When kids want to volunteer, they're often told what to do by adults. But the RiseUP Group in Hartford is a little different. The non-profit asks young people to create their own events and programs, to help them develop leadership skills and an appreciation for where they live.
On a hot August afternoon, Ronnie Cadogan, 19, and about a dozen other RiseUP volunteers are working with families at the Salvation Army’s Marshall House, a shelter for homeless families and single women.
“I just wanted to give back to my community and help the youth, because I’ve never had the opportunity that they’re gonna have,” said Ronnie, who recently graduated from the Law and Government Academy magnet school in Hartford. He's headed to the University of Hartford in the fall.
At the Marshall House, RiseUP volunteers, or scholars, as they call themselves, are helping kids with tie-dyed t-shirts. They're also holding reading groups where kids help each other read, and they've got backpacks filled with school supplies for each kid who's staying at the shelter.
With the first day of school around the corner, the kids are pretty jazzed. What's five-year old Victoria excited about?
"Playing with my friends, and uh, reading my book with my family," she said.
RiseUP's theme is about kids helping kids. And it's contagious. Victoria has a book she wants to read, but it’s a little too advanced for her. She’s helped by 12-year-old Matthew. Neither of them is in the RiseUP program.
“I know what book she can read. She can read this one. You want to read this one?” Matthew asked.
The Marshall House doesn't get too many kids coming in to volunteer, said Tomiko Grant, the shelter's assistant director.
“It’s a different experience when you see someone that looks just like you, come in and want to help,” Grant said.
She said that when the kids at the shelter saw RiseUP's scholars, their guards went down.
“It’s already a stressful situation being here, and you know, they really, really enjoyed the time and we really enjoyed having them,” Grant said.
RiseUP is the brainchild of East Hartford resident Matt Conway. After graduating from UConn in 2011 with a degree in finance, he was planning on starting work at GE Capital in Stamford in the fall. But before he took the job, he worked for a summer at Weaver High School.
“It really opened up my eyes to all the challenges, lack of resources, lack of people that care in kids lives in urban communities," he said. "And frankly it pissed me off, that I went to school 20 minutes north of here in Suffield, Connecticut, and these were the situations that these kids have to go to school with and live with every single day.”
There are, of course, plenty of other things for kids to worry about besides school.
"It's unbelievable what these obstacles are," he said. "It ranges from kids who don't have the correct immigration status to go off to college and get jobs; kids who don't have a parent at home that is there to really help them; kids who have moms that work three jobs just to support the family."
RiseUP has also been involved in advocating for kids in school. Not long ago, the parents of student at the Sport and Medical Sciences Academy got a letter advising them to consider putting their daughter in another school because of her low grades.
Part of the reason why RiseUP works, according to Conway, it because it lets kids lead the process. They organized a mural to be painted on the back of a gas station that's visible from I-91 south coming into Hartford. At the unveiling of the mural, they raised $600 for the Connecticut Children's Medical Center by holding a Zumba marathon fund-raiser.
His students also helped get vendors for the ImPACT Fest in Hartford that happened earlier this summer. They were also in charge of marketing.
"I tell the kids every single day that we're all family here, we're all family here," Conway said. "So then, they're not only getting support from us as mentors, but they're also supporting each other."
For Conway, the most important part of his work is letting young people run the show. It's better if adults just get out of the way.