This significant event, benefiting the Mentor Foundation and every youth that it supports on a global scale, appropriately carried the theme “Empowering Young Voices.”
That is what Mentor Foundation International has been doing for 20 years now: empowering youth around the world to be heard, to be themselves, and to be positive leaders influencing their communities. “Prevention” is more than just a word for Mentor; it is an action, a force to be seen working in their many influential programs like Shattering the Myths, Living the Example, Mentoring in Schools, and many more.
“We’re trying to break down the idea that being cool equals destroying yourself, because it doesn’t,” explains Joseph Green, the Senior Program Manager for Mentor Foundation USA. “The young people here are prevention as a verb. They are developing themselves in a way to where they are…addicted to doing positive things.” And that is the goal of many youth touched by Mentor Foundation: to show the world that we must perpetuate the stereotype of kids doing positive things.
Empyrean Heights performing at the Mentor USA International Gala
Mentor Foundation is empowering the voices of so many youth, and I am lucky enough to not only be one of them, but to have the chance to sit down with a few of the very talented young people that provided entertainment at this year’s International Gala. These teens, ranging from spoken word performers to acapella singers, to a solo cellist, are using their talents to spread Mentor’s message of positive values and actions, in a world where youth are often not seen as positive leaders.
The environments in a teenager’s life are often difficult to control, and it can be easy to fall into the trap of ever-present negative influences in a place like high school. Jalisa Orellana, a spoken word poet and upcoming graduate of T.C. Williams High School, reveals, “I’ve experienced peer pressure that makes me feel really bad about myself…But I never gave in, because I don’t like doing things I’m not comfortable with. I have to stay true to myself.” That kind of self-assurance is a really important factor in any adolescent’s life, and a big reason why many of our young performers have become so dedicated to their craft.
Leif Jomuad, a singer from the featured acapella band Empyrean Heights, says that oftentimes, “the kids who get swayed into doing bad things are the ones who are bored and don’t have a lot of things going on with their lives…lacking interest, passion and hobbies” He adds that he and his band are happy to have their passion for music because, “we’re focused on this, and…if you spend time on something else, the negativity will never come to you.”
One of Leif’s fellow singers, Tabitha Barnes, agrees that singing is a positive outlet for their time and energy. “When kids have too much free time, they look to fill that and some of their options can be bad things. It’s what they give their energy to.” Tabitha says,“Music takes up my time and focuses my efforts in a positive way.”
Cellist, Bejanmin Gates, performing at the Mentor USA International Gala
What many kids fail to realize when they are younger is just how far that passion can take them. Benjamin Gates, a distinguished solo cellist, is a former Principal Cellist for the DC Youth Orchestra and has performed for guests including President Obama and his family. “I’m currently trying to put together my own organization which will focus on music entertainment in Washington, D.C., to make it easier to find musicians for events and things of that nature,” Benjamin reveals about his career goals.
The biggest lesson he has learned is the importance of staying true to yourself. “When you decide that music is the path you want to take, you find a lot of people who think it’s a risk, and they think it’s a risk that isn’t worth taking,” he says. “They’ll try to talk you out of it because they want something different for you, and the only thing you can do is to not give in to that.”
Teens are sometimes stereotyped negatively, but when it comes down to it, we are all trying to help each other out. As Tabitha adds about her band’s music, “That’s part of what we’re doing–not only are we doing it ourselves, but we’re inspiring other kids to get interested in activities. Music is meant to be shared and it’s something that spreads very easily, so our interest in music isn’t just beneficial to us, but to other people because it can get them interested in something good.”
At the end of the day these teens, and many others like them, are working hard to spread the lesser-known stereotype: that young people with empowered voices really can do positive things.