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Hear the Girl

Groundbreaking SHEVAC program earns global recognition by giving voice to local at-risk kids

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Big waves emanate from a small classroom at Robert E. Lee High School on Jacksonville's Westside, as teacher Amy Donofrio guides the students toward positive changes. The kids are part of the EVAC movement, a project rooted in self-empowerment, which, in turn, is rooted in students claiming, owning and transcending their life stories. Together, she and her students have found a way to cut through the emotional walls that too often rise between "at-risk" students and adults in high school. Empowerment, Donofrio insists, begins when we share our histories, forging deep bonds with others as they share theirs.

Her students prove that opening up about hard truths can be the first step toward change, both personal and political. The two-year-old EVAC movement comprises participants who have made national headlines advocating for poor defendants unable to afford court costs.

The male EVAC students attended a Senate hearing and a White House briefing with the president about the issue. While in Washington, D.C., they met and spoke with civil rights legend Rep. John Lewis (D-Atlanta).

EVAC's story-sharing platform, #YourStoryIsMine, created for the Harvard KIND Schools Campaign contest, was selected as one of 10 finalists nationally. The inaugural EVAC group found out they had won the contest in the spring of their junior year. The boys were invited to present their project to the Harvard Alumni of Color Conference in 2018.

Donofrio and her EVAC/SHEVAC members have also been invited to present their successful #YourStoryIsMine empowerment template at a national summit on juvenile justice in D.C. at the end of June. Right now, they're fundraising for travel expenses and other costs.

The story about EVAC, whose original members graduated in May, has also fallen on the ears of Mayor Lenny Curry and Sheriff Mike Williams. Numerous other local officials and activists have been moved by the students as they share their perspectives on policies that affect them.

EVAC is "cave" spelled backwards, an intentional play on Plato's "The Allegory of the Cave." The idea is, if you've always been chained in darkness, it's impossible to imagine the light, and all it illuminates.

This spring, the young women of EVAC (or "SHEVAC") wrote open letters to Duval County Public Schools' (DCPS) future superintendent, detailing what students need as they move through high school. The girls presented these letters at a public meeting, and agreed to allow Folio Weekly to publish excerpts here. SHEVAC members also have several ideas to share with our elected officials. Last month, with a little coaxing, they voiced those thoughts at a roundtable discussion that included a special guest-Florida House of Representatives candidate Tracye Polson.

SHEVAC's young women are Seterria Hardy, 18; Edriel Peterson, 17; Kara Lane, Daja Brown, Lauren Fighter and Abby Bomping, all 16; and Haley Wooten, 15. The after-school program is an important part of a comprehensive initiative at Lee High to empower at-risk girls, says Principal Scott Schneider.

"You've got a really good group of girls in SHEVAC," Schneider said. "They are the next leaders in our community and beyond our community."

Their words not only tell us who they are, but what they need and deserve from the adults in their lives-parents, teachers and policymakers alike.

#YourStoryIsMine
Before they ever took a seat at the table in Donofrio's classroom, the young women of SHEVAC had known formidable circumstances. By their own accounts, we are able to understand how each one survived desperate moments when they felt they had no one to turn to.

"Life was just getting to a point where I just wanted to give up," Lane wrote in her open letter to DCPS's newest superintendent. "[T]he next thing that happened to me that was bad was going to kill me if I didn't talk to someone."

Lane was failing her classes, stressing about court, dealing with her biological father and listening to her mom and stepdad argue.

"She [Donofrio] made me realize that I don't have to be ashamed of my past and what has happened to me," Lane continued.

Seterria Hardy, a graduating senior and president of SHEVAC's after-school club, echoed the substance of Lane's message.

"Knowing that you're not alone," Hardy wrote in her letter, "knowing that there are others who are going through the same thing as you and knowing that there are people there to listen to you and not judge you can make a huge difference."

In their missives, all the girls recommended spending time and resources on in-school programs like EVAC. Graduating senior Peterson offered an especially passionate plea for authorities to provide students with acceptance and give them breathing room to figure out their next steps.

After the roundtable discussion with SHEVAC, Polson, a licensed clinical social worker, told FW that even though she'd met the girls only once, she was deeply impressed by their work.

"It is stunning to me that these girls have created relationships and created a safe space where they can talk. It's in the context that their stories are important, but [the stories] don't define them," Polson said.

Though not in a position to offer her professional opinion of the degree of trauma SHEVAC members may have suffered, Polson did offer a scientific insight: Studies show when a person in crisis can make sense of her past, and "can create a narrative that's coherent," the story-building process is "associated with positive outcomes over multiple domains."

