UrbanPromise's BoatWorks program was the starting point for Camden teen Siani Burgess' love for rowing.
Siani Burgess didn't know picking up a canoe paddle would change the course of her young life.
She smiles and shakes her head when asked about a photograph of her on the water for the first time last year. In the picture, Siani looks a bit shy, even timid.
She sits awkwardly in a wooden canoe, but she smiles. She incongruously holds a powder blue umbrella — and a paddle.
A girl who grew up surrounded by the waterways that define Camden, Siani had not only never been on water, she didn't much like to swim, either.
Despite her height, basketball was a non-starter. A bit girly, she hates getting dirty and likes her hair and clothes just so. Tried soccer and karate — quit both after just a few weeks.
Siani had the umbrella with her on a trip with Urban BoatWorks —an experiential program that exposes city kids to the outdoors —because there was a drizzle that day on the Rancocas Creek — and "I have African-American hair!"
But the umbrella made going fast impossible.
"I was like that," she explains, emphasizing the past tense.
Something clicked that day, though. Siani put down the umbrella, grabbed the paddle with two hands, and put her arms, back and heart into making the canoe go.
She's been going since. These days, she rows as fast as possible on the water.
Siani was still reticent a few months later when she went to BoatWorks' hands-on, boatbuilding program.
The workshop teaches kids how to build boats from wood.
"I stand off," Siani says of how she reservedly approaches most new experiences.
But over time, something clicked again. The girl who'd never in her life picked up a hammer or a screwdriver was soon using power tools.
"I liked it," recalls Siani, flashing the radiant smile that comes to her when she considers things she's discovered about herself. "
It's like a moment you have. It helps you understand," she says of feeling the click slip into place.
Next in her progression came signing up for crew with the South Jersey Rowing Club on Pennsauken's nearby Cooper River.
By then, Siani knew some new things about herself: "I loved boats. I knew I loved water. I wanted to be in the water. Mom bought me a pair of sweatpants and signed me up."
First, though, there was the matter of the $1,500 cost, a stretch for a single mom on a nurse's salary, like LaPree Burgess.
"I've got to invest in my daughter," insists the 35-year-old ICU nurse at Cooper University Hospital on funding a season of crew. "I've got to give her a shot."
Fact is, LaPree has invested her life in Siani since the girl was just 6 months old. That's when LaPree — just 21 at the time — put aside her ambition to become a doctor and took in Siani, a cousin who came to her in a court-ordered placement.
LaPree knew then with her schedule and finishing college nursing classes she could serve as a lifeline only for Siani and not her siblings.
It was the spring semester of her first year at nursing school. Some days, Siani got dropped at day care as early as 5:45 a.m. and picked up as late as 7:30 p.m., allowing LaPree to get some studying done before taking her baby home. LaPree's mother was nearby to lend a helping hand.
LaPree's adoption of Siani became official in 2009.
Maybe LaPree's long-term investment in Siani is why her the latter stuck with rowing despite initial unease.
"When I first started, everyone was looking at me. It was like they were saying: 'Who is she? She's in the wrong place.' '' the teen recalled.
"I was the only African American. The only black person. I felt intimidated. But I had it in my mind I was going to stick.
"I told myself I'm gonna get in the boat and do it."
Do it she has.
"I'm walking on faith," notes LaPree. "Siani, she's walking on water."
Promise of help
There's a full-circle aspect to Siani's involvement in BoatWorks, sponsored by UrbanPromise.
Back when LaPree was also 14, she went to work at a summer camp sponsored by UrbanPromise. Her counselor was Jeff VanderKuip, a carpenter.
Today, he volunteers as overseer of BoatWorks, showing Siani how to make boats.
Ever protective, LaPree had sent Siani to UrbanPromise Academy, a private Christian school, rather than the Camden public schools. Next year, she moves to The King's Christian School in Cherry Hill.
And while LaPree had previously gone through the UrbanPromise summer program, it was Siani who suggested going on the canoe trip and trying boat building.
