Young people and students
Children living in poverty, or in need of tutoring or mentoring, are not relegated to certain neighborhoods. They are all around us. They could be our neighbors or someone living down the street. They could be a classmate to your child. Let’s face it, on any given day, any one of us could find ourselves in a situation of needing assistance of some kind.
I learned about a program in my neighborhood this weekend when I went to my local Kroger store. There in the parking lot was a group of youth and adults, including a Blue Ash police officer with a van that had its back end open. It was stuffed with bags of food, and I gave them one more.
They were collecting food as part of a Sycamore Township nonprofit organization called Operation Give Back that provides programs and services specifically to neighborhood students whose families are having financial hardship.
OGB’s signature program is its After-School Tutoring and Mentoring Program, working closely with the Sycamore Community Schools to identify students in 2nd – 8th grades who would benefit from academic support or assistance with other skills. Approximately 35 students per year are transported by Sycamore District Buses for 2½ hours of after-school tutoring, three days per week.
Additionally, OGB provides has a School Supply Drive and supplies over 350 students with a backpack, along with items from their specific school supply lists. The organization also has a food pantry, summer camps, health awareness programs, and a holiday store.
Super cool for 5 year old Varen Noell Rogers!
Months back I remember her mother, Stacy Sill, telling us her daughter was in the running for the cover model of Cincinnati Family Magazine…and now Varen’s beautiful face is gracing thousands of issues around the region.
I asked Stacy to share some insight on Cincinnati’s newest superstar. This is what Stacy said:
When I asked Varen what she thought about being on the cover of Cincinnati Parent Magazine, she said it was very exciting and it was awesome that her friends and teachers got to see it. She’s a little performer and really enjoyed the photo shoot!
It’s fitting that she was born on the first day of summer, because her personality is like a ray of sunshine that can light up a room! She’s a typical five year-old in many ways… spunky, opinionated, giggly, and a complete ball of energy. She loves to have play dates, go to the park, watch movies, and play games. She absolutely loves books and is an enthusiastic emerging reader. When I asked her to describe herself, she said “well, I love to sing and dance and do theater, make new friends, and I really like to make people laugh. Oh, and I love unicorns and rainbows too.” That summed it up pretty nicely!
Varen is currently involved in gymnastics, art classes, and ice hockey. She put on her first pair of skates at 18 months old! She also loves taking glass art classes at Brazee Street Studios in Oakley. We’ve really tried to get her into a little bit of everything and then follow her lead in terms of her interests.
From a very early age, Varen has had a penchant for the performing arts. At age 3, she was the only preschooler in her elementary school to audition for the talent show. She decided, all on her own, to sing My Favorite Things from The Sound of Music (then her favorite movie)… a capella! She pulled it off in typical Varen fashion, full of fun and charm! This past weekend, she played a Munchkin in the New Richmond High School production of The Wizard of Oz. She was so enthusiastic and confident that the director gave her a line to perform, and she was thrilled! She nailed it. 🙂
She asked me to include things she does not like: stinky socks, macaroni and cheese, and vegetables. Now you know.
This week, she says she wants to be a teacher when she grows up because it looks really fun and she knows some good teachers.
A freshman at Northern Kentucky University, Jayren Andrews has already long established himself as a change agent.
Wise beyond his years, he is a young man driven to be a voice, a leader, and a role model for his peers, his neighborhood, his network, and even his world. While attending Shroder High School, Jayren competed at the state level in track and was on the second team All-Conference in football; and in his senior year, was an award winning public speaker. By 17, he was president of the Avondale Youth Council, guiding other young people to making good decisions. He is also one of two youth selected to serve on the Cincinnati Poverty Collaborative Steering Committee, and is very involved in college.
“Being on the Collaborative’s Executive Board was an opportunity to represent my neighborhood, Avondale,” he told me. “My concern was digging down and coming up with substantial solutions to help get people out of poverty. That opportunity was humbling to be with so many different people who all have the same goal.”
When he thinks about his own life and his motivation, Jayren will tell you it is those trials and tribulations that are your ‘defining moments of character’ and that learning from one’s failures is a key to accomplishment. His mentors through the Cincinnati Youth Collaborative are among those who have influenced his growth. Jamie Wilson, his CYC AmeriCorps College Guide, allowed him to absorb his shine for the moment, come back and be humble. “She showed me that hard work is everything. There really isn’t anything that you can’t accomplish,” he said.
Jayren paused as he recalled another person who has influenced his life, his little brother who was gone too soon, a baby who didn’t live to see his first day. “I think about him every day. I want to show him what kind of big brother I could have been,” Jayren told me.
Most recently honored by the United Way of Greater Cincinnati with its 2017 Youth Leadership Award, last year the Cincinnati Youth Collaborative recognized Jayren among its mentees as a 2016 Outstanding Student Award winner for his determination in overcoming life obstacles to find success in his education and in life.
To my question about what Jayren would like to do with the rest of his life, he answered, “At the end of the day, I want to leave the world better than I came into it.”