"It was really stunning to me, the internal resources they have as they think about planning their futures," Polson said. "Part of what I saw that hour was a tremendous amount of resiliency."

Edriel Peterson defines the very word "resiliency."

Edriel's Epistles
Dressed in a coffee-colored gown for the graduation celebration to follow, Peterson sat quietly at the U-shaped table in Donofrio's classroom, listening carefully to a discussion about new, ramped-up graduation requirements. Florida's high-stakes testing regimen means ever-increasing standards for students, which the girls see as the school system constantly moving the goalposts.

Fellow SHEVAC member, 16-year-old Bompton, got the discussion rolling. "The [graduation] rates are going to go down. Honestly, they just want to see us fail."

Donofrio remarked that it's nearly impossible for her students to get the necessary transportation to Saturday ACT or SAT testing sites, let alone pay the $60-plus fee for each test. The Florida Department of Education recently abolished the less-expensive, in-school testing alternative for the Algebra I end-of-course (EOC) exam, passage of which is required for graduation. Now students who don't pass the exam will have to obtain a newly raised ACT or SAT concordance score in order to graduate. Some of Donofrio's students have trouble with the EOC, she said, adding words of praise for the graduation coach at Lee who helps students navigate the alternative testing process.

A moment later, the discussion hit a nerve. Visibly angry, Peterson shook her head and leaned forward to speak for the first time that afternoon.

"We feel like we're not going to make it through," Peterson said. "Like, they keep raising the test scores. Eventually, kids are going to drop out-that's the only way they're going to have to look after themselves.

"If we don't get it here, in school," she continued, tapping the table for emphasis, "we're not going to get it anywhere."

"It," she explained, is a way out of the nightmare that is her past, a hand-up, a means to move on to the next step in life. Peterson has been knocked back several times by circumstances that would shock even those who have studied "toxic stress." Her own words, conveyed in her open letter to the superintendent, explain her story.

From my personal experience in middle school, I lost five loved ones. My father from bone cancer, my mother from drunk driving, which caused her body to burn, my two oldest [sisters] were murdered on sight [during a home invasion] and my grandma passed. Keep this in mind: My parents died when I was 10, my sisters when I was 13, my grandmother when I was 14. During this time, the school I was attending did not provide any type of counseling. This affected me because I didn't have anyone to go to. I felt alone and exposed to so much at a young age. This led to bad decision-making in the company I kept, self-harm, and shutting out family. I felt as if no one understood me or even bothered to.

Compounding her suffering and struggles, as the then-13-year-old Peterson was preparing to move in with her sisters, they were murdered.

Polson softly summed up the many crises in which many local students find themselves. "When you live in an area, in a family ... in a context, where ... all you see is drugs, or alcohol use, and violence, and your community is surrounded by that, it's hard to sort of even imagine something different."

"We call it the CAVE," Donofrio quipped. Heads nodded all around the table.

Peterson's writing described trying to emerge, unprotected, from the cave of her past.

"[W]hen a teenage girl is struggling to find herself in a world [that] has taken away everything she has ever believed in," Peterson wrote, "how [does] she take off her mask within reading several cards?" For her, the constant poker game—the question of which cards she should show and when—was exhausting. "All I wanted was someone to go to and I especially wanted someone who didn't know me to prevent the judgmental comments.

"I felt that because you didn't already know me, you don't know what to expect from me. I had nothing to lose, but your trust and respect to gain. I hope that in the future, we can have more groups in schools all over. You never know what people go through and you would never know until it's too late," she added.

The letters were presented at public hearings for the superintendent selection in March, a mere three weeks after 17 people were gunned down at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. Peterson and several other students mentioned Nikolas Cruz and his shooting rampage in their open letters, but Peterson's words went beyond identifying with the victims of that tragedy.

I am standing in the gap of those who lost their lives and the voices of the families and friends. The shooting inspired me because everyone was saying that the shooter had a mental illness, but I can assure you that if he was to get the support and if someone would have just sat down and actually talked to him and understood his needs, it would have prevented this situation.

Peterson called out teachers for bringing "stereotyped attitudes" about their students into the classroom. Twenty-five out of the 32 high school teachers she's encountered, she wrote, have told students something along the lines of "they will get paid [whether] you learn or not."

"[A]ll we want," she finished, "is attention and that listening ear."

Listening to a Fighter
"Adults come up with the ideas," Donofrio observed, "but they haven't really talked to the kids."

