Now they also collect shoes, clothing, toiletries and money for medication, to the benefit of thousands of people. “We’ve had more than one party sorting socks,” said her mother Patty, once a big-time volunteer herself. “I’ll have a sleep-over with friends, and we shoot hoops with the socks we sort,” added Jessica, who looks a lot like her mom.

Jessica’s zest for life is something mother imparted to daughter. Since she was seven, Jessica had witnessed her plucky mom battle angiosarcoma (cancer of the vascular system), which claimed her life 14 days after Jessica’s interview with Time. Patty cherished life, says Tackett, and in that way “Jessica is so much like her.” –Reported by Leslie Everton Brice/Conyers

ON THE FAST TRACK This teen’s fight against abuse is all business

Ask Cecilia-Nan Ding, 17, to name the last compact disc she bought or the last movie she saw, and she cannot tell you. But ask the senior at the prestigious Boston Latin School how many beds for battered women there are in Boston’s shelters, and her recall is a rapid 400…419, to be precise–a number Nan (as she prefers to be called) finds disturbing. Consider in comparison, she says, the number of calls made in 1996 to Massachusetts women’s hot lines: 80,843.

Despite all the rhetoric condemning abuse, says Nan, statistics like these prove that domestic violence is “institutionalized” in our society. It was not what she expected to find when she immigrated to America four years ago from Tianjin, China. The problems here, she says, are too reminiscent of how women are “suppressed” in China. And that is why she feels compelled to do something about it.

To help remedy the problem, Nan, this past June, started a company called FAST (Friends and Shelter for Teens). Its goal is to have teenagers educate elementary school children about domestic violence and counsel those already trapped in an abusive relationship. Nan has 25 teen volunteers working with her, most of them recruited from her school.

Although FAST hasn’t generated revenues yet, its sponsorship of two rock concerts at Boston clubs put the company on the map. Taking a page in long-term planning from her homeland, Nan says the volunteers will be doing research and creating educational materials over the next couple of years. She projects that FAST won’t be fully operational until around the turn of the century. Still, Bostonian Robert Tynes, co-founder of INA (Increase Your Natural Ability), a not-for-profit company that helps teens like Nan start and run their own businesses, is impressed with the speed at which FAST, the fifth such company INA has launched, is taking shape.

Nan is hoping to attend Harvard, so she can stay in town to nurture her new company. FAST’s office is in the heart of Boston, in Copley Square, compliments of INA. –Reported by Tom Witkowski/Boston

A TEAM FOR LIFE In Coach Brimer’s eyes, everyone is a winner

In fairness to those of us who have done less for our fellow man, Ryan Brimer of Boonville, Mo., might have been genetically predisposed to dedication. His mother is a special-education teacher; his father is sports director for Special Olympics in Missouri. Together, the two have given it 22 years of service. Volunteering for Special Olympics himself never challenged Ryan, but five years ago, when he was a 15-year-old high school sophomore, he overheard a snatch of conversation his parents were having about something called Unified Sports, a Special Olympics program that pairs disabled athletes with nonimpaired athletes in competitive teams. Ryan, who played basketball, football and tennis, was intrigued.

He promptly posted a sign-up sheet for a Unified basketball team in his mom’s classroom. Seven students with a range of learning disabilities wrote down their names. Along with Ryan and two friends of his, they formed the first Unified Sports team in town. Today, thanks largely to Ryan’s initiative, close to 200 area residents (his sister and twin brothers included), ranging in age from 10 to 30, are engaged in Unified Sports, not only basketball but also bowling, track and field, soccer, volleyball, boccie, softball and tennis.

Everyone wins, say those who participate. House painter Brian Lutz, 27, signed on with the basketball team three years ago, just to “mess around with my brother [who is disabled] and get back in shape.” It has advantages over his church league’s basketball team, he says. “There the competition can be fierce. Here we’re just having fun. That’s what it’s all about.”

