Bank of America program empowers young Jacksonville-area leaders

A Bank of America program in Jacksonville is designed to expose youth to education and training they need to enter the workforce.

By: Beth Reese Cravey, The Florida Times

Originally published in The Florida Times Union logo

Meet two Jacksonville teens out to change the world.

Nicholas Burgess, whose father is in prison, helped found a grassroots movement of predominantly African-American young men who channeled their personal tragedies into positive change for themselves and other at-risk youth.

Catherine Culliton was inspired by her special-needs older brother to found a club at her high school that promotes acceptance of people with intellectual disabilities.

To boost their individual impact, each of them applied to be a 2019 Bank of America Student Leader and were among four Jacksonville-area youth to win spots in the program.

They received eight-week paid internships at a local nonprofit — Communities in Schools Jacksonville’s summer camp — to learn about community needs. They attended the Student Leaders Summit in Washington, where they learned how government, business and the nonprofit sector work together to address critical community needs. Also, they worked with bank volunteers to increase their financial management skills.

The program “is part of a broader investment to connect young people to the education and training they need to enter the workforce,” said Greg Smith, Jacksonville market president for Bank of America. “When young people are connected with opportunities to build workforce skills and learn better money habits, our community can grow sustainably and thrive.”

As part of the EVAC movement at Lee High School, juvenile-justice advocate Nicholas has already spoken at Harvard University and become a Harvard youth adviser, addressed Senate committee hearings and a White House roundtable and met President Barack Obama and members of Congress. At the summit, the 17-year-old sat in on a committee meeting and met senators.

“It was a blessing because I got to share my ideas that will hopefully change the world one day,” he said. “I advocate for kids who don’t have hope and instill hope into them. My mission is to help kids that are ‘at-risk’ and help them become ‘at-hope.’ Coming from poverty, I watched a lot of my friends go down the wrong path.

“When I joined EVAC, my father had just been sentenced to 30 years,” he continued. “I wanted to change the justice system so other kids wouldn’t have to go through what I did. I learned I’m not the only one going through hard times and that I don’t have to go through them alone.”

Catherine, also 17, focused her advocacy on changing community attitudes toward people with special needs.

“I believe my community needs to be more accepting of individual qualities and viewpoints,” she said. “In this age of social media, we quickly promote perfection and shame those who are different. This creates a sense of an ideal world that does not exist.”

At Ponte Vedra High School, she founded and is co-president of Club ARC, which provides training for club members and hosts monthly events with the residents at the ARC Village, an independent living community for special-needs adults. She has also volunteered for the Tim Tebow Foundation’s “A Night To Shine” special-needs prom for the last three years, among other work.

“Volunteering at the Village exposed us to a different side of life,” she said. “The struggles and successes we witness ... teaches us how to deal with their challenges and turn them into positive experiences.”

The Student Leader experience has been life changing, particularly bonding with at-risk children at the Communities in Schools summer camp, she said.

“Going into this ... I had the mindset that I was going to make a difference in the children’s lives but did not expect that they would have such an impact on mine,” Catherine said. “I immediately connected with the younger students. I was touched when they wrote me letters and begged me not to leave. ... Through my community service work I realized that everyone is not as fortunate as I am and having a mentor is vital to succeed in life.”

At the summit, Catherine said she had “thought-provoking conversations” with other students from across the country and heard inspirational speakers.

“I met 283 of the most diverse, intelligent and like-minded individuals,” she said. “At every new activity everyone would walk up and introduce themselves and tell their story. I definitely don’t remember everyone’s name, but I remember their face and the impact that they made on me. ... I learned that listening is just as important as sharing your own perspective on situations. I know these people that I met will be some of the future leaders of America.”

After graduating high school, Nicholas and Catherine both plan to attend college and continue their advocacy. Nicholas hopes to attend Florida State University through a program for first-generation college students and study physical therapy and business management. He also plans to work with his brother on another service project: helping prisoners learn a trade while incarcerated, he said, “so they can have a career when they get out.”

Catherine is unsure of her college destination. “I have so many aspirations in different directions, but the one thing I know is that I want to keep positively impacting other people’s lives,” she said.

The other two area Bank of America Student Leaders were unavailable for interviews. Chase Magnano, whose mother worked with refugees in Thailand, co-founded a nonprofit to help local refugee students adapt to their new communities’ social and educational systems. And George Pratt devoted himself to multiple projects to help his community, according to Bank of America.


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