You don’t need us to tell you: these days there’s bad news all around. But that’s exactly why we think it’s more important than ever to highlight and celebrate people and organizations that are working to make the world a better place. People like Shanta Barton-Stubbs, the executive director and founder of New Image Youth Center (NIYC) in Orlando, Florida.
The NYIC runs after-school programs during the school year and day camps all summer long, serving 100+ kids every year. And they’ve had some amazing success: 21 of NYIC’s kids have gone on to graduate from high school, 13 are in college right now, two have graduated from college, and one is currently getting his doctorate in computer engineering at Auburn University.
Our good friend, Desmond Meade, introduced us to Shanta, who for 13 years has dedicated her life to the kids and families of the underserved Parramore neighborhood in Orlando. We visited her at NIYC twice this summer. She knows and loves every kid in her care, and their affection for her is obvious. Somehow, despite seemingly being needed everywhere at once, she was able to spend some time with us talking about NIYC’s work and mission.
You started New Image Youth Center back in 2004, right?
I can't even believe it's been 13 years. I was 21 years old, a college student. I remember my father moving his church from the pretty part of Orlando, Florida, to Parramore. Coming to this area, everything about it was so different for me. I experienced culture shock. I was helping my dad clean up one day in his church, and I saw kids outside. It was four boys, and they were all outside in a grocery cart, pushing it in the middle of the street and watching the cars swerve. Before I knew it, I just yelled out like anybody else would and I said, "Hey! What are you doing?" That little boy came over and cursed me out like you would never believe.
Yes! But I remember understanding at that moment they were kids needing something to do. I didn't have much to offer. We had just moved to the community. The building that we had was considered condemned. But I invited them inside, and the only thing we had available was a game of Monopoly. So we began to play this game of Monopoly and we played the entire day. I didn’t even recognize it at the time, but that's how New Image started. The next day, my dad called and said, "Hey, those same kids that you were playing with yesterday, they're back and they're back with more kids."
What were your goals back then?
At 21, I don't know where my mind was, but I have amazing parents who've always said, "You can be anything you want to be." At the time, I was a junior in college. I wanted to be a SWAT team member, but I was raised in the '80s, so I'm talking about Beverly Hills Cop and I would jump over my mom's couches like I was actually acting out parts of it. Then I said, "Okay, well if that doesn't work, then of course I can always fall back on being a movie star!"
Well, I had saved $1,500 in my bank account to make a move to Hollywood, and that’s the money that I began to use for the kids, like $100 at a time. I went to the pawn shop, I went to Walmart, and I began to buy board games. I bought a computer and I bought paint, posters. I began to make this one condemned spot our everyday spot where we would meet.
How did it really start to come together as a community resource?
Often when you’re looking to do something great, all you have to do is get started and the resources find you.
Over time, word spread in the neighborhood and the youth found us. Then the community started to come to us after seeing the positive change in the youth.
It's so strange, but often when you're looking to do something great, all you have to do is get started and the resources find you. That's exactly how it was. I would find people and then others would just come and volunteer and become a part of what we were doing. At the time, we didn't even have money to pay them. I was paying all the bills out of pocket. I was working at night to keep this place open, and it just began to evolve into what we have now.
And you started to build some amazing partnerships.
We've been able to leverage relationships with University of Central Florida, University of Florida, and even Rollins College. Because of this, now our kids are able to receive one-on-one attention when it comes to academic tutoring, and we can also leverage other mentors outside. We're excited because we work with police departments, we work with politicians, we work with the school systems, the Parramore Kidz Zone—there's so many different avenues.
People are hearing and seeing what we're doing. Everyone wants to give back in some type of way. We were all born to serve.
What kinds of things do you do with the kids?
We’re constantly instilling positivity into our kids, reminding them of all of that they have inside of them.
We're constantly instilling positivity into our kids, reminding them of all of that they have inside of them and what they need to give to the world. Different opportunities have been presented to us, and if they're not presented, we go and find them. We get outside of our norm. We take the kids to the beach, we take the kids on fun field trips. We're taking our kids out of this whole hood mentality to let them know that your surroundings do not have to make you.
What’s it been like watching these kids grow up in front of you?
The most amazing thing for me is that I started this place at 21, so I was still a kid myself. We grew up together. I would come here, I would do my homework with them. I went through a master's program. When I graduated, I had 50 kids in the audience. That was amazing. Guess who gave the speech that day? I did! Although the auditorium was filled with 5,000 people, I was delivering a speech that I felt like I was born to give to my youth. The crowd went crazy. I can't even tell you what that felt like, but of course, just experiencing this with them, letting them know, "On our watch, you cannot fail. We're here." If there's a kid that we're not seeing often, we're making phone calls. We're knocking on doors. We're finding out, "Hey, what's going on?" Why? Because that's the same thing you would do for a family. At the end of the day, we're a family. We're the New Image Youth Center family.
How do you see the New Image Youth Center evolving? What’s next?
At the end of the day, we’re a family. We’re the New Image Youth Center family.
One thing we would like to see is our model in other communities all over the world. It may not be Florida; it may be Detroit. Maybe Chicago, maybe Atlanta, wherever, but little replicas of what we're doing to let every child know in every hood that they too can be the good. We believe that if you're able to provide that safe haven, if you're able to be consistent, if you're able to provide them with opportunities that they normally would not have, then the children are going to come. They're wanting a difference, and we want to see this happen in other communities.
Your story is so inspiring. What’s your advice for people looking to make similar change where they live?
Again, we were all put on this earth to serve. We all want to do that naturally, and sometimes we just don't know how to do it. There are so many different avenues of how you can start. Go to an organization who's doing something similar to what you're doing. Become a part. Learn. Ask for a mentorship. See if you can be an intern. Become a part of that thing, and begin to grow whatever it is you're trying to do. Reach out to people across the world. Reach out to New Image Youth Center. Every time someone wants to be a part of the mission here, it reminds us that we aren’t alone! The only way I've gotten to this point is by learning. Whenever I saw opportunity, I never let it pass by. Be open. Be willing to jump out there and do something without knowing what it's going to turn into, but knowing that if you begin to do whatever your heart is leading you to do, then the resources and the people will find you.
There are people like Shanta in every community in this country, people investing in people and breaking the destructive cycles of violence, poverty, and incarceration. Do you know who your local hero is?
Have you ever wondered if it could be you?