The building program began in the summer of 2009, according to founder Jim Cummings, a Pitman resident who sold his business and devotes his life to helping UrbanPromise youth.
That first year, they built five rowboats, including three named Promise, Faith and Grace.
By Kevin Shelly, Courier-Post
Close to 25 years ago, UrbanPromise created a program called StreetLeaders. Our staff realized that teenagers from under-resourced communities were looking for more than just fun and games--deep down these teens were searching for meaning, purpose, and an opportunity to make a difference in their own communities.
To everyone's surprise the program took off. Teens, who formerly were recipients of ministry, were now asked to become part of the ministry. They were trained to be tutors, mentors for younger children, coaches, and role models. They embraced the challenge and began to live into their new roles. The results have been phenomenal. Not only for the teens themselves--increased self-esteem, confidence, leadership--but the impact on younger children in our communities has been profound. " leaders, leading today" became our mantra.
So to meet the first cohort of StreetLeaders in Uganda yesterday was truly inspiring. Each day after school these young people show up to a local AfterSchool Program. They tutor, they mentor, they supervise younger children. But more importantly, in the process they find their voice, their calling, and God's vision for their lives. These teens also discover the joy of service.
I can only imagine that within the next 5-10 years a new generation of leaders will emerge from the slums of Uganda. Leaders who are academically astute, leaders who have learned the essence of servant leadership, and leaders who have experienced, first hand, that their lives can make a difference. --Bruce Main
Tinashe Saka. She’s the co-founder of a successful non-profit, a skilled community organizer, and holds a Master’s degree in International Development. She’s educated, articulate, and passionate.
She’s also from Malawi, a country where less than 7% of girls finish high school and many are forced to marry before they reach age 16.
Tinashe grew up within a family that valued education. Her father was the first in her village to complete high school and her cousin was the first to graduate from college.
At age 11, Tinashe went to live with her cousin and her time with him transformed the way that she perceived education. She remembers that “he brought both men AND women into his home who were highly educated, who had traveled and studied all over the world. He taught me that you can be educated and can commit to using that to gift your community.”
In Malawi, high schools are tiered, with the government schools offering the highest quality education and community schools left to run with few resources. The better schools are highly selective and students who are denied admission are often subsequently barred from college.
Tinashe was rejected twice from the government schools and was forced to attend the one in her village where teachers were unreliable and textbooks were scarce.
Due to the poor education she received, she wasn’t ready for college upon graduating. At this point, many others would have opted for an easier path, a road not so marked with struggle and work and waiting.
For a year she worked as a teacher while studying to re-take her final examinations. She was accepted at the African Bible College, where she was exposed to new worlds of opportunities. It was there that she learned about an internship opportunity with UrbanPromise International in Camden, NJ, where a whole new chapter of her story was to be written.
Tinashe spent a year with the children of Camden, working in UrbanPromise’s AfterSchool programs and SummerCamps. She also built crucial skills in executive management, project development, effective communication, and servant leadership.
She worked with Bruce Main, founder and president of UrbanPromise, and was impressed by his commitment to Camden. She says she was struck by “this idea of living and working in the same community. It was huge for me to see Bruce live and work in his own village. UrbanPromise was more than a job-this was a giving up of your life to help change the way kids live and dream”.
A graduate of our entrepreneurial leadership program, Tinashe arrived with dreams and left with a vision. Our program meshes passion with practicality, providing promising young leaders with the opportunity to develop their ideas into viable proposals to be presented and funded by our Board of Directors.
After her year, she left Camden and made the journey back to Malawi to birth a new ministry in Madisi, a small village in a rural district outside the capital.
As the only youth-serving organization in the district, RiseMalawi reaches over 200 children through AfterSchool programs and SummerCamps. 80 students are enrolled in their high school, where they have access to skilled teachers, educational resources, and new opportunities.
