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.
“I ended up doing security for a company charged with guarding inmates when they are incarcerated at the hospital,” said Speight-Johnson. “I sat with an inmate who had AIDS and lesions on her body. I read every day while I sat in her room.”
On this particular day, Speight-Johnson recalled the woman, who generally did not talk, said, “’You know, sometimes I feel like giving up.’ I was thinking, ‘Wow, you haven’t given up yet?’” said Speight-Johnson. “At that moment I decided I don’t have any problems. I was done with frustration.”
Speight-Johnson was already working with Why Not Me, but after her own attitude adjustment, it seemed that help showed up for the organization, including: Her old high school allowed the group to use its gym for the basketball program and a classroom for the summer programs; volunteers stepped up, the organization got a grant and a publication offered free advertisement. That summer she ran the first TEEN Summer Empowerment and Community Service Program, which included job readiness skills, mock job interview and talks by visiting professionals.
Alicia Manigo, 20, attended the employment program one summer and also won an essay contest sponsored by Why Not Me.
“I was struggling in school. (Mrs. Speight-Johnson) tutored me,” said Manigo. “It was hard for me to open up and ask someone for help. She was there to help me and that helped open me up. Before I went to the employment group, I was a really shy person and didn’t talk to people,” said Manigo, who graduated last June and is now working to save money for college.
Her award for winning that essay contest was to have her senior fees paid in full.
“That was good because I didn’t know how I was going to be able to do that and this meant I was able to go on the senior trip,” said Manigo.
For Rolline Sullivan, mother of four, Why Not Me is a miracle. She has three children in the basketball program.
“Me and my husband are just barely making ends meet, so the kids were never in a summer program or activities because we can’t afford it,” said Sullivan.
She pays $6 a week for her three children to attend Why Not Me activities, $2 per child.
“Two dollars a week is nothing,” said Sullivan, who said her children love all the activities.
“There is a lot of positiveness coming out of the program,” she said. “Schanna motivates the children to do their best at school. They give out certain treats and awards when report cards come out. She looks at everybody’s report card. She never leaves out anybody.”
Instead of a check, these are the kinds of payments Speight-Johnson receives:
“This one (teenage) girl I was working with texted me and said she had nobody to go to but me. She said no one helped her like me,” Speight-Johnson said.
Another time she was at a basketball game with the group when she started explaining to a six-year-old participant what was going on. “I said, ‘You see how he’s shooting? He has his feet planted before he shoots.’ She said, ‘That’s what we talked about at mentoring.’”
She and Ade dream of Why Not Me chapters in other cities around the world.
“We want to just have kids who dream,” said Speight-Johnson. “Some kids today don’t dream or their dreams are so limited. I grew up with a mom who always said, ‘If somebody else has done it, you can too.’”