Lifelong accomplishments result from local five-year minority youth mentoring program
A group of 35 successful, college educated, minority professionals reunited at Marion Harding High School and The Ohio State University at Marion in early May to share stories of their life journeys, to reminisce, and celebrate the youth mentoring program, Growing Our Own, a program many of the participants feel had a direct impact on their personal growth and success today.
Growing Our Own was the local offshoot of a federally funded initiative for school districts to produce teachers from within their own minority student body, who would ideally return to those districts as teachers. The program was also designed to increase the high school graduation rate of minority students and assist these same students with entry into and successful matriculation through college.
The program was funded locally by a $50,000 renewable grant that established a strong partnership between Marion City Schools and Ohio State Marion. Dr. Dan Christie, Dr. Leslie Beyer-Hermsen, and the late Larry Prude of Ohio State Marion were a driving force in writing the grant and directing the program from the university side of the partnership, and Kathleen Clemons and Shawn Jackson, who are now employed by Ohio State, ran the program partnership for Marion City Schools.
From 1998 through 2003, an estimated 110 minority youth in the Marion area benefitted from mentoring, financial assistance, and direction the program provided.
Over 10 years later, the program boasts many successful minority teachers, a bank vice president, a mother who is growing her own by homeschooling her children, a licensed practicing psychologist, a Ph.D. candidate who has taught overseas, a deputy warden for Ohio Employment Bureau Services, among the many success stories.
According to Ohio State Marion Admissions & Financial Aid Counselor Kathleen Clemons, who was the Growing Our Own coordinator for Marion City Schools for the duration of the program, many of the students attending the reunion felt it was the family atmosphere of the program that provided the kinship and moral support they needed to succeed.
“One of the students mentioned that if it was not for the Growing Our Own program and the other students involved, college would not have been an option for her because of her lack of family support,” said Clemons.
“With the support of the Growing Our Own family,” explained Clemons, “college was something our students could attain.”
That same sentiment was echoed by many of the attendees at the two-day Marion reunion.
The model of success for what was initially the vision of Growing Our Own, Tamara Williams, a native of Marion, Ohio, was offered a full-ride scholarship, including money for text books to attend The Ohio State University at Marion. Williams earned her undergraduate degree and master's degree in education all on the local Ohio State campus. She is now a preschool teacher at Taft Elementary School in Marion, Ohio.
Williams recalled being given a unique opportunity to be a part of this cutting edge program in high school. She was invited into elementary classrooms and experienced first-hand what it meant to be a teacher.
“I grew up in the same neighborhood that I now teach. I believe this gives me a unique perspective and close connection to all the students I teach, as well as come in contact with, on a daily basis,” said Williams.
“For me this was a great opportunity,” she explained. “It not only confirmed my desire to teach, but also allowed me to begin helping other minorities see the benefits of the program.”
As the first participant to complete the program full circle, from high school, to college, and then back into the community, Williams feels her life has been forever positively impacted.
“Without a doubt, it has taken hard work and dedication to be successful. However, I will be the first to admit that the help from this program and those involved jump-started my career in teaching.”
“I am forever grateful that all those involved with the program believed in its success and ultimately my success.”
Despite setbacks and redirecting her path, Growing Our Own’s Cassandra Tooson continues to be inspired and push toward a career and better life for her kids. Originally from Dayton, Ohio, Tooson moved to Marion, Ohio in 1993 with her mom and sister. While attending Marion City Schools, she was invited to take part in Growing Our Own.
“When I became a member of the Growing Our Own program, I thought it would be a great way to make friends that were around your age or even younger than you,” said Tooson.
What she soon discovered is it was much more than making new friends. There were opportunities to travel to black colleges.
“I never knew there were kids that were in high school that had the same ambition I did as far as graduating high school, going to an historical black college, and teaching kids of another generation,” she said.
Upon graduation, Tooson had an unsuccessful stint academically at Ohio State Marion and left college. In 2009 she decided it was time to get back to school and “do something” with her life. She enrolled at Marion Technical College in the human and social services. Tooson graduated from Marion Technical College on May 10th, 2013.
