Hassan Lewis is an articulate, 21-year-old working as senior program specialist at Boys and Girls Clubs of Tampa Bay. A senior studying social sciences at the University of South Florida, Lewis knows what it’s like to feel the need for extra support in middle school. And he likes to give back.
“I think back to when I was in middle school,” he says. “It feels like the pressure of high school is coming.”
So Lewis, who oversees a group of fifth graders, offers coaching and mentoring to them, helping the boys and girls to have a sense of belonging. It’s all part of what the Boys and Girls Clubs have been doing to reach youths early and help them plan their career paths.
The Boys and Girls Clubs is gearing up the effort with the official launch of a program called Think Big for Kids. Led by a volunteer, Tony DiBenedetto, tech entrepreneur and former CEO of Tribridge, the program targets underprivileged students 12 to 18.
It started in 2016 after DiBenedetto recognized Boys and Girls Club students had a general lack of awareness about potential careers. He and a team created a plan including on-the-job training, trade school certification, and a two- or four-year degree, depending on the career track. DiBenedetto also recruited some businesses to help.
Chris Letsos, President and CEO of Boys and Girls Clubs of Tampa Bay
, says they recognized working with high schoolers was a bit late. “We really needed to focus on career exploration activities in middle school,” he explains.
The goal is to “focus on ending generational poverty and addressing the opportunity gap and achievement gap that our kids face,” he says.
They’ve been working with some 400 to 500 youths, initially in Town ‘n’ Country and East Tampa. They are now in eight middle schools including Webb and Pierce, Town ‘n’ Country; Marshall and Tomlin, Plant City; Shields Middle, Ruskin; Greco, Temple Terrace; and Chasco, Port Richey.
“Our goal is to serve 2,000 kids through 2022 through Think Big for Kids,” he says.
Partnering on the Think Big for Kids initiative are Tribridge, Bank of America, Haneke Design, Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office, JDP Electric, Painters on Demand, ReliaQuest and Tampa General Hospital.
Letsos says they are looking for additional partners, whether they are individuals or businesses, who want to participate in the project. Interested parties should contact DiBenedetto.
“We can’t do this on our own,” he says. “This is a community problem that only the community can help us address.”
Ultimately, it’s more than just career placement, Letsos points out.
According to The Sentencing Project
, a Washington-D.C.-based organization advocating for a fair and effective justice system, the United States leads the world in the number of people incarcerated, with 2.2 million in prisons and jails. In the last 40 years, there’s been a 500 percent increase -- at least in part because of harsher sentencing penalties. It also says the number incarcerated for drug offenses has skyrocketed.
“We have to do better by our kids,” Letsos says.