Coming to Oakland in 2000, Lendri Purcell has spent over a decade teaching, advocating for under-resourced educational systems, community organizing and working to implement programs that aid at-risk students. As the Program Director of the At-Risk Youth & Families Program of the Barbara & Donald Jonas Family Fund, Lendri has a deep commitment to under-served communities. She began her career with Oakland youth as part of Teach For America. Becoming a teacher just out of college, Lendri taught Special Education at Lowell Middle School. She explains,“It’s a big responsibility but there was a lot of support. At the same time the needs were daunting. It was kind of shocking; there were things at the school that blew me away. We have televisions in the classroom, but we don’t have books. I got to see a lot of great things and a lot of sad things." Lendri’s time in Oakland and teaching experience made her realize there are many positive things about the community, but a lot of work to be done.
It is estimated that only 40 percent of existing students will graduate high school in Oakland and it’s essential that teachers, parents, and community members work to curb this trend. The Jonas Center is one organization doing just that. For the last five years they have made grants to school programs, after school programs and summer programs that serve middle and high school age students all in an effort to keep students in the educational system and on a strong career path.
In order to gain funding from the Jonas Center, the programs must incorporate education into their mission, while also integrating one of the following components: mentorship, mental health treatment and/or a school to career focus. Lendri explains, “Education is kind of tied into all these programs, just in different ways, whether it’s life skills for transitioning foster youth, or trying to bring entrepreneurs to the classroom”. Students play a large and important role in the grant making process. From serving on the board of the Jonas Center’s At-Risk Youth & Families Program to reviewing grant proposals from local organizations, they offer a unique and valuable perspective. Lendri says, “When I was living in Oakland and I had a lot of contact with young people, they would just straight out tell me, ‘This program is really helping me.’ Or ‘This program’s great, but we don’t have a counselor.'” From the inception of the Jonas Center’s initiative, youths’ voices have a played an essential role; they offer relevant and first hand experience to aid in the grant making process.
Whether through a stipend, a paycheck or a chance to build their resume, young people need to know what they’re doing has meaning, “They often say, ‘I want a job. I need money, I need money for clothes. I don’t have money for school lunches.’ So I think another thing that is really important is access to a job, an internship, a mentorship. Something where there’s a stipend, so the young person gets, if possible, some sort of monetary gain. Or training or something they can put on their resume. And that’s a great way to have that link between school and career.” Lendri stresses it’s important for the organization or business to make the work they’re doing relevant to the student.
Lendri recognizes that the students can’t do it alone; having a strong adult in their life is vital. Mentors often can show the connection between education and a profession; encouraging young people to stay in school longer. “It’s important to have some kind of mentor in your life. I know even for me, growing up in a very well resourced community, that connection wasn’t made very clear. That what you do in school will dramatically impact what kind of salary you have later. How easy or hard your life might be, your choices. It’s important to make what’s happening in school very relevant to the world of work outside of school.” She stresses it’s essential that each student has an adult in the community who cares, is accessible and who has time to spend with them, in order to keep young people interested in school, their job, or an internship.
If you’re interested in getting involved with a business partner that works with young people, please visit: www.oyfba.org, which provides a youth friendly business directory.