"As kids, our words are less considered. When, really, we're actually really smart." All eyes turned to the speaker, 16-year-old Lauren Fighter.

"I come from a community of guns and drugs, so if someone wants to present a plan to me to get drugs off the street, right away I can tell them if it's going to work or not. Because I know how it goes," Fighter said.

"Right now, I can probably call five drug dealers off the top of my head. Probably get anything that I wanted." Fighter said her family has been ravaged by drug addiction and the crimes that support that addiction.

Polson responded by sharing an experience she'd had earlier in the week.

"I did a ride-along with the police this Monday night," she began. "All on the Westside. And that was pretty, um, eye-opening. A lot of drugs. A lot of drugs. And a lot of people who've been on drugs for years and I thought about how surrounded people are in communities-people are just like zombies.

"They're really just fried. We encountered seven or eight people who you could just tell had been taking drugs for years, just from their appearance, their eyes, they weren't making sense, and this sort of vicious cycle. Then I thought too about how many guns are on the street. And the combination of the drugs and the guns. And how that makes our communities really not safe. You never know who has a gun, and you never know who's on drugs."

Polson said the problem is both "complicated and generational," then asked the group if they had any ideas on what might work to solve that problem.

Fighter piped up, "Most drugs? Most people get them from people who prescribe them. Most pharmacies give more than people need. And they go back to get refills. People don't feel they need it or they can make money off it. A good place to start is to give people only the amount they need."

"What would you think about making drug treatment free?" Polson asked.

"Yeah. I would agree," Fighter said, "seeing as, yeah, my mom is a really bad drug addict. We try to get her to go to resources and that, but she doesn't have insurance, and she's got charges against her. The only drug treatment that she is going to get right now is if she stays incarcerated.

"My mom is so bad. She got locked up, like a month ago. She was in there a few weeks but she came out clean. And then the second day she was out, she was using again. And Tuesday she has a court appearance and she's facing a few years, because she got busted for some major violations. So hopefully when she gets out, she'll be more clean ... more consistently clean.

"More resources should be available. Maybe more local food banks. Maybe lowering the age to get a job. A lot of people in my generation have to start at a young age to help take care of their families. The legal way is just too hard." Fighter did not specify what she meant and, for her protection, FW didn't ask. She lives with her father now.

Donofrio corroborated that some of her students do "terrifying" things to help their families financially.

"They [employers] have to start hiring 14-year-olds," Donofrio said. "That's how it always starts. I have kids come to me. They're the 'never-gonna-let-them-see-me-cry' types of kids, and they start bawling their eyes out at age 14. 'Me and my family are getting evicted. I'm the oldest, I'm 14. What am I supposed to do?'

"I don't give them any advice because I don't have an answer. I don't know what I would do."

The room fell silent.

Economic Strife
Talking about the pressure young teenagers feel to go to work to help their families evolved into a discussion about depressed wages in our economy.

Lane described a family friend, a mother who recently moved her family into a low-income trailer park on the Westside. "She works three jobs. Monday through Sunday, like, all the time. Her youngest daughter just turned 15 and just had to get a job, because her mom is working three jobs and can't pay the bills."

In spite of her own family's struggles, Lane's friend still stops to buy chips and drinks for homeless people.

"She sacrifices what she doesn't even have for her family. It's hard when you have more than what other people have, and you want to help others, but you can't really provide for yourself at the same time. Having something to help ... like wages going up for jobs ... .

"I don't understand how when you're providing for only four people, in low-income housing, and you have to work three or four jobs. It just doesn't make sense ... . Something's wrong as far as the wages that are being provided to people that work ... . It just doesn't make sense."

The girls want to understand how to build a career, instead of just earning a wage.

"We do personality testing," Donofrio said, explaining that it's one way of helping the girls narrow down their chosen career paths. "But every kid says they want to be a doctor or lawyer, sometimes the military, or musician, or athlete. Those are the ones I hear."

The focus shifted to Daja Brown, a petite 16-year-old who had been relatively quiet during the session.

"We need to see people like us, who made it, share their stories so they can inspire others," Brown said. "When one woman came and shared her story, it made me want to be an architect. It would be good for other people, too, to feel like they have a chance in life."

Lane, an aspiring writer, echoed Brown's opinion about the need to learn more about career choices while still in school. "Being a junior in high school and not knowing what I'm about to step into ... it's scary. I don't know what steps to take to get where I want to be."

The prospect of being on the bottom end of a lopsided economy is frightening and, to some, maddening. Fighter offered a sociological insight about the nation in which she is growing up.

