Helping migrant children tell stories

Staff Writer

Lena Ashooh doesn’t see age as an obstacle to activism. At 15, the Shelburne resident and Champlain Valley Union High School sophomore has written a grant application and was recently awarded funds to launch summer writing workshop that will help migrant youths share their stories.

“It’s not something that you need to be older to do,” Ashooh said. Which is exactly what Vermont Afterschool, Inc. wanted to convey with its inaugural “Youth4Youth” grant program.

The program was a collaboration between Vermont Afterschool, Inc. and the Vermont Youth Council. Its grant funds, totaling $27,000, were financed by private donors and the Vermont Department of Health. State residents ages 10-22 were encouraged to enter with proposals that promoted “youth rights, youth expression and creativity,” according to Vermont Afterschool, Inc. Executive Director Holly Morehouse.

“We know that [youths] are aware of what’s going on in their communities and have ideas that can improve the lives of people living there,” Morehouse said.

About 700 people ages 10-22 voted on the 44 proposals throughout March. Voters were required to select three proposals from the $100-1,500 and the $1,500-3,000 grant categories to ensure they didn’t just vote for a friend, Morehouse said. She added that allowing young people to select grant recipients was in its own right a method of empowering youths. Fourteen proposals were awarded grants ranging from $100 to $3,000.

“When we saw the proposals that came in, including [Ashooh’s], we were just blown away,” Morehouse said. “All the projects were about making something better or making someone’s life better.”

Indeed, Ashooh’s Youth4Youth proposal sought to help migrant youths learn more about themselves and share their stories with others through a writing workshop. With her $3,000 grant, she’ll be able to bring it to fruition.

Entitled, “Mi Vida Mi Voz” (My life My Voice), she envisions her workshop will be a three-day program held at the Common Ground Center in Starksboro. The grant funds should cover room and board for about 45 students from the Vermont Migrant Education Program, as well as stipends for speakers, Ashooh said.

Speakers will likely include writers and educators from the Bread Loaf Teacher Network’s “Next Generation Leadership Network,” the 4-H, as well as teachers from CVU. They will facilitate discussions and writing sessions – instructed in both English and Spanish – to help students express themselves.

Ashooh’s project was inspired by workshops she has attended through the Next Generation Leadership Network. Those conferences had similar themes encompassing self-identity and connectivity.

“[Having] groups come together who are going to be the next generation of leaders and figuring out their roles in this next generation … is so important,” Ashooh said. “We always leave these workshops very invigorated about the future and very hopeful.”

She hopes her workshop will connect migrant children with each other and help them find roots in the communities they have settled in.

“[Lena] is bright, intelligent, hard-working, curious, passionate, caring and so much more,” her 4-H teen leadership program coordinator Lauren Traister said. “She took the initiative on her own to write the grant she submitted … [and] to get friends, classmates and other youth to vote for her grant proposal.”

In the weeks leading up to award selection, Ashooh encouraged her classmates to vote for her proposal. But, she said, there was steep competition and she wasn’t sure what her chances of securing funds would be.

“There were a lot of entries and a lot of great projects,” she said. “I was hoping that if I didn’t get this funding. I could still somehow make the workshop work.”

Ashooh hopes her efforts will help both her and the youths she works with become more aware of the different people around them.

“It’s very easy to be ignorant about people and their experiences and different demographics,” she said, adding people can avoid challenging stories simply by turning off the news.

“When you’re actually sitting in front of somebody that you’ve befriended and have gotten to know and hear them talking about [their challenges] … it’s very difficult to not acknowledge that and not try to seek a solution,” she added.

Ashooh is eager to make an immediate impact with her workshop, as well as to see where this work takes her in the future. 

“I’ll remember the experiences and the work of these students,” she said. “I can see that impacting me for many years to come.”

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