This nonprofit fills a need to support underserved youth in its New Orleans community
Renewal Awards finalist Youth Empowerment Project provides young people with the skills, support, and opportunities they need to thrive
Meet the finalists for The Renewal Awards, a project of The Atlantic and Allstate. These individuals are the forces behind the 25 nonprofits competing for $150,000 in grant money. Ten winners will be announced March 27 at The Renewal Summit in New Orleans, on TheAtlantic.com, and here, on The Renewal Project.
With its distinct culture, customs, and celebrations, New Orleans is a truly unique American city. And with its recent resurgence as a hub for young professionals and entrepreneurs who are helping to write the city’s next chapter, The Big Easy is on the upswing. But like all cities, New Orleans is challenged with meeting the needs of its most vulnerable residents, especially young people.
Melissa Sawyer saw this need in her community, and in 2004 co-founded Youth Empowerment Project, or YEP, to provide mentorship and educational and job training programs for youth and young adults. After Hurricane Katrina hit in August of 2005, the organization’s mission to serve its community became even more vital. We asked Sawyer to tell us about what inspired her to launch YEP and why she has dedicated her life to service. The following is an edited and condensed version of our Q&A. Follow Youth Empowerment Project on Facebook, Instagram, and on Twitter at @YEPNOLA.
Tell us about Youth Empowerment Project’s community outreach.
YEP provides young people, ages 7 to 24, in the Greater New Orleans region an array of age-appropriate services: mentoring, adult education and high school equivalency preparation, employment readiness training, after-school enrichment services, academic support and tutoring, summer programming, intensive case management, and assistance with basic needs such as school uniforms and bus tokens.
Who is the community you serve?
We support underserved young people. Through our 11 programs, YEP reaches over 1,200 young people. The vast majority of our community reside in neighborhoods negatively impacted by poverty, crime, unemployment, and violence. During YEP’s most recent fiscal year, 95 percent of young people we served were African American, 70 percent of participants indicated they had an annual income of less than $10,000, and 67 percent resided in female-headed households. YEP’s diverse programs provide these youth with the skills, support, and opportunities they need to overcome these barriers and have positive transitions to adulthood.
How did you start your community work?
As far back as I can remember, my parents expected me to give back to the community and to help others. I was involved in student government from a young age and volunteered with an array of different organizations from elementary school through graduate school. The saying, “think globally, act locally” has guided my community work. By addressing issues at the community level I have been able to avoid, in large part, feeling overwhelmed by the enormity of the challenges in the world while feeling good about doing my part to make the world a better place.
What inspired you to do this work?
The lack of resources, opportunities, and programs available to the young people in New Orleans who needed these supports the most.
What ways are you helping to make your community thrive?
I believe that YEP’s Core Purpose answers this best. Through YEP, we empower young people to improve their lives and the lives of others.
What’s one thing you want outsiders to know about your community?
New Orleans remains a one-of-a-kind place when it comes to the people and culture that make up this incredible community. Like many other cities, New Orleans has its challenges, but there are many individuals and organizations working hard to build a stronger community for future generations.
What leaders inspire you?
I am inspired by leaders who are thoughtful, insightful, capable, humble, and kind.