In fact, it’s about more than that. Eugene Phiffer, 21, a cognitively impaired basketball player, has been given what he had been denied just five years ago by his high school basketball team–acceptance and appreciation for his skill on the court. “They had their noses in the air,” he says, referring to his high school teammates. “I couldn’t play like that.” So he quit and plays Unified ball instead. Fresh from the confidence he gained playing for Ryan’s team in the 1995 World Games in Connecticut, Phiffer went on to earn certification as a nurse’s assistant and now works in a nursing home.

These days, Ryan, now 20 and newly wed, studies elementary education at Central Methodist College in nearby Fayette, where he holds down a part-time job as a salesman for telecommunications products, sings in an a cappella choir and devotes 30 hours a week as a coach or player in a variety of Unified sports.

Back in Boonville, which is still home, he takes time out from his Unified Sports basketball team’s practice at the high school to reflect on what it was like when he was a second-string player in this very same gym. “I’ve spent my time on the bench,” he says. “I know how it feels. I do this to see the expressions on the players’ faces. I can see how this has changed a lot of bad attitudes, a lot of lives.” –Reported by Wendy Cole/Boonville

TAKING ACTION An immigrant breaks down racial barriers

The smokestacks of chemical factories tower over western Contra Costa County, in California, puffing yellow plumes night and day. Toxic spills sometimes force evacuation of whole neighborhoods. In others, gangs patrol littered streets scrawled with graffiti. Sipfou Saechao, a Laotian born in Thailand, was only four when she moved to this careworn corner of the San Francisco Bay Area. Her father had just died; her mother spoke no English. The family was so impoverished that Sipfou’s brother was left with an aunt in Sacramento. But in this wretched environment, against all these obstacles, Sipfou has not only flourished but become a leader.

Soft-voiced, with downcast eyes and a toothy smile, Sipfou, 17, can still giggle like a girl, but her words are those of a woman. Last spring she took a hard look at her high school and saw racism: the student body at Richmond High is 45% Hispanic, almost one-quarter Asian, one-quarter black and 6% white. Fights among students are sometimes so violent that administrators are forced to search people with metal detectors. “Kids look at you funny if you hang with someone who’s different from you,” says Sipfou. “My friends and I didn’t see any reason why people of different races shouldn’t hang together. So we started a club at school that’s mixed.”

All Colors Together in One Nation began with half a dozen members and now claims more than 40, about as many as will fit into a classroom during lunch break. “It just kind of brings down the tensions,” says Eva Morris, 16, an African American. The club’s popularity soared when Sipfou began publishing a newsletter, called ACTION. The students write about changes they want to make at school. Articles by teachers demonstrate that they care. “She hasn’t quite reached the masses,” says history teacher Graig Crossley. “But she’s making a difference. She’s broken the ice.”

Last summer Sipfou volunteered with the Asian Pacific Environmental Network, a community agency, to help alert poor Laotian immigrants, who catch their own fish and grow their own vegetables, to the dangers of the area’s toxic soil and water.

With summers spent tackling hazardous waste, and lunchtimes taken up with racial tensions, Sipfou spends her evenings tutoring other students. The need is great: about 30% of her school’s freshman class began last year with third-grade skills.

Sipfou hopes to become a teacher or a writer, and she has already reaped bounty with her pen. As a competitor in this year’s React magazine teen-activism contest, she was required to write an essay. She won $25,000 in merchandise to donate to the charity of her choice. She chose three: an elementary school where she has tutored, a day-care center for the children of students at Richmond High and a program for homeless students. –Reported by Laird Harrison/San Pablo

MARKED BY MAGIC A high school club creates an urban oasis

Sheila Roberts, a community leader in Camden, N.J., looks around the tidy little park between 8th and 9th streets in town, smiles and spreads her arms wide. “This is an oasis,” she rejoices.

Just a year ago, the triangular plot situated behind row houses was strewn with debris, offering little for children except two basketball backboards and hoops without nets. Now the hoops have nets, and the triangle has been transformed into a smooth, attractive greensward edged with shrubs. In the center stands a shiny yellow swing-and-slide set. “Truthfully, this park wouldn’t be here,” says Roberts, “if it weren’t for Adam’s group.”

