We went to the annual EJS Project gala at The Addison in Boca Raton last week.
It was a fun event.
“Delray Morning Live” host Jamael Stewart is a natural comedian and the mood in the room was happy, festive, and hopeful. This was a family gathering and it was beautiful to experience.
The EJS Project is a Delray Beach nonprofit that is transforming the lives of local teenagers by giving them a safe place to gather, study, talk about issues and learn the skills they will need to navigate a tough world.
To date, more than 500 of our children—and they are OUR children—have been touched and in many cases transformed by the EJS Project.
We heard from several alumni of the program. They talked about how EJS changed their lives by caring for them in every aspect of their lives. There is counseling, tutoring, group therapy sessions, field trips and training in soft skills.
Kids who get involved are exposed to leaders at all levels of society. They take trips to Washington D.C. and talk to policymakers about issues, they travel to Tallahassee to lobby the powerful and they go to City Commission meetings to see how their own community is governed.
The catchphrase used by the EJS Project is “Bout Dat Action” and it means that students who engage in the program are called to take action; they are challenged to make the changes they want to see in the world.
I sat next to a local hero, Yvonne Odom at the gala. Mrs. Odom was a long-time educator in our community.
She knows kids.
She’s raised them, taught them, coached them along with her husband Red and pressed their interests as a vocal activist in Delray and beyond. She’s also an historical figure having been the first African American student to attend Atlantic High School. Mrs. Odom also happens to be the grandmother of Coco Gauff, who just won the U.S. Open and has the promise to not only be a tennis champion but someone who makes a difference beyond sports.
As young people testified about the power of the EJS Project, I was moved by the reaction of my friend Yvonne. She was beaming with pride.
What we were seeing was special. It was powerful too.
We saw a shy young man testifying in front of hundreds of people about how this program helped him break out of his shell and opened his eyes to the potential of his life. We heard from a once troubled young woman who doubled her GPA with the help of EJS and became focused and interested in her own future and listened to how a socially anxious young woman found her confidence through EJS and the internship they secured for her at a local company, Festival Management Group producers of local favorites such as Garlic Fest and the Delray Affair.
Jamael, the talented emcee, talked about growing up in Delray and how he and others felt there were limited opportunities for a bright future. Many of his childhood friends sought opportunities elsewhere but he and others returned to give something back. To coach, mentor, tutor, encourage and urge the next generation to believe that their potential was limitless.
Emmanuel “Dupree” Jackson, the founder of EJS was one of those who returned after college. Dupree has dedicated his every waking hour to helping the next generation find a way forward.
Mr. Jackson had to navigate some tough streets as a young man. He knows the pitfalls that can consume a young person and never release them. He wants the teens he works with to dream big, act and become leaders not only in their own lives but in the community as well.
We need this kind of training—desperately.
I’m proud to say that the Carl Angus DeSantis Foundation, of which I am a director, is investing in EJS’ work. We see the potential.
My wife and I are investing as well.
There is no more important mission than to build and empower tomorrow’s leaders. If we are to survive, if we are to thrive, we must ensure that tomorrow’s leaders are ready.
Yes, that is a trite and obvious statement. But it doesn’t mean we’re doing it; progress is not a given.
As I sat next to Diane and Mrs. Odom at a table that included some wonderful people who serve our community as teachers, volunteers, elected officials, business owners etc., I thought back to a long ago experience I had with Bryan Stevenson, the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative.
Hollywood recently made a movie called “Just Mercy” with Michael B. Jordan about Mr. Stevenson’s life.
I was at a Leadership Florida event when Stevenson got up and gave the single best speech I’ve ever heard.
Mr. Stevenson talked about proximity—and the importance of getting close to others and their issues, regardless of how hard it is to see.
In order to solve problems, to understand each other we need to be proximate to one another. Stevenson calls it the power of proximity.
I’m seeing that power, I’m feeling that power at The EJS Project.
I was at a table with Vice Mayor Ryan Boylston, Commissioner Angela Burns and candidate Nick Coppola. Candidates Christina Morrison and Tennille Dacoste were in the room too.
I didn’t have a chance to speak with them, but if they are reading this, I sure hope they were as swept away as I was. I’m betting that they were. And my hope is that Delray pays attention to this little non-profit that is making a big impact. This is the kind of work we should invest in. The return on that investment will be a better world.