Five low-rent housing projects supply the student population at Pearl-Cohn High School in Nashville, Tennessee. By partnering with mentors from an Historically Black College and University (HBCU) — Tennessee State University — the Triple Impact Youth Empowerment Program (YEP) has inspired unlikely dreams of higher education.
Widely romanticized as the Country music capital of the world, Nashville, Tennessee, struggles with a very real presence of poverty. On the city’s north side is a neighborhood — dubbed “Dodge City” — notorious for gun violence and home to a number of students who attend Pearl-Cohn High School, home base for Nashville’s Triple Impact Youth Empowerment Program.
“When I first arrived here,” says Dr. Milton Threadcraft, Pearl-Cohn’s first-year executive principal, who unretired specifically because he saw an opportunity to help students in need, “I walked the community and saw firsthand the blight that exists here. One of the greatest assets we have in battling this neglect is our Youth Empowerment Program. It’s helped these kids remain focused and given them the understanding that they can be successful if they just believe in themselves.”
Many of Pearl-Cohn’s students hail from one-parent or no-parent homes. The parents who are present are often unemployed and receive public assistance. In fact, many have been incarcerated. With so much working against these students, the need for such a program as this YEP is more than great, it’s essential.
“I believe in this program,” says Dr. Threadcraft. “If it wasn’t for the YEP, many of these kids would be dropouts, many of these girls would be young mothers. These students are so caught up in whatever they have going on in their lives, they haven’t even had the opportunity to really be kids. They’ve had to fight for themselves from day one. We’re trying to make a difference here. And the YEP has given belief and support to their dreams and ideals. It’s bridged the gap in providing exposure and opportunities for them. It’s supported them, encouraged them, and nurtured them.”
Nashville’s Triple Impact YEP represents a close partnership between the Oasis Center, a local youth-serving non-profit, and two HBCUs — Tennessee State University (TSU) and Meharry Medical College. Says Triple Impact Program Director at TSU, Dr. Deena Sue Fuller, “The Oasis Center has a long history of empowering youth through civic engagement. It has effectively bridged community and academic resources. Both the high school and college students benefit from the service learning experiences, which are guided by caring and competent Oasis staff.” By pairing high school youth with college mentors from HBCUs, the program provides role models of success who share the same racial and socio-economic background as the students. In doing so, the Triple Impact Program equips them with a new lens through which they can see their futures in a positive way for the first time.
“Our mentors serve as living, breathing examples of what these kids can accomplish,” says Brittany Sims, Graduate Assistant at TSU and Mentor Coordinator for the YEP. “The kids can better relate to the mentors because they come from similar backgrounds. Not only are these kids able to look at their mentors and see themselves in them, they’re able to see themselves becoming them.” Dejanel Henry, for instance, is one mentor whose resiliency has inspired her mentees. Growing up in a rough neighborhood, Dejanel was the oldest of eight children, living without a father in a struggling household. Today, she is a senior at TSU and will soon become the first in her family to earn a college degree. Her mentees look at her with the hope they too might someday be the first in their families to attend college.
“Growing up, I didn’t have anyone to guide me,” says Dejanel. “Things were hard, but I’m able to use my experiences to relate to my mentees. The same goes for all our mentors. These kids see us in light of our challenges and in the face of our successes, and it inspires them to succeed as well. It sends the message, You, too, can do this. You can break this cycle. You can do something more with your life than you ever believed possible!”
One such student working hard to break that cycle is 15-year-old Donnika. “I lost my momma when I was six years old,” she says. “And I used to carry this burden on my shoulders, thinking, if I don’t have my momma and my daddy’s not in my life either, what’s the point in going on? But the YEP has helped me realize I can do better in life. I’m thankful for this program because, for the first time, I have others telling me I can be anything I want to be in life. And that’s all I needed, really … somebody to tell me I could be somebody.”
“The reality is,” says Dr. Threadcraft, “many of these kids don’t think very highly of themselves because, frankly, they don’t have anybody in their lives who thinks very highly of them. So to have this kind of one-on-one attention from their mentors does a world of good for these students. “We’re trying to help our kids’ dream beyond their reality,” Dr. Threadcraft continues. “We’re trying to help their dreams become a reality.” Thanks to the YEP, those dreams now, for the first time, include college. Dreams that are now within reach.
“Before I joined the YEP,” says 16-year-old sophomore Brea, “I’d already made up my mind that I wasn’t going to college. I just felt it wasn’t for me. But this program turned my attitude completely around.”
The power of this program lies in its ability to give youth choices. The Triple Impact YEP does more than just help them; it empowers them to help themselves. It empowers them to go to college, and to make the choices in their lives that will help them be successful in everything they do. “This program is changing lives,” says Sims. “I can see it in the faces of all our kids. I knew them when they were in 8th grade, and now they’re in 10th, and I can see their growth, their maturation. I can see them becoming the adults we’ve worked so hard to help them become.”