College freshman Vanesa Medrano has a vision to inspire the youth in her Near Northside community in Houston, Texas. Through Millennialz Youth Fest, the community organization she founded with friends, she motivates young people to give back to the community, get involved and make their voices heard.
Vanesa became interested in community leadership when she began volunteering with her mother to help care for a neighborhood park. The more she volunteered, the more empowered she felt, and she continued to seek opportunities to volunteer whenever she could. Through volunteering, Vanesa also met a mentor who recruited her to participate in activities such as designing and painting a community mural. The energy and positivity she felt through volunteering motivated her desire to organize community events of her own.
Millennialz Youth Fest was launched to create a positive space where young people can host social events and festivals; learn life, school and career skills; and play an active role in shaping the culture of their community. "I don't really see that many students involved within the community, and I just want to change that," says Vanesa. "That's what we need right now, for students to be active."
The first event was the Cinco de Mayo festival in 2018, where young people led the planning and organization. "We were doing all of the work. We were talking to people and trying to get vendors at the festival," says Vanesa. The festival included activities such as musical performances, dance competitions and karaoke. The event was a success, and Vanesa felt motivated to continue.
During her senior year at Northside High School, Vanesa organized an event each month. Activities have included: collecting food donations to distribute through a local church; painting a mural. They hosted a Fourth of July parade and invited motivational speakers and community leaders to give talks about going to college and planning for their future careers.
For Vanesa, whose parents emigrated from Mexico, she takes pride in making a positive impact in the community where she lives. "With the idea that my parents came from another country, and are being very supportive, I feel like I should also give back in some way," says Vanesa. "I feel like the most appropriate way that I can give back is by volunteering with the time that I have, especially in my Hispanic community."
Vanesa also gives back by serving as a role model to her peers and younger students. "Some students, I guess you could say that I inspired them. I usually tell them, let's try to do this because our parents have done so much for us. We have to open our eyes and see what our parents have sacrificed to put food on our table."
Vanesa already has influenced hundreds of lives in the Near Northside community, according to Carlos Espinoza y Sanchez, Near Northside Community Coordinator with Avenue CDC in Houston. Avenue CDC is a NeighborWorks network member.
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Vanesa was chosen to participate in the 2018 Community Leadership Institute (CLI)
Action Plan Grant. She and other community participants attended the CLI Conference in Houston, where they learned how to develop partnerships and create community change. Vanesa and the team received a $4,000 grant that they utilized to develop a technology education program called The Neighborhood TecHub. The project aimed to develop computer technology skills among students at Northside High School and Marshall Middle School, while also connecting the students to mentors.
"Vanesa's connections in the schools and former collaborations with both schools was crucial to obtain meeting space and the right staff," says Carlos. "The TecHub mentors [would] teach the high school students to fix, repair and troubleshoot issues with the computers, and the high school students [would] then teach the middle school students the same skills." Due to restrictions caused by COVID, the program focus has shifted towards collecting computer donations that can be dispersed to local libraries, says Carlos.
For Avenue CDC, engaging young leaders like Vanesa is important to the work they do to build stronger neighborhoods. "It's important to see community members stepping up as Vanesa did," says Carlos.
Vanesa says she has learned valuable lessons from her mentors at Avenue CDC, who constantly encourage her. "Avenue CDC has been great," says Vanesa. "They encourage me to try. They have offered me advice to be open to anything."
Vanesa plans to keep trying new things. She is honored to be named as a Dorothy Richardson award winner, which is an award Carlos feels is fitting for the young leader.
"We are really thankful that this story got chosen," says Carlos. "Vanesa was really excited, and her mother cried with me when I told her. It is definitely a touching story."
For Vanesa, a 2020 Dorothy Richardson award winner
, she feels that by giving back, she and her peers are putting more positivity into the world. "There's not always bad within the world; there's always good," says Vanesa. "It really sticks out to me, and that's what I like."