She is talking about Adam Hornstine, 16, who lives 15 miles from Camden, one of the state’s poorest communities. By contrast, Adam’s neighborhood, where he attends Moorestown High, boasts many homes with parklike landscapes. His group is actually a high school club he founded as a freshman and named MAGIC (Moorestown Alliance for Goodwill and Interest in the Community).

The inspiration for MAGIC came from a newspaper article Adam saw about the Camden chapter of Christmas in April, a national organization that recruits people of all ages and skills to fix up homes in disadvantaged neighborhoods. “It sounded like a nice project, and something my friends would be interested in too,” says Adam.

English teacher Mary Betancourt, a MAGIC volunteer and Adam’s mock-trial adviser at Moorestown High, says someone once defined a gentleman as a person who makes everyone comfortable, regardless of status. “That’s Adam,” she says. Depending on need, anywhere from a handful to hundreds of teens show up to take part in MAGIC projects in collaboration with Christmas in April and local organizations. (Today Adam is the only student on the board of directors of Camden’s Christmas in April group.) For MAGIC, Adam has single-handedly raised more than $7,500 in grants, donations and supplies.

In October, for national Make a Difference Day, Adam wrote to 374 schools in a three-county area asking them to participate in a concerted food drive for the Food Bank of South Jersey, which provides 16,000 meals a month for the hungry. Thanks to MAGIC, the Food Bank has collected more than 4,000 lbs. of food. After previous drives at Moorestown High, “we often didn’t know what to do with the food,” says school principal Lynn Schilling. “Adam jumped in right away and gave us a mission.” –Reported by Emily Mitchell/Moorestown

ON THE BOARD An expert from the school of hard knocks

One evening last month in new York City, the advisory board of the fledgling South Bronx Community Justice Center was holding a planning session. Seated around the table were lawyers, community leaders, probation administrators and Cory Kadamani, one of the center’s creators. Cory is 17 years old; he serves as both volunteer and employee at the center, a project of a well-regarded community organization called Youth Force. Staffed and run by young people, the justice center was created to solve neighborhood disputes that might otherwise end up in court.

Among the issues discussed that evening was late-night rowdiness at a local skating rink, and Cory was the first to speak. The rink’s owners, he argued, must be persuaded to open and close earlier, with police present. “I’ve had my personal problems with the police,” he said, “but I know if I’m being chased down by a Blood or I’m about to get robbed and the police come, I’m overjoyed. There will be people who won’t like it, but the majority will.” Former gang members who now work for Youth Force, he suggested, should bring their newfound conflict-resolution skills to the rink. “If you want full participation,” Cory insisted, “you need to reach out to the gangs themselves. Just about all gangs began with a positive purpose. If you go back to the positive origins, you can enlist them for a positive purpose.”

Back in the Bronx homeless shelter where he lives with his mother, his half sister and her father, Cory slept well, as he has since he got his high school-equivalency diploma last year and hooked up with Youth Force. The group has reintroduced purpose and structure into his life. Although Cory never knew his birth father, he began life in a comfortable home in a middle-class neighborhood. But the family became mired in a succession of financial and legal difficulties that dragged Cory into a world of trouble. Often left to his own devices, he dropped out of school, dabbled in drugs and had brushes with the law.

Although something in his character allowed him to mend his ways, Cory likes to credit Youth Force with giving him new direction. “It’s a place where you can dream,” says Cory. “There are things that you never thought possible that you can do. I’m only 17, yet I’m having meetings with lawyers and the probation department. Windows of opportunity have opened up to me. And I can use my past experiences to help younger youth not fall like I did.”

Cory is looking out lots of windows these days. As a tenant organizer, he acts as a liaison between renters, police and building managers to improve security and make repairs. At the South Bronx’s Spofford detention facility, he provides leadership training to juveniles awaiting trial. At John Jay High School in affluent Westchester County recently, Cory introduced “Busting Stereotypes,” a series of skits that show how one can make false assumptions about people. A homeless kid from the South Bronx, Cory himself is as powerful a symbol of misplaced assumptions as anyone is likely to find. –Reported by Megan Rutherford/New York

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