To that, I say, that goal has already happened. And I have no doubt Jayren’s little baby brother is proud.
Can a village feed a city? Absolutely! And the entire student body at Indian Hill High School has been working with Suzy DeYoung and La Soupe, Julie Richardson, and Sugarcreek (a co-packer) to prove it can happen.
For two days, they have surrounded tables in their school cafeteria, slicing and dicing well over 5,000 quarts of vegetables that will go into at least 500 gallons of soup base made by Suzy’s team at La Soupe, put into containers with labels, and delivered to Master Provision food distributor for storage. Ultimately that soup will be given to local schools to feed hungry students.
“We did more today than we ever imagined we would. We thought 5,000 quarts was a pretty lofty goal before we began but we already surpassed it,” Cathy Levalley, director of Indian Hill High School’s PPO, told me when I stopped by Thursday morning. “Our kids are loving this and have asked if they can do more of these types of projects.”
As many in Cincinnati know, Suzy has a talent for creating savory recipes and a heart for helping others. Her La Soupe is a nonprofit organization that rescues otherwise wasted food and transforms it into delicious and nutritious soup for customers, and given away to charitable causes and those in need. Partners including Kroger, Jungle Jims, various local organic farms, and now Sugarcreek co-packer make it possible (as well as donations).
You could say that food has always been in her blood. Suzy’s father was head chef at the Maisonette, and her grandparents were chefs in New York. She and her sister ran La Petite Pierre in Madeira before she found her calling. “I didn’t understand how people can be hungry when all I saw was food. I came to realize that my most joyful time in that career was when I was looking for ways to give out the food that we would have waste.”
These days La Soupe gives out thousands of pounds of soup each year, and now that will be even more. Sugarcreek, Suzy told me, found a way to divert and average of about 20,000 edible products from their co-packers monthly. That will help to feed a lot of Tri-State families.
Suzy’s next project is raising money for a new annex and a second shift to up production. If you would like to help, please contact them at.
It is a dream of most girls, to step out in a gorgeous evening gown, a flower corsage on her wrist and a young man on her side as she enters the darkened space. Her peers crowd the floor, watching her enter in awe. Her smile illuminates the room.
But, if not for a local nonprofit organization, Kenzie’s Closet, that dream would not come true for hundreds of teens every year. Kathy Smith knows. She has seen them transform from forlorn, hopeless girls into bundles of joy and laughter when they see themselves in a mirror, just as their dream had pictured them.
At no cost to them, Kenzie’s Closet provides prom attire to juniors and seniors at accredited Tri-State high schools who otherwise would not be able to afford dressing up for their important occasion. Even more than that, the organization provides a shopping experience for each young lady to shop in a boutique with a volunteer personal shopper there to help select the perfect dress.
Kathy was executive director of Kenzie’s Closet for four years, retiring just before our ReelAbilities Film Festival, for which she served as our volunteer chair.
Lisa: Why is this a cause for which you are so passionate?
Kathy: When I was interviewed for my position, I remember being asked a very similar question. They wanted to know why I wanted the job. My answer was that, if Kenzie’s Closet had existed in 1968, I would have been a Kenzie’s Girl. The only reason I was able to go to my prom was because a neighbor bough me my dress. All of Kenzie’s Girls are at or below the poverty level. They don’t have the resources available to buy or rent fancy dresses. Prom should be the highlight of their life. It was important to me to make sure that each girl have the opportunity to get the dress of their dreams. They get brand new shoes, a purse, a wrap, two pieces of jewelry and free alterations; and they keep everything, although we have had many donate back their dresses so that another girl can have the same experience. We are planting the seeds of philanthropy early.
Lisa: Can you share any moments that really touched you?
Kathy: There are so many of them. I felt like we were in many ways like being Fairy Godmothers. Coming to Kenzie’s Closet for these teenagers is their time to shine. Often, they arrive expecting to find a sort of thrift shop but they quickly realize it is very different. They may be scared when they walk through the door and by the time they are finished, they are hugging their personal shopper.
I remember one young woman who came in with a group. She was very tall and large. She kept giving me this look out of the corner of her eyes. She told me with a hardness in her voice that she didn’t think we would have anything for her. I looked at her and said, “Guess what? You are totally wrong.”
After going through her shopping, I went up to her and asked what happened that day. She asked if I wanted the truth. Tears began streaming down her face. She told me that her entire life she had been given torn or tattered clothing and been expected to give thanks. I asked her again what had happened. This time she put her chin out and told me, “Not only did you have a dress to fit me, I got to pick my own prom dress. And there is nothing smack about it.”
Lisa: What are some of your take-aways from your time leading Kenzie’s Closet?
Kathy: I knew all along that we were making dreams come true for over 400 young ladies each year. But I also had my dream come true working there. Our founder was my boss and she was so supportive and believed in me – not everyone has that. I worked with two incredible women that made going to work a pleasure – again not everyone has that. We had about 120 volunteers each year; they were always so joyful and happy to be there — again this helped me have an incredible career. My time at Kenzie’s Closet was a dream come true for me!