A ‘Journie’ to empower at-risk kids
By Emily Watkins Photography by AB-Photography.us
Nashauna Lenoir has an impressive resume, from hosting her own radio show to acting, writing, teaching, singing and dancing. She is also a hairdresser. Whatever she does, she goes all-in, and one of her strongest skills is organizing. She organized a Juneteenth event this year, bringing in food, a DJ and dance performances, all despite the limitations that the pandemic presented.
But Lenoir’s true love is working with teenagers. She says, “I grew up as a troubled kid in foster care. I was given opportunities that changed my life, and I’m just paying it forward.”
A CHALLENGING CHILDHOOD
Born on the south side of Chicago to a mother on drugs and an alcoholic father, Lenoir and her siblings were raised for a time by their aunt. In her care, the siblings endured verbal, physical and sexual abuse, and they eventually landed in foster care. They lived in many different foster homes while growing up, often apart.
The foster care agency provided weekly therapy for Lenoir. One therapist gave her a journal and encouraged her to use it to process her feelings. “Eventually I just started writing every day,” she remembers.
AN ACTIVIST WAS BORN
Lenoir was (and still is) very passionate and outspoken. She ran away from foster families that didn’t treat her well. She joined Hands Without Guns, an activist group, and was the youngest in the group to speak at the schools they would visit.
She remembers one year when her foster mother took her to an awards dinner where foster parents were recognized for their work. Her foster mother showed her the award that she got during the ceremony, and Lenoir was outraged because this woman had locked Lenoir and her sister in the basement and out of the refrigerator and kitchen cabinets.
Lenoir decided an award was needed for youth who were doing amazing things. She was told “no” over and over, but she kept asking until someone said “yes.” The awards ceremony that she organized just celebrated its 20th anniversary and now raises over $1 million a year and sends five students to college on full scholarships per year.
Along the way, Lenoir gained two mentors—a fashion editor for the Chicago Sun-Times and a writer for Ebony and Jet magazines—who “showed me a different level of life that I had never seen before.” She began writing for the Chicago Defender and was the youngest writer there.
FROM GOOD TO BAD
When she was 15, one of her mentors invited her to go to Fashion Week in New York City, but her foster agency wouldn’t let her go because there wasn’t enough time to do a background check on the woman she’d be traveling with. She was devastated and sought out her best friend who was a “wild child.” That night she tried alcohol and pot for the first time, lost her virginity and became pregnant.
She gave birth to her daughter at age 15 and ended up dropping out of school and quitting the Defender. She says she “went from good to bad, quick.” Fast-forward through a number of hard experiences—getting her GED, spending six years in an abusive relationship, hiding with her kids in a women’s shelter, working as a security guard overnight to feed her kids, barely making ends meet and living in a dangerous part of the city with no one to help her—when eventually, Lenoir decided to move to Rochester to join family here.
AN UNEXPECTED OPPORTUNITY
After being pulled over for speeding and getting a $600 ticket, a lawyer friend told her to ask the judge if she could work off the ticket at a nonprofit agency. So she asked the Boys & Girls Clubs of Rochester if she could work for them for free.
There, on her lunch breaks, she noticed kids that weren’t participating in activities and were getting into trouble. One day she asked if they wanted to jump rope. They said they didn’t know how, but once she taught them, more kids gravitated toward them. Then they started opening up to her. Someone on staff noticed her talent for working with kids and offered her a job, telling her that kids didn’t often gravitate toward adults like they did with her.
A NEW JOURNIE
A therapist once told Lenoir, “It sounds like working with teens keeps you active and excited. You have to find a way to do what makes you happy.” So that’s what she did, laying the foundation for Journie, a youth organization that focuses on life skills.
With Journie, Lenoir wanted to continue what she started in Chicago with the youth leadership award. “I know that my life had a downward spiral because of bad choices. I always wanted to let youth know that the decisions you make when you’re young affect your entire life. There’s no do-overs.” So she put together a program called “8 Steps to Promotion,” which aims to support kids to feel comfortable with who they are and to communicate that to others.
The first session is the getting-to-know-me workshop, including a game where the kids write down 50 facts about themselves, and the first person to complete it wins. Lenoir emphasizes that it’s important to know who you are, so they have a discussion about their facts, including what the kids are interested in pursuing as a career. She then has them write a letter to imaginary mentors in their dream career, using their facts to tell as much about themselves as possible.
Other session topics include respect and responsibility, coping skills, law and legal rights, money management and the importance of education. Lenoir teams up with a professional for each workshop. She talks frankly with the kids during each session about why that particular topic is important to her and how she could have made better choices for her life. Then the professional that she brings in adds his or her experience and expertise.
Through each subject, she presents three tiers of relevance: home, school and leisure. She uses games to allow the kids to experience things in a first-hand way. In the money session, they play a version of Monopoly where the kids start with pretend money, a car, an apartment and a job. They then have to “spend” their money on fixed expenses such as utilities and a cell phone. Then they have the choice to spend their money on fun things like the mall, restaurants and movies. Afterward they check in, talking about their choices and discussing what mistakes they made and how they would change them. They also cover money management, savings and investing.
During the law and legal rights session, they visit the police station with the goal of building relationships between the kids and the police. She also invites a lawyer to talk about the legal system.
GOING BEYOND TO EMPOWER YOUTH
At the end of the sessions is a graduation ceremony. During the program, Lenoir finds mentors for each participant, and those mentors present the kids with their life skills certificate. She gives the mentors the letters written in the first session, which helps to start conversations between the mentor and the kids about who they are and what they’re interested in.
The certificate is important because, Lenoir says, “When I had my first job at McDonalds, I didn’t have any job experience or awards. That can bother a kid.” Over this past summer, Lenoir arranged for the kids to work at Cold Stone Creamery. She says, “They allowed us to come in so the girls who had never had a job got to experience working. They were paid $10 an hour and were then able to put it down as work experience and use the manager as a reference.” They can also use Lenoir as a reference.
GIVING AND GIVING
Lenoir spends much of her time and her money on Journie participants. “I had to give one girl a bra,” she says. “You’d be surprised at the things these kids need. Some of them don’t have tampons or pads or shorts when it’s hot. I’ve got to feed them. These are my kids; think of all the things you need to provide for kids over the course of a few hours.” She and her husband frequently pick the kids up and sometimes even have to go inside their houses to help them get ready because there is no one at home.
Lenoir does this work because she knows how it feels. “It hurts my heart when kids see other kids benefiting from something when they can’t. I want to be able to help more kids. Sometimes they need that escape. If we all just gave a little, we could help so many.”
What You Can Do
A few ways to support Journie:
• Buy Lenoir’s book, “8 Steps to Promotion: A Life Skills Guide for Teen Youth.” It’s $15 on Amazon or $20 for an autographed copy.
• Donate. Lenoir buys gift cards for prizes, food for meals and snacks and other things as the kids need them. In addition, she’s in need of a bigger vehicle to help transport kids. She’d also love a secretary and some office space!
Journie is “open to all kids, all shapes and colors.” Go to journieproject.weebly.com for more information.