Reggie Dogan

Reggie Dogan Project Manager

Community

Local students make big difference

Rocker Jon Bon Jovi and Today Show co-anchors Matt Lauer and Savannah Guthrie were the shining stars at the Make A Difference Awards Luncheon this month in Washington, D.C. But a tiny Escambia County school shared the spotlight with the big stars at the annual event honoring volunteerism. Escambia Charter School proved that size really doesn’t matter. Students at the smallest public high school in the county made a big difference by collecting and distributing hundreds of pounds of canned goods and snacks to the needy. Their charitable work was among 14 grassroots volunteer efforts across the U.S. recognized during the awards ceremony. She’Kerion Thompkins, along with the school’s principal, Jerome Chisolm, traveled to Washington to accept the award on April 10. For Thompson, it was surreal to take his first flight and make his first visit to the nation’s capital for doing something worthwhile. “I have never done anything like this before,” said Thompkins, 17, a junior in his second year at the school. “I didn’t know helping people could be so rewarding.” The award goes farther than personal satisfaction. The school also received $10,000, which the students gave to a local women’s prison ministry. In addition to the 14 award winners, Lauer and Guthrie received awards for their advocacy of the show’s Shine a Light campaign, promoting volunteerism across the country. Bon Jovi – the Grammy-award winning musician, philanthropist and founder of the Jon Bon Jovi Soul Foundation – also was recognized for his commitment to giving back the community. NBC correspondent Jenna Bush Hager served as master of ceremonies for the event. Make A Difference Day is the nation’s largest day of service, bringing together millions of Americans to volunteer in their local neighborhoods and communities. It was started in 1992 by Gannett Co. Inc.’s USA WEEKEND Magazine, along with partners, Newman’s Own Inc. and Points of Light. Escambia Charter School was selected from thousands of nationwide volunteer initiatives that took place during the 2013 Make A Difference Day. The school, just off U.S. 29 in Cantonment, serves about 120 mostly at-risk students who were removed from public schools because of bad behavior or failing grades. It was the only organization in the entire state to receive a Make A Difference Award last year. The school’s volunteer project began in September when students collected or contributed 300 pounds of canned good and snacks for a food pantry and the USO, as well as 60 boxes of clothes for three shelters. On Make A Difference Day on Oct. 26, 20 students, with 15 parents and teachers, organized and delivered donations – then split into teams to do yard work for four elderly or disabled homeowners. Their volunteer efforts have led to even more charitable work. Last week, some students prepared food for 100 homeless people. They are planning more projects throughout the year. Chisolm, the school’s principal, hopes the students learn valuable lessons from helping others. “Providing helping hands will teach them to concentrate on the power within them instead of focuses on the problems surrounding them,” he said. “We are looking at adopting a slogan that says: ‘Enter to learn; depart to serve.’ ” As bright as the stars shined at the awards ceremony, Escambia Charter students showed that anyone, not just the rich or famous, truly can make a difference. “This has inspired me to take more of a leadership role and try to influence others to do the same,” Thompkins said. “Doing something for other people makes me feel good inside.” This article originally appeared on Progress+Promise. Read full story

Education

Better living through chemistry

Attending graduate school never occurred to Janae Baptiste until she joined the University of West Florida’s Chemistry Scholars Program. Now Baptiste is pursuing a doctoral degree in chemistry at the University of Maryland. “Interacting with and talking to faculty motivated me to pursue higher education,” said Baptiste, who received a biochemistry degree in 2013. “They believed in me and that made me believe in myself.” UWF’s Chemistry Scholars Program’s mission is to recruit and retain high-achieving chemistry students and to increase the number of students pursuing doctoral or dual medicine/doctoral degrees, both with an emphasis on under-represented, or minority, students. Baptiste is among a group of 11 students who were accepted in the program’s inaugural class. Since the program’s inception in 2011, the number of under-represented chemistry students pursuing professional or medical degrees has increased from 2 percent from 2008 through 2012 to 31 percent in the 2013-2014 academic year. UWF assistant chemistry professor Karen Sinclair Molek, the program’s director, credits the success of the program to motivated students and faculty. Spending more time with students gave professors more opportunities to talk freely with students about social, economic, ethnic and financial issues affecting their lives, she said. Going beyond the role of mentoring, they began discussing ways the students could break down barriers that could hinder them from seeking a post-graduate education, Molek said. “I can give you stats all day, but what matters most is that the faculty got on the ground with students to improve retention, talk about the quality of their education and help them decide where they’re going,” Molek said. “That has helped not just minority, but majority students as well.” UWF’s Chem Scholar Program is modeled after the Meyerhoff Scholars Program set up by Freeman Hrabowski, president of the University of Maryland, and the Meyerhoff Graduate Fellows Program directed by Michael Summers, a UWF chemistry graduate. Students in the program meet monthly to hear guest speakers discuss summer research programs and post-graduate opportunities, receive career advice, participate in peer-to-peer mentoring and receive professional development and mentoring from faculty in the chemistry department. The program’s goals include: — Increasing the retention of students, especially under-represented chemistry students. —  Increasing the percentage of students pursuing post-graduate education. —  Providing scholarships, priority registration and graduation honors. Molek said about 55 percent of UWF chemistry students go onto graduate or professional programs. UWF plans to expand the program to other STEM areas. It already has submitted a $2.1 million proposal to the National Institute of Health for a biology and physics scholar program. Baptiste, a graduate of Escambia High School, postponed a job search to continue her education, thanks to the Chem Scholars Program. “I had planned to look for a job in Pensacola in a related field,” she said. “Now, I’m really looking forward to the challenges of working through difficult projects to get the results of achieving a Ph.D.” This article originally appeared on Progress+Promise. Read full story

