STUDENT SPOTLIGHT ARCHIVE
Sometimes we meet students with larger than life personalities, long-lasting legacies, and purpose-filled callings even in their teenage years. We consider it a joy to know these youth and our job to cultivate an environment where they foster and live out their destinies. This was true of Jamain Stephens who was affectionately known in our YES community as Big Fella.
Despite all the promise and purpose Jamain embodied, his life was cut short on Tuesday September 8, 2020. We extend our prayers to Jamain’s family and friends during this difficult time and offer hope to those grieving his absence. Our community and world lost an extremely bright light in Jamain Stephens and felt it was important to reflect on what he meant to YES — and so many other people.
When we reflect on our first encounter with Jamain as a high school sophomore, we not only remember his size and stature and football dexterity, but also his commanding presence and big heart. Students who typically participate in YES’s summer Learn and Earn programming often take on entry-level positions with local organizations in their first few years. Yet, when Jamain began his work with East End Cooperative Ministries everyone involved could quickly see his potential for greatness. After a short period, Jamain was elevated to head mentor where his capacity to inspire, mentor, and lead youth shone through. Throughout the three summers Jamain worked with YES his heart for service was on full display.
Jamain’s intellectual capacity extended beyond his work in the classroom. In addition to his work with East End Cooperative Ministries, Jamain demonstrated his passion for learning through his summer research projects. As an athlete himself, Jamain researched the impact substance abuse and injuries can have on the mental health of athletes.
Also on full display was his infectious personality. One could feel Jamain’s presence as soon as they walked into the room and his contagious smile had an impact on everyone in the YES family. Jamain’s heart, passion, and dedication are the embodiment of YES’s mission and values. The YES family would like to continue to honor the life and legacy of Jamain Stephens by creating a scholarship in his name that benefits students who reflect the same traits and values that Jamain embodied.
Those who are interested in donating to the Jamain Stephens’ Scholarship fund should reach out to Olivia Kelley at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Creator: Zaire Giles
When students walk into our office seeking post-secondary support, they often come with dream school ambitions. For some, their dreams become reality, for others their dreams become catalysts for new journeys. The former is true for Zaire Giles, a senior from Obama Academy. Zaire, with over 20 competitive admissions offers, made the decision to matriculate to The Pennsylvania State University, the school on which he originally set his eyes. From day one, he declared his love for Penn State and revealed his desire to become a Nittany Lion.
Zaire’s goal of attending Penn State was solidified when he received the University’s Clark Scholarship, which provides 10 students with full tuition, room and board, and additional expenses paid. At Penn State, Zaire will study mechanical and electrical engineering and become an active member in the National Society of Black Engineers.
Zaire is one of the most creative, innovative, and dynamic students with whom we have had the privilege of working. He is a creator at heart, and an accomplished scholar athlete who has excelled at every level of his academic and sports careers. He is also an avid member of his high school’s government and entrepreneurship programs which have provided unique perspective and valuable learning experiences. We are so proud of all he has and will accomplish. We know he is destined for greatness and will create a better world in which to live.
At YES, we encourage students to believe that with faith, the impossible is possible. Zaire has exemplified this adage and has exceeded our expectations for him. We look to his next chapter with excitement and optimism.
From YES to Success: Makalia Holston Smith, Bold and Beautiful
At YES, we consider it a privilege and an honor when our current youth refer their peers and closest friends to our non-profit. It shows that they trust you, but most importantly, it demonstrates the value they see in what you offer; because of this, they want their friends to benefit from that “good thing,” too. The same was true for Makalia. Makalia got connected to YES because of a friend who felt she needed support navigating post-secondary opportunities. Makalia was described as a high-achieving honors student who was extremely brilliant and multi-talented but merely selling herself short. From the sounds of it, Makalia was exactly the student YES hopes to guide: a student peppered with promise and purpose but not quite sure of all they possess and carry. It was beyond a blessing that she connected with YES, and an even sweeter opportunity to see all the amazing things Makalia is accomplishing.
Makalia has a bold and courageous personality and is limitless in her pursuits. A co-founder of a non-profit organization and a leader of various student groups, Makalia applied to 25 colleges with the hopes of matriculating to a place where she can continue her environmental justice commitment. Makalia has been accepted into nearly all her schools and has received competitive financial aid packages. With full scholarships to Virginia Tech, Lafayette, and Xavier, and waitlisted options at CMU, NYU, and Lehigh, Makalia is destined for greatness and prepared to attend a prestigious institution.
Makalia is a prolific writer, thinker, and scholar who is dedicated to justice and equity. She values learning and always places it at the center of her priorities. Her intellectual curiosity fuels her passion for new knowledge and keeps her thinking, questioning, and wondering. Her love for exploring and learning new concepts and ideas is truly unmatched and her hunger for success is even more contagious. As one of several black females exploring post-secondary education, Makalia is silently rejecting the limitations society attempts to place on her. She is discreetly rewriting the narrative of who can succeed and who can be a scholar, making college entrance and achievement more tangible for her younger peers and for YES students who could not previously see paths to success.