Now, more mature and prepared, she has enrolled in the social work program at Ohio State Marion.
“I was blessed to end my first semester (at Ohio State Marion) with a 3.0, and looking back to 2002, when my g.p.a. was a .958,” said Tooson, “I see that as a big accomplishment.”
“So my goals now are to graduate school with a 3.5, obtain my bachelor's degree in social work, apply for the board to become licensed and then go on for my master's degree,” she added, “maybe even my Ph.D.”
Despite varying experiences through the Growing Our Own program, those reuniting in Marion to relive and share their stories had a main common thread, a passion to push their potential and gratitude for the program that helped them believe in themselves and aspire to attain a higher education and a career.
OTHER NOTABLE GROWNING OUR OWN PARTICIPANTS
Shawn La’Vista (Robinson) Jones
One of the original members of the initial class in the Growing Our Own program, Shawn La’Vista (Robinson) Jones grew up in Marion and attended Marion Harding High School. Upon graduation, Jones attended both Wittenberg University and Ohio State Marion. Jones is reaping the rewards of the program in both her professional and personal life. She currently serves as an assistant vice president at JP Morgan Chase, where she manages operational controls to mitigate reputational and financial risk for the organization. Prior to joining JP Morgan Chase in 2008 she was the founder and CEO of Office Matters, an administrative outsourcing company dedicated to improving operational processes for small business owners by providing staffing support, process development, and business coaching. She and her husband currently reside in Phoenix, AZ. In addition to her work at JP Morgan Chase, the couple currently own and operate the photography company Focus First Photography, where she serves as the Director of Business Operations.
Candace A. (Floyd) Parker
Growing Our Own participant Candace A. (Floyd) Parker graduated from high school in 2003 with the dream of becoming the next Oprah Winfrey. But her plans changed when she had her first child at 19 and needed to move back to Marion for family support. Determined to finish her degree in broadcasting and still become the next Oprah, Parker enrolled at Ohio State Marion. She spent about a year taking classes on the Marion campus before going on to Columbus, where she graduated with a degree in journalism in winter of 2008. At this point, Parker was married with two children and one on the way. So plans began to change. Instead of being a famous talk show host, she decided to be a stay-at-home mom. “I decided that I had my B.A. and that was not going away, but time with my three young children deserved all of my attention at that time.” Today, Parker is a stay at home mom who lives with her family in South Carolina. I work early mornings at the YMCA of Greater Charlotte and the rest of my day is spent homeschooling my three children. I could still become the next Oprah, but right now my focus is on educating my children and pushing them towards a successful future. “So I guess you could say that I am now literally, growing my own,” said Parker.
Dr. Morgan Lucas
Growing Our Own program participant, Dr. Morgan Lucas is the co-founder of Agape Psych Services, PLLC, a private practice located in Arlington, TX. She is licensed to practice psychology in Texas and North Carolina. Dr. Lucas hails from Ohio, where she began and completed her higher education. She received her Psy.D. from Wright State University's School of Professional Psychology in 2008. She completed her undergraduate studies at The Ohio State University at Marion. Dr. Lucas attended Marion Harding High school and was a college preparatory student. She graduated in the top 10% of her class and was involved in the Growing Our Own minority mentorship program. Dr. Lucas is a generalist-trained clinician, but her specialty areas include women’s wellness, relationship issues, the treatment of eating disorders, work with juvenile offenders, and consultation/training. Dr. Lucas also has an extensive history working with African American clients in various settings (schools, college counseling, correctional). Dr. Lucas’ research has been focused on the academic achievement of African American students and the impact the “fear of selling-out” has on success.
Tiffany Richardson was recently named Employment Business Services (EBS) deputy director for the Ohio Department of Jobs and Family Services (ODJFS), supervising that office’s business services, civil rights, employee and organizational development, and Employee Services sections. Richardson has worked for EBS since 2010, first as a labor relations officer and most recently as the labor relations administrator. She has provided human resources, civil rights, and organizational development staff. Richardson has a law degree from The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law and served as a legal intern for the Employment Law Section of the Ohio Attorney General’s Office before coming to ODJFS.