Coweta County Collaborative Meeting Inspires Student

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Wins competition with heartfelt presentation on poverty

by Diana St. Lifer

Mahari Young knows what it’s like to grow up in family that depends on food stamps and other government assistance to make ends meet. “We never had enough money coming into the house,” said the 2017 Newnan High-School graduate. Young recalled how he and his three siblings struggled with having enough food as his disabled father and unemployed mother did what they could to stay afloat. “I come from a family that lived in poverty,” said the 19-year-old who is studying dental hygiene at Clayton State University.

During Young’s senior year at Newnan he attended a Coweta County Family Connection Collaborative meeting at which a representative from United Way presented data on hunger and poverty in his community. Young attended the meeting as a member of the high school’s Jobs for Georgia Graduates (JGG) program, a school-to-work transition program sponsored by the Georgia Department of Labor. He was part of the program’s team that was preparing to compete in the Metro Atlanta Employability Skills Competition.

Young could hardly believe what he was hearing. Among the staggering statistics that paints a bleak picture of the 18 percent of children in living in Coweta County with low child well-being, is the harsh reality that 14 percent of children in the county are living in poverty (Kids Count Data Center, 2016). In addition, more than 6,000 households with children received Food Stamps in 2013, a number that has steadily increased since 2009.

These numbers hit home for Young and he knew exactly how he was going to use the data in the Employability Skills competition. “It gave me great insight into how I was going to portray the information,” he said. “I wanted to reveal my family’s struggle to the judges and the world.”

The Newnan High-School JGG team organized a Canstruction, encouraging businesses to donate hundreds of cans of food from which they created a freestanding structure that was judged against other entries. The structure was then dismantled and the canned goods were donated to a local food pantry.

from left: GDOL Workforce Solutions Director Elizabeth Warner, Mahari Young, and Commissioner of Labor Mark Butler

At the competition, Young gave a presentation about the Canstruction, reported statistics on poverty in the county and provided solutions to help remedy the problem. “I gave a detailed description of what poverty is, how we can change it and what we, as teenagers, have done with Canstruction to be there for those who need a meal.”

Young won first place in the Decision Making event at both the regional and state competitions. The Newnan Belk Department Store in Ashley Park outfitted the team in business attire for the competition. “It definitely boosted our confidence and image,” Young said of the clothing and accessories Belk donated. “We looked like professionals—not just high-school students.”

Young credits Gaines M. Coker, Jr., JGG and career coordinator at Newnan High School for the past 29 years, for the team’s success. “I knew with a great leader like Mr. Coker that it was going to be a great experience,” Young said.

At the statewide event, Young’s classmate Shaylyn Marshall took first place for Outstanding Leadership and the school’s JGG chapter received second place for Outstanding Manual.

from left: Mahari Young, Shaylyn Marshall, and Alan Owens

The JGG has participated in the Employability Skills Competition for as long as Coker can remember, but this was the first time the group participated in Canstruction.

“Mahari really got into it,” Coker recalled. “He got friends and others from the JGG to solicit the canned goods and build the structure, which was a cougar, our high-school mascot.”

Coker said Young’s passion was evident because he was able approach the subject from a personal perspective. “It was really heartfelt,” Coker explained. “He gave a phenomenal presentation.”

Coker said insight into important issues facing children and families is important, which is why he takes students to the Coweta Family Connection Collaborative meetings. Now, for the first time, a student is serving on the Collaborative’s executive board. Senior Xavier Wood is finding his role with the Coweta Family Connection Collaborative both educational and rewarding.

“It’s been great,” said Wood, who plans to major in political science at Morehouse School of Medicine in the fall. “It’s an honor to have input and share from a young person’s perspective.”

Xavier Wood

Collaborative coordinator Carol Breissinger agrees. “We’re delighted to have a youth serve on our executive board,” she said. “Xavier brings with him the younger perspective of what children and their families need in Coweta County.”

And Young, she says, is a good example of how informed students can make a difference. “He came to one of our meetings, learned and then took the information and presented it in a broader way.”

As for the future, Young and Wood plan to continue to give back to their community and encourage other high-school students to do the same. “We are mentors because we were mentored,” Young said of himself and other JGG graduates who return to the high school to meet with current students in the program. “We give them insight into what we’ve been doing since graduation and let them know there’s a future for them as long as they work for it.”