We are extremely proud of her ambitious dreams and goals and are excited to support her in this next phase of life. We feel very fortunate to have had a front row seat to her current journey. We also know that her dynamic spirit and boundless energy will vibrate the heartbeat of any university campus.
CAPA’s Ode to August Wilson
In honor of Black History Month, Pittsburgh Creative and Performing Arts and Pittsburgh Playwright Theater joined forces to produce August Wilson’s Radio Golf. Radio Golf, the tenth and final play in August Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle, follows a black man named Harmond Wilks on his quest to revive his childhood neighborhood and become the first black mayor of Pittsburgh. Wilks, his wife Mame, and his best friend Roosevelt, have planned a redevelopment project that will bring a new high-rise apartment building and chain-stores to the old and devastated Hill District. Initially, Wilks envisions this as a great plan to restore his childhood home, but as the play progresses and he meets characters from the past (Sterling Johnson and Elder Joseph Barlow), his eyes are opened to the possibility that what he thought would be a gift to the future might actually be hurting the district’s history.
Jordan McNeal, a talented CAPA senior and YES participant, starred as Elder Joseph Barlow. Although Jordan is a trained vocalist, he did a phenomenal job utilizing his artistic expression through acting to convey important messages about Pittsburgh’s cultural and historic Hill District during the 1990’s and to display his wisdom and knowledge. The cast was believable and convincing and nothing short of professional.
Jordan is looking to matriculate into a music conservatory or a four-year university upon graduation. YES would like to congratulate him – and his peers - on a job well done and wish him future success on forthcoming performances.
Questioning the Weather/ Advocating for Climate Change
Kayonia Sowell, a 2019 learn and earn intern with the Allegheny Front, had the privilege of exploring environmental justice issues alongside talented radio broadcast journalists. During her internship Kayonia researched climate change which altered her perspective on the world around her. As she gained more insight, she learned of the stark reality of climate change and its impact. Kayonia began questioning why she has not learned such critical information during her time as a middle and high school Pittsburgh Public School student. Her authentic and honest statements were featured in an article by the Allegheny Front; “One Teen Grapples With Her Questions About Climate Change,” and revealed her journey toward climate change discovery through her internship.
Learning about climate change ignited a fire within Kayonia to gain more from other individuals. She asked her parents and they were surprised that Kayonia was not learning about global environmental issues. Her mom stated, “I think it’s beneficial later in life for kids to understand what’s going on [on] the earth, as well as off the earth.” Her father shared similar disappointment in the Pittsburgh Public Curriculum saying, “I think it’s deplorable that they would rather teach you how to text than to teach about climate change.” He wonders why an emphasis is not taken to teach students about the importance of protecting the world around them.
We are proud to have a student like Kayonia seeking further understanding about the world we call home and most certainly how to protect it. The earth is not only our home but also a resource and we look forward to more of Kayonia’s future discoveries.
Jonell Arrington Epperson, a Conqueror and Graduate
From teen mother to high school graduate, Jonell Arrington-Epperson made it. She persisted through every obstacle and conquered every odd stacked against her. With her daughter by her side, she walked across the stage with a smile and swagger that communicated: “I did it.” As much excitement as the day brought, Jonell did not fail to acknowledge those who helped and supported her along the way. She noted, “I did it; I made it, but not alone. Y.E.S. was with me every step of the way and so were many others. Teachers, education liaisons, court advocates, babysitters, and family members selflessly gave of their time, resources, money, and love to see me cross the finish line, and for that, I am extremely grateful.”
Jonell is the first person in her family to graduate from high school. She is paving the way for her younger siblings and is setting the standard for her three year old daughter, Lamera. Jonell’s finishing is a true testament to her perseverance and hardwork. She is a conqueror and continues to be a strong young woman and role model. We are very excited about the triumphs Jonell has won and we look forward to the future with hope and optimism as she pursues cosmetology and business in the Fall.
Ashanti Richardson Races to the Top
One of our top YES scholars competed in the City League Track Championship last week. Representing Westinghouse as a junior runner, Ashanti raced with confidence and led the pack of girls against whom she was competing for most of the competition. Although she outran her opponents for most of the race, she fell short of first place by just a tenth of a second. Despite this, she still performed amazingly, demonstrated grit and perseverance, and received second place for the Girls' 400 Meter Race.
Ashanti's future is bright as she received college offers and has been invited to race in invitationals around the city. Not only is she a stellar athlete, but she is also a student who excels in the classroom. We are very proud of her for all her hard work during this race and for pushing herself to be the best on the track and in the classroom.
Reclaiming Balance: Khamille’s Journey to Recovery
This year has been an enigma for Khamille. A fierce athlete and a courageous leader, Khamille finds strength in balance. She enjoys the challenge of multi-tasking and she is exceptionally good at it. Unfortunately, just as a one-sided scale has no balance, neither did Khamile when she found out she would miss her entire junior season due to an ACL injury.
