After twenty-two years of service to youth & families in the NYC Dept. of Education, I left my job with a passion to create “JAIA” Just As I Am YOUth Empowerment. I was determined to create a program where youth could see themselves as leaders, with purpose and vision for their future, despite the adverse conditions of violence, poverty and negativity that they face in their everyday lives.

JAIA was born after R.T., an 18 yr. old Brooklyn gang-banger, humbly broke into tears in the principal’s office, asking me why he was still alive after his cousin was murdered. When I asked him if he believed he had a purpose in life beyond the gang, his eyes widened with wonderment: Could I have a purpose in life?

It was my high school teacher Mrs. Sally Hipscher who took me under her wing when I was 15. I was an overweight, depressed teen when she pulled me from hiding in the back of her dance class and told me to come up front because I was a good dancer. “Stand right here next to me,” she said, “You’ll be my rock.”

From that day she instilled in me vision, and hope. Now, as a licensed clinical social worker, educator and interfaith minister, it’s my turn…

Photo: With my high school teacher Mrs. Sally Hipscher who now volunteers for JAIA’s Youth Advisory Committee

Today, not only do I get to give back the support and unconditional love that Sally Hipscher gave me, but I also get to do it in her presence. Now retired, she volunteers with JAIA. Last month I had the privilege of coaching one of  Sally’s recent Edward R. Murrow alums who came to a JAIA workshop. It was a “God Moment” her sitting behind me, watching me, her former student, support one of her recent students. I myself was filled with awe at the circle of life.

Just As I Am YOUth Empowerment creates safe environments for youth to participate in fun & experiential, self-mastery workshops, so that they can learn more about their strengths, weaknesses, and inner resources. Our workshops include expressive arts, mindfulness training (i.e. meditation, visualization, yoga), and the application of Universal Life Principles, skills and tools, for living a successful life, the life of our dreams.

Sally Hipscher showed me that my passion for dance was for a purpose. She literally positioned me to be a leader in the dance club. She encouraged me to continue dancing after high school and see where it took me.  At first, I admit I hopes  I was on my way to someday dance for Alvin Ailey, yet I always knew, that God had a different plan. I realized that dance many years later that dance was my soul’s food. It’s what enables me to free up my spirit, so that I may breath freely, heal, create, grow and lead others.

At 15, I was given a gift of love and the gift of leadership. I will be forever grateful for Mrs. Sally Hipscher, but now, I am the one to lead young people to grow in spirit, character and expression.

Now, with God’s help, it’s my turn.

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