"I feel like this country has an 'every man for himself' attitude, because we're trying to evolve way too fast. Like, the iPhone X just came out and you still go to Downtown Jacksonville and there's still at least one homeless person on every corner.

"Like, all that money that went into the iPhone X? I'm pretty sure the iPhone VIII works perfectly fine. That money could have gone to more food banks, or shelters, or something like that. I feel like we're trying to evolve faster than we really can and we're leaving too many people behind."

The Need
Donofrio spoke about students who have had workplace accidents, students who need legal help for other reasons, and the difficulty of getting that help when everyone in the family is working all the time. The discussion turned to the logistical difficulties of getting copies of birth certificates and social security cards in order to apply for jobs. Those documents are routinely lost or destroyed when families move frequently, a common thread among her students.

"We have access to resources in Jacksonville, but the people who need them never get connected to them. It's on the other side of town, or ... even as an adult, it seems really overwhelming. You need this number. You need this document. Well, teenagers, especially teenagers you know with parents who aren't in a position to take care of them—they don't have any of that," Donofrio said.

"I just don't feel like teenagers have any recourse. And none of the people who make policies are ever in the schools. Ever."

Even students from two-parent families run into challenges when the adults are constantly at work.

"Currently, right now, I'm going through the process of having my dad sign off his biological rights," Lane said. "That was a choice he made. So I don't talk to either one of my, I guess you could say, my dads, right now. My stepdad—we communicate but it's different; he doesn't always know where I'm coming from because I didn't grow up around him.

"And my mom works 12-hour, 16-hour days. I don't see her a lot, so I depend on my grandma and one of my mentors to get me to different places to do things. Not having people around all the time is something that's hard."

"In certain situations, you have to handle it right then and there. Not having an adult to get you through those situations, you get walked on," she concluded.

Supporting EVAC's and SHEVAC's Futures
Donofrio was determined to give Peterson and Hardy the graduation party they might not have had otherwise, as well as a chance for their SHEVAC companions to cheer them on. Thanks to a generous community sponsor, she was able to take them to the nearby Black Sheep restaurant, where they celebrated with "mocktail" drinks, balloons, party horns and gift bags for the seniors-comprising animal-print flip-flops, picture frames and "2018" memorabilia.

There were two surprise gifts as well, from one of EVAC/SHEVAC's two faith-based partnerships. Lisa Fields, wife of Pastor Louis J. Fields of Grace International Church, presented both Peterson and Hardy with scholarships, $500 each, to help with college expenses. Hardy will attend FSCJ to study nursing, and Peterson will be at Edward Waters, studying business administration. In that moment, the girl who lost five immediate family members before even starting high school was a happy-go-lucky high school graduate wearing goofy, oversized "2018" glasses.

Before some students go off to college, Donofrio is determined to take a number of her students to the Coalition for Juvenile Justice's annual conference in Washington, D.C. EVAC/SHEVAC participants have been invited to present their #YourStoryIsMine platform at the end of this month.

Additionally, EVAC/SHEVAC has been invited to discuss the program to the world's most renowned organization for school psychologists in July. The International School Psychology Association's annual conference will be held in Tokyo, and EVAC/SHEVAC is currently raising funds to support their work, including travel costs for conferences.

Over the past few years, EVAC/SHEVAC has operated as a combination of small, in-school classes and after-school programming. Difficulties with transportation make an in-school component ideal for students who are interested in the program.

"I would love to have an EVAC class again next year," Donofrio said in a follow-up message to FW. "I have students who are interested."

The program's resonance with the students, the community, the nation and, now, the world, speaks to the need that EVAC/SHEVAC is filling: It's empowering students by listening to them, so that the students themselves may write the next chapters of their own success stories.
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HOW YOU CAN HELP

EVAC/SHEVAC is raising funds for operating expenses, including trips to the Coalition for Juvenile Justice's annual conference in Washington, D.C., where they've been asked to present their #YourStoryIsMine platform; and to Tokyo, Japan, where they will discuss the program at the International School Psychology Association's annual conference.

EVAC/SHEVAC's faith-based sponsor, The Ville Church, has dedicated an in-church ministry to support these and other efforts. There are two ways to donate: Send checks payable to "The Ville Church," with "EVAC" on the memo line, to The Ville Church, 221 N. Hogan St., Ste. 502, Jacksonville FL 32202; or donate online by visiting theville.givingfire.com and using the dropdown menu to select "EVAC" as the recipient.

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