Two Milwaukee-area high school students grew up seeing people in their neighborhoods struggle with everyday life.
The memories stayed with them.
And when they saw the chance to have some impact, they took it.
Aviona Escarlluett and Nadia Nwagbaraocha both attend Brown Deer High School and will be sophomores this fall. As freshmen, they were presented with the opportunity to be a part of the YMCA’s Changemakers Project. For the project, they had to choose a problem that is prevalent in Milwaukee.
They focused on how segregation is a barrier to accessing proper health care and mental health treatment, Escarlluett said.
“When I was younger, I lived in segregated areas in Milwaukee. Some people would think like, oh, you’re a child, you might not know or you might not face adversities. But you know, it really hurt me to see my own people struggle and not be able to get out of the pain that they’re facing every day,” Escarlluett said.
Choosing not to go into detail, Escarlluett said she recalled watching her parents go through struggles and eventually overcome them. She said some might even associate being African American with suffering.
“I want African Americans to know they are not always going to struggle and they can get out of any conflict they are in,” Escarlluett said. “They can get out of that gloomy and despair state.”
For the YMCA Changemakers Project, Escarlluett and Nwagbaraocha planned to partner with different organizations to provide adults and youths with the opportunity for open dialogue about mental health.
“They want to put together a package of resources,” said Chris Przedpelski, YCMA executive director of youth and team initiatives. “They will drop off materials at partnering schools and at homes, and place the information on the YMCA website. They also want to have monthly Q and A sessions with licensed clinicians where people can ask open-ended questions about mental health.”
The teens will continue meeting to discuss next steps.
“We were going to have Q and A sessions for adults so they’re able to talk to their children about their mental health and behavioral health. We were also going to gather a group of younger kids so that they’re able to talk,” Escarlluett said.
After submitting their proposal, Escarlluett and Nwagbaraoch were invited to attend the Youth Governors Conference in Washington, D.C., in June. At the conference, there were 45 teams from across the country and approximately 200 students.
Escarlluett and Nwagbaraoch were the youngest.
Przedpelski said they were part of the largest youth advocacy day in the history of the YMCA.
While in Washington, D.C., Escarlluett and Nwagbaraocha met with Wisconsin government officials — U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, U.S. Rep. Glenn Grothman and an aide to U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson. They advocated for funding for civic engagement and education, children’s learning centers, AmeriCorps (essentially a domestic version of the Peace Corps) and youth programming for civics.
“We were in their offices and they got to discuss their project and what it meant for them, and all three were very attuned and attentive,” he said.
Despite not placing in the top five at the competition, which was needed to get a cash prize, Przedpelski said the teens’ project is already fully funded.
“We received $35,000, so no matter regardless if they ‘won the competition,’ we have the funds to help them carry out the project,” Przedpelski said.
The funding came from a partnership between Amazon and Y-USA, which is made up of more than 2,700 YMCAs serving 10,000 communities. Milwaukee was chosen as one of the cities to receive the funding and participate in the project.
Milwaukee is starting a YMCA program, Youth and Government, in September, Przedpelski said. The national program empowers students by teaching them about government policies and methodologies firsthand.
“It’s really about getting teens involved and looking at the functioning of government. It’s getting youth to understand how change can happen on the legislative side and it gets youth also interested in civics and the process and potentially leaders in the political world down the road,” Przedpelski said.
As for the teens, they plan to continue trying to help people and change the future.
“Even though I might be young, I still see how hard it is for those who live in America because it’s hard just to live as an African American just because of their skin color, and I want to put a change to it,” Escarlluett said.
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