Orlando Magic Youth Foundation Spotlight: City Year Orlando

By John Denton
June 10, 2015

ORLANDO – Fiercely independent, Jones High School freshman Damian initially resisted help from teachers and tutors to the point that he would playfully pick up his desk and scoot away when they approached.

Ultimately, the 16-year-old Damian realized that his stubbornness was taking a toll on his grades, and his lack of academic progress was keeping him off the football field as a free safety and field goal kicker.

Slowly but surely, Damian progressed to the point that he embraced the assistance being offered primarily by Latesha Johnson, one of the many City Year AmeriCorps tutors, mentors and professional role models assigned to help students in need.

Not long after starting to work with Johnson, Damian saw his grades in English and math climb from D-level work to a B – something that meant he will be back on the football team later this fall. And the kid who once would turn down help and sleep through tests when he didn’t understand the questions was suddenly beaming with confidence and pride.

“I would be so happy with my grade that as soon as I got my test back I would run over and show it to her,” Damian said, referring to Johnson. “That made me so thankful because she helped me learn and she taught me how to answer questions.”

Damian is just one of the hundreds of students that City Year has been able to help with their 66 AmeriCorp members stationed in seven Orange County public schools (Catalina Elementary, Evans High, Jones High, Meadowbrook Middle, Memorial Middle, Oak Ridge High and Walker Middle). City Year targets the approximately 4,500 local children at risk of dropping out of school and they work with them in hopes of showing the kind of academic progress that will build their confidence. Their strategy revolves around the ABC’s of academic progress – attendance, behavior and coursework.

Statistics compiled by City Year show that high school dropouts are eight times more likely to be incarcerated and three times more likely to be unemployed later in life. Dropouts have a lasting impact on communities, and City Year hopes that by making progress at the grassroots level it can make Central Florida a better place to live and work.

“We’re seeing real transformations,” raved City Year Orlando Executive Director Jordan Plante, whose organization is striving to grow operations to the point that it will be able to mentor 1 million students a day nationally by 2023. “Our teachers and our partners are doing incredible work every day. But it’s just not enough for the students, who are facing a lot of stuff outside of school that needs to be addressed. AmeriCorps members are able to increase the ratio of adults in school and they are able to build a positive climate in school where there is support and help.”

The Orlando Magic are big believers in how City Year is helping students the most in need and the Orlando Magic Youth Fund, a McCormick Foundation Fund (OMYF-MFF), awarded the nonprofit organization a $25,000 grant in February. That grant money helped City Year expand its reach throughout Central Florida schools and have a greater impact on the lives of more students.

In all, 21 Central Florida organizations received $1 million in grants from the OMYF-MFF. In a February ceremony held at the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, the OMYF-MFF All-Star team was announced much like the NBA Draft with each nonprofit organization being recognized and presented with an OMYF-MFF jersey or specialty basketball. Representatives were greeted by Orlando Magic Chairman Dan DeVos, Magic CEO Alex Martins, Magic Vice President of Philanthropy and Multicultural Insights and OMYF President Linda Landman Gonzalez and were honored at Magic games throughout last season.

The Magic take seriously the notion of making a difference in the Central Florida community, and they want to reward those shaping the lives of youth with grant money.

“Our mission is to be World Champions on and off the court delivering legendary moments every step of the way,” Martins said. “(The OMYF ceremony) is truly is my favorite day of the year because we know that we are making a significant impact in Central Florida with the funds that we distribute to these very worthy organizations.’’

In the past five years, OMYF-MFF has granted nearly $5 million to various organizations throughout Central Florida. In the past 25 years, OMYF-MFF has given $19.8 million to some 500 nonprofit organizations – funding that has impacted more than 2 million children and people in need. That philosophy of giving falls in line with the vision of legendary owner Rich DeVos, who has stated through the years that it was always his hope to use the Magic as a vehicle to assist others and make a difference in the community.

The $1 million in funds given to the Central Florida difference-making organizations is raised by OMYF, and the match provided by the Robert R. McCormick Foundation. After an extensive five-phase process, which began in April of 2014, the beneficiaries were recommended by the OMYF Board and then approved by the McCormick Foundation’s Board of Directors.

Plante, City Year’s Executive Director, had high praise for the Magic’s willingness to invest in the community and support programs that assist those most in need.

“The Orlando Magic Youth Foundation for selecting grantees, they are very selective and they make sure that organizations are having a sustainable impact. To be chosen (to receive grant money) for a second year in a row, it speaks volumes about what we’re doing,” Plante said. “The Magic want to make sure that their involvement is making a difference. The Magic also are very impactful in engaging their staff and getting their players out into the community. It’s part of the Magic’s culture that they are focused on serving the community and serving with the community. It’s not just talking; they are really examples of what it’s like to be role models of the community.”

Latesha Johnson, the mentor who greatly assisted 16-year-old Damian with his school work, so deeply believes in the work that City Year is doing that she recently committed to doing a second year of service work with students at Jones High School.

“It’s very rewarding to know that I am making a difference in a number of kids’ lives,” said Johnson, who became known as “mom” to Damian because of the trusting bond that the two formed. “When they start to believe in themselves a little bit more it’s amazing. And to see them smile, it makes me smile. Their success is our success.”

Further statistics show that City Year is having incredible success. Some 70 percent of students in Grades 6-9 earning grades of D or worse in English improved to C or better after working with AmeriCorps mentors. Ninety percent of principals and 80 percent of students felt strongly that City Year’s after-school program created a better learning environment for students.

Damian, who considers Victor Oladipo to be his favorite Magic player, is one of the many success stories to hail from City Year’s work in several area schools. Damian said that his mother, Julia Ford, and his stepfather, Fritz Alexander, have expressed to him how proud they are of him for his improved grades of late. Damian has even worked to spread the word about the benefits of working with tutors, telling friends stories of how he used to resist getting help, but working with the mentors now has helped him make tremendous academic strides.

“I told them that sometimes you just can’t do everything on your own and you have to learn,” Damian said with a chuckle. “If you need help, they will help you. They help you learn how to do the work instead of you not being able to finish. It’s really helped me a lot.’’

2015 OMYF-MFF GRANT RECIPIENTS: Aspire Health Partners – Zebra Coalition, Apopka Family Learning Center, BETA Center, Boys & Girls Clubs of Central Florida, Children’s Home Society of Florida, City Year Orlando, Coalition for the Homeless of Central Florida, Elevate Orlando, Florida Hospital for Children, Foundation for Orange County Public Schools, Foundation for Seminole County Public Schools, Foundation for Seminole State College of Florida, Harbor House of Central Florida, Hope Community Center, Jewish Family Services of Greater Orlando, Junior Achievement of Central Florida, Orlando Shakespeare Theater, Osceola County Council on Aging, The Howard Phillips Center for Children & Families and the University of Central Florida Foundation, Valencia College Foundation.

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