It began with the violin, a tiny instrument with the acoustic power to transfix a symphony audience. Joseph was 9 when he first experienced this as a young violinist, volunteering with the Omaha Symphony’s Christmas Celebration.*
“I was a shy boy,” Joseph said. “But whenever I was on stage, music made me stand tall. When the audience sang along with our pieces, I saw the joy of music shining on their faces.”
That flash of insight inspired Joseph to launch Joy of Music, a project that enables young people to honor, celebrate and give back to elders in their communities. Joseph sees the benefit as two-fold.
“Elders often feel left behind and forgotten,” he said. “And most younger musicians have stage fright. I founded Joy of Music to bring the generations together.”
Joseph, who is now a high school senior, began the project about seven years ago, recruiting 20 youth volunteers to join him in playing concerts and delivering groceries and gifts to seniors. The idea took flight. They grew Joy of Music to engage 100 volunteers, 40 based in Omaha, Nebraska, and the rest in cities around the world, including Boston; Washington, D.C.; London; Madrid; Rabat, Morocco; Taipei; and Shanghai.
The project was hitting its stride until spring of 2020, when COVID-19 put a halt to in-person visits to senior centers. But Joseph and the other musicians adapted. With a Power of Youth Challenge grant from America’s Promise Alliance, they’re now performing concerts virtually and finding safe and creative ways to help seniors celebrate 80th birthdays, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day and the seasons.
Ariana, a 9th grade student in Placentia, California, dreams of using the game of chess to transform STEM learning opportunities for all students. While Ariana has had the chance to study chess in classes and camps — and discovered that it was a great way to strengthen problem-solving and abstract reasoning skills — she found that there were no local chess clubs focused on girls in her community. She saw a link to gender gaps in science, technology, math and engineering fields.
“If given equal opportunities, women are as capable in chess and other STEM fields as men are,” Ariana said.
She is launching Queen’s Rule, a chess club she named after the most powerful and agile piece in chess. With her Power of Youth Challenge grant and youth coaching, Ariana will be offering weekly Zoom classes to elementary, junior high and high school girls on basic to intermediate chess concepts. She hopes one day to host an all-girls tournament and start a chess club in her high school.
“Grandmaster Susan Polgar made history in 1986 by being the first-ever female player to compete in the Men’s World Chess Championship,” Ariana said. “I want to help revolutionize chess for young people, especially girls.”
Bhavana, a 12th grade student in Colts Neck Township, New Jersey, is launching MEND, a mental health and discussion-oriented program for youth. Concerned about students’ mental health in the face of increasing trauma and stress, she strives to create safe spaces in which students can talk openly about the issues that weigh on them most.
“From the tragic high-profile shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas, to social movements and protests, to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, student stress levels have only increased.” Bhavana said. “Continuing a culture of silence in the interest of ‘preserving normalcy’ is ultimately counterproductive and leaves students isolated.”
MEND will create a youth-led platform that allows middle school students to have weekly conversations about tough topics. The project will train 25 high school peer leaders as moderators, with guidance and monitoring from school counselors and homeroom advisors.
In the short-term, MEND promises to provide an outlet and peer support to students. Over time, the project aims to empower youth with more skills to manage stress and cope with conflict by participating in BiasXCampus, an initiative that provides advocacy training and mental health supports to create more equitable campus environments.
“We need to directly acknowledge social realities,” Bhavana said, “while providing students with actionable methods of navigating peer and at-home conflict as well as daily stress.”
Joshua, a 7th grade student in Maryland, teamed up with teachers to help get tech resources to students in Baltimore City as schools shifted to remote learning. He launched Bridging the Digital Divide to refurbish and distribute laptops. His efforts have paid off.
“Not everyone can afford a computer, and many districts don’t have enough to distribute,” Joshua said. “We were able to help over 50 kids receive laptops, computers and tablets for e-learning and remote summer jobs.”
Building on the success of the project, Joshua and his brother have continued to fundraise to support an e-learning facility for students without Wi-Fi at home.
“The pandemic has widened the education gap,” Joshua said. “We feel like providing computers, and now an e-learning facility, will make a difference in bridging that gap in our community.”
This is the third story in a multi-part series on 2020 winners of the America’s Promise Alliance – Power of Youth Challenge. You’ll find the first article here and the second here. Through its Power of Youth initiative, Mott grantee America’s Promise Alliance invites applicants ages 13 to 18 from around the country to pitch proposals for $250 mini-grants. Proposals are reviewed and selected by members of APA’s Youth Council, and awardees are supported by Youth Council members and youth coaches.
*To protect privacy, last names of participants who are younger than 18 are not included in this story.