The saying "charity begins at home" is applicable to the Cultures of Giving Legacy Initiative, which provides low-income, minority students in Buffalo with opportunities of a lifetime.
Established in 2008, this organization has a board comprised of many area civic leaders who want minority kids to have the same opportunities that they once received to become who they are today. This undertaking is embodied in the "Success Looks Like Me" grants program, which enables youths to interact with successful minority adults.
The board uses its money to fund endeavors such as the Close Up Washington D.C. project, which gives 10 students the opportunity to go to the nation's capital. The students also participate in various workshops and meet with important people who work on Capitol Hill. At the end of the trip, the students are required to "pay it forward," which means that they must tell their peers about their experiences and give a report to the board of the Cultures of Giving Legacy Initiative on what they learned. The summer of 2011 was when the first Close Up trip took place, and many more are expected.
"From the moment we hosted the orientation meeting a couple weeks before their June departure, the students were excited and eagerly expressed their gratitude," said Jennifer Parker, the CGLI chairwoman. "For the majority of the students, this was their first trip to Washington, D.C., and first plane ride."
For most of the students, their Washington experience dramatically changed their view of life. Since many of them have never left Buffalo, they received a glimpse of the rest of the world and learned that there are many opportunities.
"The trips provide the students with access to new people, places and experiences," Parker said. "Access opens a person's world up, and they begin to have options. Options are powerful."
The teenagers who participated in this trip were high school students selected from five of CGLI's collaborating partners, including Buffalo Urban League and the Boys and Girls Club. The executive directors of these agencies are asked to recommend students who exhibit leadership abilities and are limited in their pursuit to explore the world and learn new things due to their financial situation.
When asked what her passion is for working with minority youth, Parker said it's all about making a difference in the lives of underprivileged youth, some of whom have family lives that are in turmoil and live in dangerous neighborhoods in the inner city.
"I believe all youth should have the opportunity to dream big and have the chance to create their own idea of success," she said.
Timothy Broadus, a 19-year-old freshman at Erie Community College, attended the Close Up Washington trip last summer. He used to go to Canisius High School before transferring to East High School. He was accepted into this program because he was named Youth of the Year for the Boys and Girls Club of Buffalo. When he got the invitation, he was extremely excited for something new and different. He said he enjoyed many of the landmarks in the city. He also said he enjoyed meeting the other students on the trip because they all came from diverse ethnic backgrounds. Timothy also got the chance to talk to young advisers to prominent politicians in Congress.
"From the trip, I learned to always be open and to grasp at opportunities when they arise," said Timothy. He also mentioned how he had no proper family structure growing up and that this Washington opportunity gave him the ability to see how "amazing" it is to travel the world. "The trip inspired me to strive for the best and never forget that there is a large world out there with so many opportunities for all kinds of people, disadvantaged and privileged alike."
Samantha Domon, who also went on the Washington trip, dramatically turned her life around after her experience. Before the trip, she had no plans to go to college. However, after returning from the trip, the 17-year-old Hutchinson Central Technical High School student, changed her outlook on life and is now planning to attend the Rochester Institute of Technology, where she plans to study computers and mathematics.
"I was so excited to find out that I could go to Washington," Samantha said. "I absolutely love the idea of traveling."
Samantha also had never been on a plane before the trip. The best part of the trip for her was seeing the World War II and Vietnam War memorials, adding that the beauty of these testimonials to the nation's fallen heroes was overwhelming. Like Timothy, Samantha made many new friends on the trip, and one in particular, who resides in Arizona, stays in contact with Samantha.
"Overall, the whole endeavor was amazingly refreshing and was a great opportunity," she said.
Nadierah Sanders, a 17-year-old Oracle Charter School senior-to-be, had a similar experience to that of Timothy and Samantha. Nadierah was very shy before going on the trip, but now her personality is larger than she ever imagined.
"I intend on exploring my mind later in life by opening a huge community organization to give back to those who need help the most," she said. "I want to hopefully get into the University at Buffalo on a full scholarship and become a lawyer."
Nadierah prays for the best, considering her family's financial condition cannot support an expensive college experience.
At first, Nadierah was very nervous and frightened to go on a plane to Washington, but she knew it would all be worth it in the end. As soon as the group arrived in Washington, they proceeded to workshops in which they got to know one another and discussed various policy proposals in order to improve the quality of life for all Americans, specifically those in Buffalo.
All three of these students learned several important lessons from their adventure, and they also talked about how they think the City of Buffalo could be improved for its young citizens.
"The mentality that there is no work in Buffalo and that everything is hopeless causes the dropout rates to be high," Timothy said. "Kids are still going to be kids, but the importance of school should be emphasized so that Buffalo's youth can have the chance to be successful when they are older."
Likewise, Nadierah said, "The attitude of ‘I live in Buffalo now so I have to live and work in Buffalo all my life' is harmful and is preventing kids in the city from dreaming large and focusing in on education." She went on to say that she urges the "next generation of leaders" to explore more and grasp every opportunity that comes their way, big and small.
"I tell all my friends and those who I see firsthand dropping out of school to pay attention to their studies and not to the street," she said, adding that more after-school programs would be the best way to keep kids grounded and keep their priorities in line, considering many of their parents are unable to do this.
Samantha says in order to be successful all students need someone who cares for them, saying that parents have to become more engaged with their kids and encourage them to be the best they can be.
The CGLI will continue its mission to help Buffalo teens. Another Close Up Washington trip is scheduled for June 24 and one next year. This time 12 students will attend. This is not without the help of the community and people like actor and Lackawanna native Ruben-Santiago Hudson, who share the values the CGLI holds dear.
"The CGLI was created with the belief that today's leaders of color have an obligation to pass these expectations and positive experiences down to the next generation," said Parker.
For more information about the CGLI, visit www.theCGLI.org.
Michael Khan is a sophomore at Canisius High School.