Friday, February 10, 2012

Project Empower Regional Non-Profit Competition!

Today was the first-ever Project Empower Student Non-Profit Regional Competition! Twelve teams of middle school students from across the New York City area presented their own non-profit initiatives at today's finals for the chance to win a one year partnership with Project Empower. The event was held in Manhattan and I had the honor of hosting.

Over 1,200 students participated in our local competitions this fall. Middle schools throughout NYC tasked students with identifying a need in their community, authoring an essay on what they see as a strong solution, and then implementing their plan within the community over the course of four weeks. We had university students serve as coaches for the teams and young professionals from multiple industries helped judge the final results at each school. The 64 students joining us today were the top projects from each school.

Project Empower is the non-profit that I and a group of young friends launched this fall. It aims to develop students for life beyond the classroom, increasing their awareness of opportunities and develop professional and personal skills through hands-on learning. It is what I wrote my Quality of Life application about for Miss America, earning me a spot as one of the eight finalists. This is a program built by and for young leaders that launched just four months ago. It took our blood, sweat, tears, vacation days, hours of lost sleep and more to make this happen...but we believe that students deserve more than to be taught how to pass tests.

We assembled a panel of global leaders to help judge today's competition. Our judges included our own Ashley Zambito (Project Empower, Executive Director of OUTREACH), Tobias Levkovich (Citigroup, Chief Equity Strategist), John Brown (UBS, Group Managing Director), John Collura (UBS, Chief Operating Officer), Anthony Filosa (Rosenberg Fotuna & Laitman LLP, Corporate Attorney) Keith Miller (Citigroup, Global Head of Quantitative Research), Jenny Delany (UBS, Senior Emerging Market Strategist), and Alan Fields (After School All Stars New York, Executive Director).

UBS Wealth Management kindly donated their Executive Board Room for today's event. We made sure to treat the students like stars and provide them the same experience that a corporate sales executive would receive when visiting for a presentation. Many of the schools did the same, providing students with fresh uniforms or even suits to help them feel their best for the big event. Our coaches taught them about presentation skills, using media and working as a team to present their work.

Here's a little bit about the teams we met today:

Nickles for a Cause raised money by collecting and recycling used cans and used that money to purchase toys and supplies for local children's shelters and day cares. The Peace Makersdeveloped a campaign to end animal cruelty in their neighborhood. They hand drew posters of adoptable pets in local shelters and distributed them to community members. Pick It Up was an environmental awareness project that engaged local students in community clean-up efforts after school. Peacemakers fought bullying by creating a school-wide pledge, holding a poster competition and organized visits from notable public speakers to their school to discuss forgiveness and peace. Santa's Helpers collected hundreds of toys and hand delivered them to children in local hospitals, organizing collections and visits by themselves. Community Outreach Program was an project to create after school activities that keep students from getting involved in gangs. Their programs ranged from sports teams to dance classes. Life Savers raised awareness and funds for Susan G Komen to help fight breast cancer by selling hand-made pink ribbon chocolate candies to their peers. Women's Prison Associationcollected toys for children with incarcerated mothers. Helping Heroes collected supplies to send to soldiers overseas, packaging them in shoe boxes and raising funds to ship them directly to the camp where a local community member was serving.

We heard fundraising ideas that ranged from community recycling for change to selling dress-down days at their school. Each team utilized their peers, teachers, parents, community members...they each became part of their community's social fabric.

The winning team was an 8th grade group, Helping Heroes! They have won a one year partnership with Project Empower where they will receive a specialized team to support them in growing and developing, as well as use of all our resources as an organization. Helping Heroes students collected toiletry supplies and built care packages out of shoe boxes. They shipped over 40 packages to a military unit overseas where a local soldier was currently stationed. Helping Heroes demonstrated excellence in resourcefulness, creativity, fundraising, scale, presentation and passion. They documented their work and the video left the room in tears.

Now don't get me wrong...we are not taking over for them; they will be our boss and we will provide every inch of support, knowledge and advice we have as they navigate their project to its maximum impact over the course of a year. If they want a professional branding team, we will get them a meeting with ours. If they want a press release, we'll get our PR rep on it. If they want to ask a global bank for funding, we'll get the meeting. While the outward goal is to create a self-sufficient model that can be passed on to their community and remain for years to come, our internal goal is to teach these students confidence and expose them to professional opportunities that will push them to grow. By the end of this year these students will feel as comfortable in a corporate board room as they do in their own living room. We will provide them with nothing but our utmost respect and support. They are our peers.

So, congratulations to every single student from today's competition! I am in awe of your creativity, fearlessness and energy. Your communities have benefitted, and will continue to do so as you keep growing your initiatives. I hope you now see the ease with which you can impact your neighborhood. You are helping us prove just how powerful young people can be. Age is not the factor that determines someones ability to impact the world around them. Power comes from passion. We aim to help students discover and ignite their passion.

These students have joined our ranks. We are young leaders passionate about our world. We are Project Empower.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

"Click, Comment, Create Change" Tour Part II

After my morning at St. Francis I hopped a train to the Bronx where I joined Senator Klein to visit schools and discuss our cyberbullying bill. Speaking with students at three schools, we discussed how students will play a unique role in this legislation through the New York Cyberbully Census.

Our major focus was on how young people need to get involved in order to create change with cyberbullying. Adults who did not grow up with digital communication do not have the experience nor understanding of this issue the way young people do. I spoke with a criminal justice class of seniors and explained why young voices are key in pushing this legislation. It used to be that parents put the computer or TV in the living room so they could monitor what their children were exposed to. Today, with nearly half of elementary school students toting cell phones, kids have access to any media content at any time. When reality show casts treat each other like dirt but call each other friends, how is a child supposed to know that such behavior is not normal? Where are they finding positive behavioral models? Today's young adults are the ones who understand digital media, and therefore the strongest soldiers in this war.

