After four years, Lee High School ‘youth at-hope’ program still going strong

After four years, Lee High School ‘youth at-hope’ program still going strong
Five members of EVAC, along with Amy Donofrio, Pastor Jay Harris and mentors Sevan Johnson and Loyce Nelson, met President Barack Obama in 2016.

Four years ago, in school year 2015-2016, a young white female English teacher was tapped to develop a curriculum for a class in leadership, primarily for at-risk sophomore and junior males at Robert E. Lee High School.

Together with Pastor Jay Harris of The Ville Church and Pastor Boyd Bettis of The District Church, who have served as class mentors, Amy Donofrio and her young men have made great strides in their lives and for their futures.

E.V.A.C., which stands for Evacuating the Cave of Hopelessness, is making great strides again this year, presenting lectures at Harvard University three times on various subjects. Their next presentation will be in Washington, D.C. for a conference of superintendents of schools from all over the country who graduated from Harvard, including former Duval County Superintendent Dr. Nicolai Vitti, who was a strong supporter of EVAC. 

Last December two EVAC youth were the only African American males to be part of a 20-member National Harvard Youth Advisors program. Recently, Donofrio and one of the EVAC students were chosen to be two of a 40-member City Safety Task Force, whose goal is reducing violence in the city.

EVAC youth have spoken at the White House where they met President Barack Obama, and have also received national media exposure on programs such as Good Morning America and PBS NewsHour, and in The New York Times, but they haven’t let the spotlight go to their heads.

The class, under the direction of Donofrio and Harris, is currently creating a Podcast for a national competition titled “Why is it so hard to get from the ‘hood to Harvard?” EVAC students won a national award in 2017 for their program on promoting kindness through their project #YourStoryIsMine. 

The group has participated in the Harvard AAOC Conference, Juvenile Justice, MLK Parade, TEDx Jacksonville, and Moving Juvenile Justice Forward at FSCJ, as well as many other events. They frequently host guest speakers from the local community, including political candidates and representatives from government and law enforcement agencies. 

Vicente’ Waugh, Dequan Franks and Nick Burgess at Harvard
Vicente’ Waugh, Dequan Franks and Nick Burgess at Harvard

Donofrio said the class helps the students “crystalize their vision” and participation at such events promotes a better understanding of various issues involving youth, while inspiring organizations to reach out and help.

Vincente’ Waugh, a junior, is in his third year of EVAC. “I don’t think I would have finished school without EVAC. It gave me a better understanding of why I needed an education,” he said. “You can’t do or know what you’ve never been exposed to. This program lets youth know it’s possible to achieve. It gives us hope. It’s a safe place. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to do something, I just didn’t see a benefit or have a goal.”  

Nick Burgess, also a third-year EVAC student, remarked that through the sharing of individual stories and talking to people in the classroom and with the public helped him get over his problems and take his education seriously. The program showed him more opportunities were available personally and throughout the community. He explained that the program creates better understanding of life issues.  

“I joined EVAC to make a change. I wanted to give all teens that grew up like I did a voice, and EVAC was the best platform to do that,” said Burgess, who was one of the creators of #YourStoryIsMine.  

As a group, their personal achievements also cannot be taken lightly. Several doubled their GPAs and considered college for the first time; others got their first suit and dress shoes, traveled by air for the first time, or left Jacksonville for the first time; all got jobs and hosted a job fair at Lee High School. They have avoided violence and arrest; comforted each other through loss of a parent, shared with each other when they were homeless; built positive relationships with law enforcement, and successfully fought for a classmate to be returned to juvenile court after receiving a 10-year sentence in adult prison. After serving two years in a youth program, he was released this past March with no adult record.

For more information and an extensive list of community involvement and media coverage check out this Brotherhood of Hope at or [email protected] 

By Peggy Harrell Jennings
Resident Community News

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