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By Gina Gallagher | Citizens Bank Contributor
Barbara Kellom remembers exactly when she got the news.
She was on the phone with her business partner Angelika Jones when Barbara opened the email and read the exciting words before her.
“I screamed,” recounted Barbara, “for about 10 minutes.”
The organization she and Angelika created, Detroit City Youth Opportunities Magazine®, was selected as a 2019 Citizens Bank Small Business Community Champion. The contest awards $20,000 and $10,000 prizes to businesses that take an active role in helping their communities.
Barbara’s jubilation over the $20,000 prize was not for herself, or for Angelika. Rather, she was excited for what it would do for the future of their organization — and the futures of the Detroit-area youth and teens who are part of it.
“We both know what opportunity means to our youth and what literacy has done to our community,” Barbara said. “Our program introduces the possibility of a career to children in the Detroit community and addresses our literacy issue.”
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Before Barbara started empowering kids in Detroit, she pursued a career in something a little different — marketing and retail. The work was unfulfilling to Barbara, so she started volunteering with children in her spare time.
“I felt truly at home,” Barbara recalled. “Children are so hungry to learn when things are presented to them in a manner that is challenging, stimulating, and innovative.”
That was only the beginning for Barbara. She started a book club at her daughter’s elementary school. Then it evolved into a summer camp, Victory Village Camp. What started as an eight-kid camp grew to 75 strong … and a wait list.
Before long, Barbara connected with Angelika about bring performing arts to Victory Village Camp. The two previously met at church, immediately bonding over their shared passion for helping children in the community. Both ladies are proud members of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. — a Black Greek Letter Organization.
Together, Barbara and Angelika brainstormed further ways to help children in Detroit. Of particular focus was promoting literacy. According to Barbara, 84% of Detroit students didn’t meet expectations on a third grade English Language Arts proficiency test.
“We talked about a calendar or a newspaper,” Barbara explained. “Since Ms. Jones had already been involved in a program with her granddaughters as community reporters, I suggested a magazine with kids actually writing and reporting.”
So they approached kids about the idea of a new program, one that would provide hands-on educational experience through journalism to promote literacy in Detroit. Thus, Detroit City Youth Opportunities (DCY-Opp) Magazine, a platform for voices of youth, was formed in 2017.
Did Barbara or Angelika have any journalism experience? No. But that didn’t matter to them. Nor did it matter if the children they helped ever went on to become journalists.
“We wanted to encourage kids to use their writing and their video productions as an individual or collective voice,” Barbara said.
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In a diverse city like Detroit, children come from many different ethnic, economic, and cultural backgrounds. Despite these differences, Barbara believes that all children have two major things in common. “Kids want a chance to be heard,” Barbara explained, “and to be recognized for the unique skills and talents they have.”
She believes that’s particularly important for people of color. Research shows that less than 5% of journalism jobs are held by African Americans.
“There aren’t a lot of black journalists out there,” Barbara said. “We’ve done some work with the National Association of Black Journalists so that the kids can see they’re out there.”
Kids don't have to be aspiring journalists to benefit from the program.
There’s so much to be learned about working in journalism, explained Barbara. There’s interviewing, writing, producing, and researching stories. Plus, it provides the instant gratification that is so important for kids these days.
It’s that kind of learning that is, in Barbara’s opinion, missing from Detroit public schools, since kids aren’t provided opportunities to explore literary arts or even their own creativity and leadership potential. Through journalism, DCY-Opp Magazine provides the ultimate hands-on learning experience through a creative platform that interests them.
“You can see the pride on their faces when they receive kudos or see their names or work in print,” Barbara said.
DCY-Opp Magazine also offers hard-working and creative kids ages 11 – 17 a unique opportunity to be part of its innovative journalism academy. The academy gives them creative freedom to explore producing, editing, writing, or publishing with instruction and support from professionals in the industry. From interviewing community leaders and professionals to writing reviews on local businesses, events, and schools, the academy allows teens to immerse themselves in their assignments and the community, all while learning valuable skills in the process.
And through the professional connections Barbara and Angelika have shared, the kids gain access to unique learning experiences that would not otherwise be available to them. For example, their kids have visited Detroit TV stations, taking behind-the-scenes tours and talking shop with local news anchors.
For the kids, however, it’s not just about what they learn or whom they meet; it’s also about how it makes them feel.
“It’s acceptance, recognition, and even a little fame for students who may have been bullied or shunned,” Barbara said.
“Our program introduces the possibility of a career to children in the Detroit community and addresses our literacy issue.”
On the surface, DCY-Opp Magazine is teaching kids about journalism. But Barbara likes to emphasize that kids don’t have to aspire to be journalists to benefit from the program — or her unwavering support. They merely need to see the possibilities and opportunities out there.
“My goal is to do everything in my power to connect them,” she said.
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Though she now laughs about her reaction to learning the news of the Citizens Bank Small Business Community Champion Award prize money, Barbara certainly had reason to be excited. The $20,000 award has been instrumental in helping DCY-Opp Magazine make some important changes to grow its program for the future — and to gain visibility for the kids involved.
One such change was to create a new and separate nonprofit organization for the teen group within DCY-Opp Magazine focused solely on broadcast media and journalism. The teens involved named the organization Teens in the D™, and have already produced compelling public service announcements and productions about issues important to them.
The prize money has also provided valuable equipment for both Teens in the D and the youth group in DCY-Opp Magazine: boom mics, lapel mics, as well as a Teens in the D video podcast set. They also trademarked the name Teens in the D and created a new logo for the organization.
“I tell my kids all the time, they can be trailblazers,” she explained. “No one in Detroit is doing anything like this. But to be successful they have to be steadfast and committed, and willing to get the work done.”
In the short time since they’ve been around, DCY-Opp Magazine has accomplished a lot. But Barbara and Angelika are far from done. They want to continue to search for ways to incentivize kids to see their projects through to completion and even offer lessons in money management.
But most of all, she wants to continue to challenge her kids to do their best.
“I tell my kids that there is nothing stopping them from being what they want to be,” Barbara said.
Barbara’s example hasn’t only inspired individuals in the program to do more, but one a little closer to home. Her daughter Brittni, whose school she started her book club and camp at all those years ago, is now a 33-year-old adult. Brittni created her own organization Just Speak, a healing-centered education program, to provide crisis support and resiliency programming for children ages 3 to 17.
Though Brittni is Barbara’s only birth child, it’s clear when speaking to her that she's dedicated and supportive of all her “kids.”
“I have to make myself available to my kids,” she said, “to let them know I believe in them.”
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