Across the country, the month of April is celebrated as Volunteer Month, Volunteer Appreciation Month and Community Service Month. At Communities In Schools of North Carolina, we not only want to celebrate our nearly 10,000 volunteers who generously donate their time and energy to serving our state's children and youth, but also our students who are actively involved in giving back to their peers and community—a value identified by CIS as needed and deserved by every child. This month's "Overcoming Obstacles: CIS Success Stories" video features Chapel Hill High junior Cyerah O'Briant, a student involved in the CIS-affiliated Blue Ribbon Mentor-Advocate Program's Youth Leadership Institute (YLI), headed up by Graig Meyer. “Before YLI, I never thought much of helping others. The world would be a better place if more people gave back,” she says.
Cyerah O’Briant wants to be like Graig Meyer when she grows up. You can see it in her eyes and in the way she jokes with elderly residents at Carol Woods Retirement Center where she waits tables. She knows they really want someone to talk to, just like she does.
Graig’s parents were social workers who instilled in him the value of serving others. Growing up in inner city Cleveland, OH, his childhood exposed him to diversity. “I have a value that is deep inside of me for appreciating diversity, for feeling like no environment is complete unless it is diverse,” Graig contends. But he is aware that in diversity lives an inequality with no promise of privilege.
His opportunities led him to his job directing the Blue Ribbon Mentor-Advocate (BRMA) Program that teaches students in Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools the value of community service. The program is an affiliate of Communities In Schools of Orange County with the same mission of discouraging high school dropout.
Graig cites his friends growing up as an example of the inequality that many children face. “I saw lots of kids that didn't take advantage of opportunities that I did, or they weren't offered them. I really look at those kids and believe they were just as good as I was and just as deserving, but I had opportunities that they didn't,” he says.
Now he wants to provide young people with opportunities that his friends did not have. He hates any missed opportunity to reach a child.
An only child to a single mother for a number of years, Cyerah felt like she lost the spotlight in middle school when her mom gave birth to her brother. Her father passed away when she was young. She dreams of being the first one in her family to complete college and craves direction, and the extra push she needs to succeed. She finds it now as a junior at Chapel Hill High in the Youth Leadership Institute (YLI), a club established by the BRMA Program.
“Before YLI, I never thought much of helping others. The world would be a better place if more people gave back,” she says. In YLI (pronounced Y-LI) she has found a group that welcomes everyone, where she learns leadership skills through service projects and has a lot of fun in the process. Cyerah has taken those skills a step further to her job working with the elderly at Carol Woods which embodies that spirit. She credits her success there to her experiences in YLI interacting with different people.
Through YLI she also found Graig, a confidant who cares about her success and encourages her to make good decisions. As a result, she cares more about others now and wants to follow in his shoes.
“Kids don't make stupid decisions when adults are paying attention to the decisions they make,” says Graig who believes the success of BRMA, YLI and CIS can be measured in the positive relationships established with children and young adults. “My expectation is that every kid gets to the end of high school and has good choices for what comes next. They can decide what their path is and they will be successful no matter what they choose. I think that is very similar to Communities In Schools.”
Watching Cyerah and Graig inspire each other reinvigorated my passion for storytelling. I was inspired to give back the best way I know how, through documentary work, which is ultimately about building relationships as well. Hopefully I made some new friends in the process.
Justin Cook is an independent documentary photographer who lives in Durham, NC. He is the multimedia producer behind Communities In Schools of North Carolina’s “Overcoming Obstacles: CIS Success Stories.” His work has been honored by College Photographer of the Year, Pictures of the Year International, Virginia Press Association, Society of Professional Journalists and other organizations. Although Cook’s photojournalism is award-winning, he gauges his success not in trophies but in the relationships he establishes with his subjects. View his work online at www.justincookphoto.com.