When UPMC Doctors determined that Khamille would miss one of her most important basketball seasons, she lost focus and hope. She has always excelled at athletics and academics and has never done one without the other.
Although this was a challenge and setback for her, Khamille has shown great strength and tenacity during her recovery and is finally cleared to play the sport she loves again, after eight grueling months of recovery.
Khamille recalibrated because it mattered to her. She navigated her new paradigm by making resources available to her and by facilitating her natural inclination to excellence. Some students need direction, others just need revelation and reassurance that it’s in them; they just need to own it. Khamille has done just that. Khamille has reclaimed her balance and has realigned her performance with her above average standard.
Her determination is motivation to us all. Her bravery is also a reminder of the heart she possess. Now coming into her senior year, Khamille stands tall and proud as Center and Power Forward, determined to score 1000 points in her final season. We are proud of her progress and know that she is ready to put on her jersey again. We cannot wait to see Khamille step on the floor to accomplish her goals.
Selena Williams competes as a finalist in the 2018-2019 Williams SING-OFF Competition
We are proud to announce that Selena Williams, one of our YES Seniors, was selected out of 70 applicants as a Williams SING-OFF Competition finalist. The Annual Williams SING-OFF Competition provided Selena the opportunity to network and showcase her vocal talents amongst three other distinct finalists.
Selena has always had a passion for singing, but committed to perfecting her craft when she started attending Pittsburgh CAPA, Creative and Performing Arts School. As a finalist, Selena performed on New Year’s Eve, in the Cultural District in Pittsburgh. There, she shared her vocal gifts through the song Bye Bye Blackbird.
Although she did not win the final award, Selena competed among talented individuals and loved the experience and the chance to meet other creatives outside of her school.
Selena is looking forward to her upcoming school performances as well as graduation. She hopes to attend at least one of her top three schools: Berklee College of Music, Temple University, or Oberlin College.
Anesa Reed, a Learn and Earn Success Story
When you give young individuals an opportunity to hone their talents in a work environment, you get results like Anesa Reed. Anesa has always demonstrated her passion for doing and styling hair. She would even practice her craft on her friends, here in the office. She said, “Everyone is meant to have a passion or talent -- it just needs supported, cultivated, and fostered.”
Our Learn and Earn program did just that this summer, by connecting her with the Allegheny Front, a local environmental justice radio program seeking to produce an awareness campaign on the harmful effects of hair products used by women of color. It was a match made only to succeed, as Anesa was elated to accept the opportunity.
Through the Allegheny Front, Anesa looked deeper into her passion, not only as an art form, but also as a science. With her research on the toxicity of black hair care and personal interviewing, she developed a phenomenal essay, “Switching to Safer Hair Products Not So Easy,” that illustrated the challenges in practicing safe hair care management for women of color. Her project culminated as a weekend feature on their full length broadcast (click to listen here).
We are so proud of you Anesa! We are only looking forward to the next milestones as you take your steps toward graduation this school year.
Jeremiah Nash: Overcoming the Odds
Jeremiah embodies an untapped desire to succeed that is rare in his peers. As a three-year YES student, we have watched him continuously strive for excellence and engender an “unwilling to settle” attitude. He works extremely hard, invests additional hours to be the best, and makes sacrifices when necessary.
No better moment captures this than the sacrifices he made to excel in his academic coursework, athletic endeavors, and community service. Jeremiah devoted his time to be the best in the classroom, on the football field, and in his community and we are so proud of the young scholar he has become. He worked fervently, without complaints, to redefine his path. He did not let the arduous, constructive process, his environment, nor the tragedy he encountered overcome him. Instead, he worked and persevered until he found value and satisfaction in his trajectory.
Through his persistence and commitment, Jeremiah graduated top of his class and earned valedictorian status from Westinghouse. He is now attending Morehouse College on an academic scholarship and playing football as a walk-on.
We, at YES, are extremely proud of all he accomplished and cannot wait to see how he will conqueror this next phase of life.
To learn more about Jeremiah, check out these articles:
Robyn presents at Westinghouse's Honors Ceremony
Robyn Arrington-Epperson orated her original poem, Don't Judge a Book By Its Cover (click to read) at Westinghouse's honors ceremony. Her poem challenged her peers to defy stereotypes, reach for high achievement, and examine the world critically. Our YES family is proud of Robyn's creativity, critical consciousness, commitment, and heart for excellence. She is a true source of inspiration to all her peers.
Well done, Robyn!
YES Student Honored
YES student, True Magwood, was honored for his work as Master Electrician and Director of Stage Crew in Brashear High School's production of "A Night of One Act Plays." True's skills were put to the test with two plays within the same production, "This is a Test" and "Check Please," respectively. Our YES family is proud of True's commitment which serves as an inspiration to all of our students. Well done, True!