St. Francis of Asissi

Thank you to my new friends at St. Francis of Assisi for two great seminars on anti-bullying and leadership, and for a chance to stop by classrooms to chat!

In both conversations I was asked why telling an adult about a bullying situation is different from tattling on someone. Easy! You tattle when you want to get someone INTO trouble, you tell when you want to get someone OUT of trouble. We discussed how telling an adult helps everyone involved. The person being targeted gets protection and support, and the person doing the bullying gets help in stopping their behavior before it become any more harmful. Often, this will also give them a chance to discuss their feelings and fix the real problem at hand.

It was a message even the little ones could agree upon.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Miss Fulton County

This weekend I joined the Miss Fulton County Scholarship Organization for the selection of its fortieth annual titleholder. The contest, held in Gloversville, NY, provided nearly $10,000 in scholarship opportunity and was viewed by a sold-out crowd of community supporters.

I spent the rehearsal day as well as morning interviews with the contestants. You know how people always ask if pageant girls are catty? Well, behold the most perfect answer to said question:

First, having been on the road for over a week, I had run out of clothes and had nothing to wear! I had mentioned this at rehearsal and when I arrived backstage for the show I found dozens of dresses in my dressing room. My confusion melted into a warm glow as I realized what had happened; contestants and the current Miss Fulton County, Kieren Sheridan, had brought me options from their own closets. After a few safety pins and some finagling, the incredible dressing room crew helped me work out a custom wardrobe entirely sponsored by the ladies! This silent act of sisterhood was topped when in the middle of the show, as girls rushed into their talent costumes, one contestant's talent dress tore open at the zipper. The entire back was split and she was minutes away from performing. Within five minutes someone had put her in one of their extra dresses and she was onstage like a rock star. And therein lies stunning proof of the caliber of women involved in this organization.

After a beautiful show the results finally came. And the winner is...

Ladies and Gentlemen, please welcome Miss Fulton County 2012...Colleen Gagne!!!!

Colleen will be joining us this summer for the opportunity to take over my role, and will spend the coming year serving her local community as an ambassador for the organization. Congratulations and all the best to Colleen in her year ahead!

Congratulations and thank you to all the women of this weekend's pageant. You made my visit incredible! Thank you also to the Miss Fulton County Organization and all of its volunteers for the support you give to these young ladies! I had an absolute blast!

Meet Colleen and all our 2012 Local Titleholders.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Meeting with Senator Ritchie

For my last official stop in Watertown, I sat down with State Senator Patty Ritchie to answer questions about bullying. Citizens throughout Watertown sent in their questions to Senator Ritchie's Facebook page related to bullying, victimization, the role of parents and more.

My responses were transcribed, you can read my answers here! Forgive the grammar; I talk fast and can only imagine how difficult it was for someone to transcribe my words over speaker phone.

I have to congratulate her for keeping you voters involved in her work. It is so important that lawmakers listen to the will of the people. Her social media presence is incredibly impressive, particularly in the way she uses it almost daily to get the community's feedback. The meeting had an exciting end: after our conversation, Senator Ritchie said she will be putting her support behind our cyberbullying bill! Thank you to the Senator for taking the time to meet with me and for becoming part of our efforts! As a woman with strong understanding of the positive power of digital media, I am glad to have her on board to help protect against its negative uses. It was such a pleasure and honor to meet her!

Case Middle School

Thank you to students at Case Middle School for a great conversation today about bullying!

This visit had a particularly special moment: I had talked to students about the many things I am doing to help this issue, particularly my work with Senator Klein on the cyberbullying laws. After the presentation I was greeting students and signing quick autographs when a young lady walked up to me. I turned to her and was struck right away by the way she was looking at me. She had my full attention. After introducing herself she calmy said, "I want to thank you. I was friends with Jamey." Without thinking I threw my arms around her. "You don't have to be doing this, but it means so much that someone is doing something," she said, tears welling in her eyes. I started to cry. She told me she was afraid everyone had forgotten. I assured her that there are people giving everything they have to make sure that never is the case. We hugged again and I gave her my information. It took a minute before I even realized there were other students in the room. My entire year of work just proved its worth in those moments. That she was comforted by my efforts made every minute worthwhile. I only pray that I can accomplish even more in the coming months in order to give this young woman, and every individual effected by the lethal nature of bullying, the assurance that the one they lost will never be forgotten.

My sister beats her bully.

I've shared the story of how my sister lost a college degree in its last semester because of a professor who bullied her for her dyslexia. The emotional damage of that man has haunted her for years. I can never forget how sick to my stomach I was when I heard that she had actually chosen to drop the major because of him. All she needed was one class, but even that was too much to take. He had broken her. For the past years we have been helping her put together the pieces again.

Today, she has triumphed. I am proud to report that she is now halfway through her masters degree in directing at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. Today she made her directorial debut at The Globe Theater, directing King Lear. My family is in London and has reported that it was brilliant. I am not surprised, for she is incapable of anything less. While I will never get over not being able to be there, I am so thrilled and proud of her.

Virginia never let her disability stop her. Now, she has chosen not let this one man's ignorance stand in her way any longer. There is no day I could face that would amount to even half of what my sister handles from her disability every minute. Every time I face a challenge and feel afraid, I think of her and know that I can be strong just like she has been. She is my inspiration, my source of strength and motivation.

That picture? That's Virginia on the left and myself on the right. She happens to also be a gifted artist. These are huge charcoal on canvas works she did for my mother this year.

The moral of my sister's story is one we all must remember: the bully does not have to win.

I love you Gina, just as so many do. You have always been my Miss America. Brava.