Tinashe remembers that “In the beginning, we arrived as outsiders, and there were doubts. But now that we have students who have graduated, those students are serving as a model for the next generation.”
She believes in the importance of modeling the pursuit of audacious goals. She believes that the way to encourage girls to value education and explore new worlds is to lead by example.
As Tinashe says, “Who they see is who they dream to be.” As girls see women like Tinashe living and working among them, I am sure that the scope of her life, the battles she has fought and won, her tenacity and her strength will serve to broaden others’ beliefs about what is possible for the youth of Malawi.
Margaret Wooten, Director of Special Projects
What happens when entrepreneurial, visionary, God-inspired, authentic leadership is adequately resourced and encouraged to dream? Incredible things happen. Miracles, actually.
Four years ago there was no high school in Kanengo--an impoverished village area, 5 miles outside of Lilongwe, the capital of Malawi. Out of the thousands of children in the area, only a handful would ever have the opportunity to further their education beyond the 7th grade. The very brightest might land a scholarship to a government school--the other 99% destined to a life of abject poverty.
That was four years ago.
Now there is a high school in Kanengo. Started by two former UrbanPromise International Fellows who spent a year studying with UrbanPromise--Peter Gamula and John Jimu--the ChristCares high school is on a meteoric rise. 40 students the first year, 80 in year two, one 120 in year three...and 160 students in year four.
"The demand is insatiable," confessed John, principal of the school. "The challenge is keeping pace with all the requests we get from the community."
With growth comes the need for increased space. Having already grown out of the first building, a second school block is being constructed, with two more classrooms added to accommodate the teens. A campus of learning is emerging out of the dust.
"Next year we'll be graduating our first class of students," continues Jimu. "Many will have the opportunity to attend college because of this school. This opportunity is changing the community in a positive way."
What happens when entrepreneurial, visionary, God-inspired leadership is resourced and encouraged to dream? Lives are changed. Communities flourish. Countries are transformed.
During my trip to Africa this summer, one of my tasks was to take photos. Specifically I was taking photos for our sponsorship program. It was one of the highlights of my trip. Taking pictures of kids who have never seen either a camera like mine or themselves on a picture is hilarious! Some I could not get to smile for the life of me. Others struck pose after pose. My camera was almost never out of my hand while there and the opportunity to capture a bit of life in Uganda and Malawi was stunning.
Back home in Canada we sponsored a kid through Compassion which was great, but we gave it up when we moved due to living in the USA and finances. However, after taking hundreds of pictures of kids that needed sponsors, my attitude changed. I wanted a girl since both countries we work in are still very patriarchal and I wanted my money to help empower a young girl. But then I met him, and I fell in love.
This little man followed me all around camp the first day I met him. A couple of days later we went to do a home visit with a family that was having witch doctor problems (a whole another post in itself!) I heard a call from behind a wall, 'Auntie', and there he was, grinning away. When I told him that I'd come over to his house, he scampered off. I couldn't figure out what happened until I followed him and saw this:
He had gone home, dumped a bucket of water over himself to wash off the dust and was putting on his good shirt so that he could greet me properly. He also tried to get his brothers to clean up:
Bestman lives with his two brothers in a one room house. His mother abandoned the family and his father comes by with food once in a while. They cook over a charcoal fire outside, have no running water or toilet. They all sleep in a twin bed and are basically raising themselves. But this kid is awesome. And I met a lot of kids. But something about Bestman just grabbed my heart. So he is our boy. During Advent we put together a care package for him to send to Uganda...another perk of actually knowing the organization and the leaders is the ability to know that the package will actually get to the kid!
My girls thought carefully about what to include and I was heartened by the fact that they had seemed to grasp what was helpful to send, pencils, erasers, sharpeners, pencil crayons, soap, bubbles, a mini football, a notebook and a towel and of course, candy.
After all, who could resist a smile like this?
If you want to know how you can empower a child in Africa, please click here. Encourage your family, small group, youth group or office to change a life of a child!