MAKING A DIFFERENCE: PLUS ME Project helps students tell their stories

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By Darlene Donloe

Contributing Writer

Everyone has a story.

The PLUS ME Project is an organization that believes everyone has a story that matters.

PLUS ME is a community partner dedicated to empowering youth to build their confidence for college, career and community advancement, and activates the art of personal storytelling to build confidence in underserved youth as they pursue college, career and life goals.

The vision of the organization is “where all communities are filled with courageous voices whose stories are heard, valued and celebrated.”

Since 2013, PLUS ME, which stands for Proof Learners Ultimately Succeed — with Motivation and Education, has impacted more than 100,000 students.

The organization is currently gearing up for its Activate Your Story! the summer program, which kicks off on June 20. PLUS ME will provide two, free, five-week virtual storytelling summer programs for high school students in Southern California. Registration is now open.

Bethanee Bryant is the program and volunteer manager for PLUS ME. She joined the organization in 2017 because of her desire to work with and motivate students after overcoming her own past mental and emotional struggles.

A Loyola Marymount University graduate with a degree in sociology, Bryant is passionate about helping youth to succeed despite their hardships.

“A lot of that has to do with, after graduating college and stepping into the real world, believing it would unfold a certain way,” she said. “That’s not what happened. So many students graduated and there was nothing available.

“There was a recession. A lot of friends were figuring life out,” Bryant added. “But no one was talking about struggling. There was shame associated with it. My life didn’t look a certain way.”

As time went on, Bryant said she became hard on herself.

“I got caught up with comparing my life to others, which will send you down a negative spiral,” said the Harbor City native. “Learning from that and coming through that. Teaching students about how to navigate through that — I don’t think it’s talked about enough.”

Bryant wanted to work for Plus Me not only to help students but because of the leadership.

“I wanted to work here because, in addition to the work being fulfilling and seeing how students were recognizing the power of self-reflection, I wanted to help them realize who they are — seeing the lights turn on and the ability to connect with each other,” she said. “Also, the environment.”

Bryant credits Richard Reyes, PLUS ME’s founder and executive director, for providing a warm, inviting space.

“He is a good leader,” she said. “He’s an anomaly. There aren’t too many people like him. He created a wonderful work environment where you’re allowed to be vulnerable and share ideas to help make the program better and move it forward.”

PLUS ME’s values include Community: Creating lasting relationships through meaningful interactions, Authenticity: Remaining true to our identities and journeys, and Inclusivity: Accepting and supporting everyone without judgments.

While the focus of the PLUS ME Project is young people, Bryant said it’s for anyone that needs to take advantage of its resources.

“The organization believes everyone has a story that matters,” she said. “It creates a space for people, parents, teachers and students. It creates a safe space where stories are honored. With that, people are able to learn more about each other.”

PLUS ME has a writing curriculum for junior high and high school students that is presented by a facilitator who goes to the school to guide them.

For junior high, the emphasis isn’t on writing, but rather on interpersonal communication skills.

“They are sharing their work out loud,” Bryant said. “They are learning to communicate better with their peers with an emphasis on speaking to each other.”

Writing is emphasized in the high school curriculum. It contains more extensive writing that includes building a college personal statement the students can use.

“The personal narrative is at the heart of our work which employs the art of storytelling as the key delivery method in all of our programming,” Bryant said.

PLUS ME brings its services directly to students, parents and educators through partnerships that are formed with school districts, charter schools and community-based organizations from primarily underserved communities.

“It’s mostly Black and brown communities, although anyone can work with PLUS ME,” Bryant said. “We work with students from charter schools, private schools and from different cultures.”

She stresses how PLUS ME’s partnerships are important to its success.

“The partnerships are important because they bring our programs to the students and allow us to build relationships with schools, and educators and help us to really lay a foundation in the community,” Bryant said. “It’s all about partnerships and cultivating the relationships.”

Once a school schedules PLUS ME, the organization will visit the school either once a week or every day depending on the schedule of the school.

Five one-hour sessions are then scheduled.

Programming includes storytelling workshops, speaker presentations, professional development and writing workshops. There is also an achievers program that focuses on seniors and how to transition out of high school.

The program asks the question, What are you going to do when you leave here? There is a new program called The Griot Circle, a free virtual five-week summer storytelling program for Black high school students in Southern California.

Currently, the PLUS ME program is a hybrid. Some of the workshops are in person, while others are virtual.

During the sessions, volunteers present participants with various writing prompts. Sessions can include five, 10, 30 or 50 students in a classroom or an auditorium. There are PLUS ME Journals, ordered by teachers that are available for students to write their thoughts and responses in one place.

“We have them share as a classroom,” Bryant said. “We provide building blocks for their stories. It’s hard to convince middle and high school students to share through personal storytelling.

“We are strangers coming into their space,” she added. “They don’t know who we are. They are embarking on a new experience. Where have they been and where do they see themselves going? It can be difficult.”

Of course, Bryant said, there is a level of transparency and vulnerability.

“We don’t ask them to do anything we wouldn’t do,” she said. “We share our stories with them first. Then we invite them to share their own. Some are hesitant for personal reasons.”

Unfortunately, said Bryant, the majority of the students in the program don’t think that their stories matter.

“They feel unseen and unheard,” she said. “There is a lack of self-confidence and self-worth. It’s heartbreaking.

“Home and school influence each other. It can be hard to focus on academics when you’re going through something at home and at school.” she added. “It becomes vitally important to be able to express yourself in a safe space.”

PLUS ME’s safe space for students allows them to honor themselves, their stories, and each other.

“It’s beautiful,” said Bryant. “We are an organization with a heart. We really have the best intentions for everything we do. We are planting good seeds. I’m honored to be part of that.”

Making a Difference” is a regular feature profiling organizations that are serving their communities. To propose a “Making a Difference” profile, send an email to newsroom@wavepublication.com.

Darlene Donloe is a freelance reporter for Wave Newspapers who covers South Los Angeles. She can be reached at ddonloe@gmail.com.

 

 

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