Community

Preparing for GRACE of Pensacola

Summertime is a good time for some local residents who will be the beneficiaries of free home improvements. More than 300 teens and adults from churches around the country are volunteering their time in June to spruce up about 40 homes for the elderly, handicapped and lower-income residents in Pensacola. Repairs and improvements will include, among other things, exterior painting, weatherization, porch and wheelchair ramp construction. The volunteer effort is organized by Group Cares, formerly known as Group Workcamps Foundation, an interdenominational Christian nonprofit group based in Loveland, Colo. In the upcoming summer, an estimated 25,000 youth and adults will participate in 48 work camps in communities across the U.S. and Canada. In Pensacola alone, their efforts will represent about 10,000 hours of volunteer labor with an estimated economic impact to the community of more than $250,000. The work camp is sponsored by GRACE of Pensacola, a group of local churches and nonprofit agencies that have joined for the Group Cares Project and is lead by Christ Church in Pensacola. The mission of GRACE is to serve Pensacola residents by providing home repair to citizens who can’t provide for themselves. Volunteers still are needed to assist in pressure washing the selected home sites during the week before the youth groups arrive. To participate or for more information, call Warren Jerrems at (850) 586-1030. This article originally appeared on Progress+Promise. Read full story

Community

Saving the Jordan Home

A group of concerned citizens wants to turn a house back into a home. The Ella Jordan Home, once a gathering place for a host of community activities in the early 1900s near the Belmont-DeVilliers neighborhood, has fallen to disrepair as a result of neglect and hurricane damage. The plan is to preserve the legacy and life of Ella Jordan by restoring the house to its elegance and importance in the historic neighborhood. A “Campaign to Save the Historical Ella Jordan Home” will be hosted at 5 p.m. Saturday at Booker T. Washington High School’s Theodore Auditorium, 6000 College Parkway. Keynote speaker is Faya Ora Rose Toure, a Harvard-educated civil rights activist and litigation attorney in Selma, Ala. Toure, formerly named Rose Sanders, was the first African-American female judge in Alabama. She was part of the winning team in a civil rights case that led to a billion dollars in damages awarded to black farmers by the U.S Department of Agriculture, one of the largest civil rights cases in history. Also a songwriter, playwright and education activist, Toure is an ideal person to raise awareness and bring attention to the efforts to save the Ella Jordan Home. Jordan, the first president of Pensacola Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs, owned the house until she died in 1948. Federation members bought the house, on the corner of LaRua and C streets, in 1959 and named it after Jordan. It became a gathering spot for social and educational activities for the African-American community in the what’s commonly called today the Westside Garden District. In 2004, Hurricane Ivan nearly destroyed the dilapidated remains of the historic house. Once a neighborhood cornerstone, the house is barely standing and in desperate need of repair and restoration. Windows and doors are boarded. The heavily damaged roof is covered with a blue tarp. Members of the community, along with Mother Wit Institute, a nonprofit group dedicated to educating young people and preserving African-American history, have joined together to save revitalize the landmark. Georgia Blackmon, founding member of Mother Wit Institute, said it would be a shame to lose this significant piece of Pensacola history. Blackmon said activities at the Jordan Home focused on important issues such as health and wellness, economics, education and tutoring. “It’s worth saving because of what she did in the 1900s through providing and teaching life skills,” Blackmon said. “We need to keep her legacy alive for the next generation and even the unborn.” For more info, call 438-4882. This article originally appeared on Progress+Promise. Read full story

Commentary

Lessons from Greenville

Pensacola’s downtown renewal is showing momentum. Upscale eateries, bars and shops are moving in once-vacant buildings. Foot traffic is up and parking spaces are filled. Read full story