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Willona Sloan, Strategic Storyteller02/16/2021

Rasheada Caldwell founded Let Me Be Great #44 in 2018 to honor the memory of her beloved son, Rasheed Baker. The young man was known for being patient and kind; for his ability to make people around him smile; and for his positivity. Borrowing a phrase Rasheed often used, "let me be great," his mother founded the program to inspire and empower Syracuse youth to dream big, live fully, and believe that they are special and worthy of all the opportunities life has to offer.

Rasheada Caldwell, a Black woman and community leader"The vision behind Let Me Be Great is to give children an opportunity to do exactly what it says, to be great, to reach their goals, to introduce them to new things that they've never been exposed to," says Rasheada. Let Me Be Great offers several programs and activities throughout the year. For example, "I'm A Lady Let Me Be Great" is a program for young girls that focuses on empowerment and career exploration. "As women, we need to understand that we are great. We're individuals and we're all different. We're shaped different, we look different," says Rasheada. "[It's about] loving yourself." Participants also get the chance to learn about potential careers they may not have considered such as being a carpenter or an electrician. "One of the things is connecting them to people who are in those fields, and women that are in those fields," says Rasheada. 

"The Let Me Be Great: Dump Your Junk" is a full-week summer program that teaches middle school students about the ecosystem, waste management and recycling. Students also receive a $50 stipend, and they learn about financial literacy, including the importance of having a bank account and saving money. Through all of the programming, Rasheada hopes to reduce violence in the city and engage children who may be at risk of falling behind in school. She works to identify what each young participant wants and needs in order to achieve his or her unique greatness. The programs receive support and collaboration from several local organizations and foundations. In her third year of programming, Rasheada has a waiting list of almost 200 kids who want to participate in Let Me Be Great activities. 

Despite the pain she has experienced in her own life, Rasheada serves as a positive force in her community. "Rasheada is a force of nature in Syracuse," says Karen Schroeder, Chief Communications Officer with Home HeadQuarters Inc

Home HeadQuarters, a NeighborWorks network member, is a nonprofit housing and community development organization and certified Community Development Financial Institution whose mission is to create housing opportunities in Central and Upstate New York for individuals and families and improve the communities in which they live.

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Rasheada, who serves on the Home HeadQuarters board of directors believes strongly in the organization's mission. She volunteers with events such as the Block Blitz, and she brings Let Me Be Great participants to volunteer as well. "Something that I learned at a young age is volunteering and giving back always makes you feel good. It makes you feel good whether you have a million dollars or you have zero dollars. It feels good to do something for someone else," says Rasheada.

Volunteering with community projects like the Block Blitz also provides young people with new skills and experience, while helping to promote the homebuying, foreclosure prevention, and other services their parents can tap into through Home HeadQuarters to improve their family's quality of life. 

Rasheada never wants another family to experience the tragedy her family experienced when her son was shot while sitting on the family's front porch. "When I lost my son, I'm going to be honest, I was devastated. It was shocking like, not me, not my son, not the one that I've raised to be that young man, to be respectful and loving, and to walk away and move in a different direction. I was devastated," says Rasheada. It was her daughter still needing her to be a mother that kept Rasheada going. "I have a beautiful, young daughter. She's 15 now. I still had to go on because parents still do," she says. "I'll be honest, it was nothing but the grace of God and my daughter pushing me to say, 'Hey, you've got stuff to do,'" says Rasheada.

For Rasheada, a 2020 Dorothy Richardson award winner, her role as a community leader has brought more positivity back into her own life. "It feels good to do something for someone else. If we continue to instill that in our youth, then we make this a better world, we make it a better community, and make the youth better," says Rasheada. She plans to continue to expand ways to help young people be their best. For herself, Rasheada has taken on a new title: publisher. She plans to release the children's book "A Boy Who Wanted to Be Great" in honor of her son. 


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