Just before 1st Lt. Schanna Speight-Johnson got out of the Air Force in November of 2008, she asked God, “What can I do?”
Her answer didn’t come immediately. For a month she searched for a job back home in her native Jacksonville, Fla. Then she ran into a former high school classmate who told her he had a concept for a teen mentoring and developmental program called Why Not Me Campaign, Inc.
As far as Speight-Johnson was concerned, God was answering her prayer.
“It spoke to everything I’m about. I was in the military leading my troop and encouraging them to get an education and—I know it sounds corny—but to be all they can be,” she said.
Her friend and the founder of Why Not Me, Eli Joshua Ade, thought Speight-Johnson was the perfect person to spearhead his vision. She agreed and they moved forward without any budget or even a salary for Speight-Johnson.
“I still don’t have a salary,” said Speight-Johnson, who works full time as a social studies teacher at PACE Center for Girls, an alternative school in Jacksonville.
“It didn’t cost anything to get people to come out and inspire children,” she said. “We had a summer camp that first year. The next year, we started the basketball program; the next year we went on a college tour.”
“Schanna is a very tenacious person,” said Ade, who now runs a branch of the program for boys in Atlanta. “She believes there’s still good in the world and that there are things we can each do to help one another without looking for a payback or an award or anything.”
Why Not Me serves kids ages 6 to 16, though Speight-Johnson gladly helps former participants who are now in their 20s. The program includes the Girls Mentoring Project, where life skills and lessons are taught through basketball.
Speight-Johnson works from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. on her full time job, teaching. Every Saturday, she’s at Why Not Me’s basketball camp, which is a two-hour mentoring session using the game of basketball to teach life lessons. Every second Saturday, there’s an additional two-hour event. And there’s college tours, marketing, recruiting, searching for money and networking.
“It’s difficult,” admits Speight-Johnson, who is also married and has a son, 6. “We can’t think about stopping it. The kids love it and they bring more people–and they just keep coming.”
She uses basketball to teach her Why Not Me girls leadership, fairness and other life lessons.
“I’ve been playing since I was six,” said Speight-Johnson. “I played for a Pop Warner team. I was the only girl. And now my girls are sometimes the only girls. I want them to feel safe and not demoralized…”
In the past, Why Not Me has taken students to visit HBCUs, asking participants only for a fee to cover the bus and cost of their room. The next college tour will be to Harvard. The organization is hoping to find a sponsor so they can rent a bus and take more kids.
“Harvard has hundreds of thousands of dollars that goes untapped each year,” said Speight-Johnson. “They are pleading for low-income, disenfranchised kids to come. Our kids aren’t confident enough to try—and we want to change that.
“We have seen kids who think they can’t pass high school and we put them on a college campus and they feel empowered and return to school and do better.”
Speight-Johnson knows a thing or two about the power of that comes from an attitude change. She tells a story about her most frustrating days returning to Jacksonville.