Youths taking charge and giving back

BY CINDY CARTER, Staff Writer

ST. PETERSBURG – Local youths are making a difference around the city and securing a better future for themselves in the process. Non-profit organization Youth Unleashed has been operating for five years giving youths 16 and up the opportunity to earn money for educational expenses.

It all started with mom Rona Johnson. For two years before her organization became a nonprofit, Johnson volunteered at Lakewood High School helping to raise funds for the band department.

From there she networked and accumulated roughly 100 youths in the neighborhood to help with fundraising efforts. Johnson wanted to take it further and with her son’s help, Youth Unleashed was formed.

Its mission is to break the chains that bind youths when they make wrong choices and become branded for life as difficult or worse, find themselves in jail or on drugs.

“We were trying to put together a program where young children would stay off the streets and out of jail to get their education,” said Johnson.

Youth Unleashed headed out to venues and sporting events. At Tropicana Field, Raymond James Stadium, anywhere where food was served. Her crew of students working the concession stands, cleaning up after the spectators, doing whatever jobs needed to be done.

“We’re trying to make sure the young people we were working with did not have to struggle, their parents didn’t have to struggle, to get school clothes,” said Johnson.

Her organization provides not only clothes to its members, but also books when they head off to college. Anything to help them prepare for their future. Last year, they were able to pay for caps and gowns and all high school graduation expenses for four of its graduating seniors.

“Our motto is one youth at a time,” said Johnson. “We’re building leaders every day.”

And that leadership will be put to the test come Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. While most look at the day as time off of work, Johnson and Youth Unleashed members will be all around the city giving back. With help from the MLK Day of Service grant, Youth Unleashed will be able to provide services to help out the community.

Some participants will head out to the Ronald McDonald House to deliver food to the parents who have children there. Although Johnson and her members do something special for them once a month, thanks to the grant they were able to do a bit more.

“The kids are involved in everything,” said Johnson, “including picking out the menu.” On Monday, the menu will consist of sandwiches, wings, chips and juice. Whatever the teens and their parents can make.

The Youth Unleashed organization helps 13 families at the Ronald McDonald House and plans to bring DVD’s, magazines and books for the parents to use during their stay. Toiletries will also be provided.

Another team will drive around on the streets passing out bags full of shampoo, conditioner, toothbrushes and toothpaste. If supplies hold up, they also plan to add combs, toilet paper, t-shirts, socks, handkerchiefs and nonperishable food such as crackers and chips. Their goal is 100 bags.

No particular area of the city will be targeted. Johnson wants the community at large to realize that people are homeless all over Pinellas County.

“We do for everyone, whether you’re on the south side, north side, whatever side,” she said.

She hopes to not only help those in need but instill a sense of compassion in the young folks she’s in contact with, currently 52 teens and young adults are part of Youth Unleashed. She feels Generations Y and Z are in need of a wakeup call as to what life is really like out in the real world.

Boley Centers Youth Employment Consultant Jessica Ruter and Felicia Johnson, vice president of Youth Unleashed, demonstrate to the audience how to properly shake someone’s hand during the event at the Sanderlin Center.

Boley Centers Youth Employment Consultant Jessica Ruter and Felicia Johnson, vice president of Youth Unleashed, demonstrate to the audience how to properly shake someone’s hand during the event at the Sanderlin Center.

“You think you have it good because you’re young and your parents provide for you,” said Johnson, “but when you get older and you don’t have nothing to do or everything seems to fail you, you might be one of these people that are standing on the corner.”

Johnson hopes Youth Unleashed will help to teach young people to care about their community and about themselves. She feels that the youths of today have to learn to become leaders and the way to do that is to provide leadership herself and to guide them in the right direction.

She does that through constant opportunities for young people to get involved and learn. Whether it’s holding a yard sale to raise money to purchase computers for its members or looking for new venues to work at, Youth Unleashed is making a difference.

One such opportunity came about on Monday with a fashion show of sorts. Eight youths from her organization dressed up to see what it takes to land a job. The Boley Center was also on hand at the James B. Sanderlin Center speaking about interviewing techniques and how to better their chances to become employed.

Johnson will be at Tropicana Field Monday right after the parade with a table set up full of information on how to become a member. Organization representatives will be there talking to young people and the community about what the organization is all about.

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