ACTIVE IN THE COMMUNITY: Student Ambassadors Showcase Seeds
“A teacher a long time ago destroyed my dreams – she took away the importance of education,” said Student Ambassador Melissa Hill Nance. “But everything she stole from me, Seeds has given back, and more.”
Seeds is so much more than tutoring. That’s the message that Melissa and fellow Seeds Student Ambassadors shared with hundreds of people at summer resource fairs. They told their own stories of adversity so others could see how Seeds could help them too.
But there was a time when these Seeds students, not yet Ambassadors, were ashamed and afraid to share, not realizing the important impact their experiences would have on others.
“Our mission is one of empowering adults,” said Bonnie Entler, President & CEO of Seeds since 2003. “And a big part of that is owning their stories and having the confidence to share them with the community. It can be as great and as important as earning a GED.”
The Student Ambassador program was born in Fall 2022 with the dual intent of raising awareness about Seeds of Literacy’s tutoring program and building confidence of the Ambassadors themselves.
Becca Huntington set a plan in motion. Knowing Ambassadors would be paid for their time, she worked with the program staff to thoughtfully identify students who had inspiring stories and showed the potential to develop leadership skills.
To start, Ambassadors provided feedback on the overall tutoring program and reviewed marketing materials during their meetings. They brainstormed the excuses people make about not getting their GED, excuses like “I would, but…I’m too old…. It’s just a piece of paper….” Together, they refuted each excuse, resulting in powerful student recruitment messages.
“Though the goal had been to improve and market Seeds, this initiative took on an amazing life of its own,” she said. “Students really embraced the opportunity to grow personally and share their experiences at community events.”
SHAPING SEEDS & THEMSELVES
Ambassador training meetings focused on a variety of topics and workshops intended to grow soft skills. Becca led discussions on self-care, motivation, loving/appreciating oneself, personal identity, mental health, leadership, and effective communication in public.
“The feedback on these topics was really positive,” she said. “Ambassadors shared that they felt like each discussion helped them grow in a different way and gave them a new perspective.”
Soft-spoken Denise Sanders learned about the importance of eye contact, even though it made her uncomfortable at first. The Ambassador program gave her the confidence to talk to strangers with poise and purpose.
At a recent outreach event hosted by District 9 Councilwoman Turner, Denise found herself among doctors, lawyers, sorority sisters and other powerful women. She was proud to say she fit right in. And when Cleveland Mayor Justin Bibb visited the classroom, she and fellow Ambassador Melissa Hill-Nance confidently spoke with him about their time at Seeds.
“I’m not ashamed of myself now,” she said. Denise admits she’s still a little nervous sometimes, but her confidence continues to grow because she knows what she is doing matters.
PREPARING TO SHARE
“Our students have experienced some pretty terrible things like chemical dependence; sexual, physical, and emotional abuse; homelessness; and various legal battles,” explained Becca. “These deeply personal and poignant stories can be really difficult to talk about, especially the more delicate issues.”
Part of their Ambassador training involved learning how to talk about those uncomfortable experiences within the framework of recruiting new students.
Before they came to Seeds, the Ambassadors all mention feeling alone in their troubles.
“That’s an important message to share with people at these resource fairs, who might be experiencing similar feelings of isolation,” Becca said. “For the Ambassadors, Seeds became their community. And now they welcome others into it.”
Ambassador Sheila Barnes, cancer survivor and mother of 8, is celebrating 10 years of sobriety (October 2023). Crack cocaine is a powerful substance, and she admits she put her addiction before her children, voluntarily giving them up to foster care. Despite knowing it was what was best for them, the shame associated with that decision haunts her.
Looking back, hearing the “shares” at various Anonymous meetings helped her focus and finally stick to her own sobriety. Telling her own story was the next logical step, helping her to not only forgive herself, but to inspire others.
“Talking to people —That’s my favorite part of being an Ambassador,” she said. “Lettin’ them know that there are alternatives to gettin’ in trouble, doing drugs, going to jail. By going back to school, you can really change your life. Just like me. Today I love myself and I love my life.”
Sheila credits Seeds as one of the best things she’s ever done for herself.
The second part of the Ambassador initiative prepared students for the logistics of presenting at resource fairs. But like Denise, most of them had only ever gone to events as attendees, not as representatives of Seeds expected to share their stories with strangers.
To prepare, some Ambassadors started a little closer to home, making practice appearances at Tutor Trainings (both virtual and in-person) in the classroom. During these sessions, they explained what brought them to Seeds and provided a student’s perspective on what makes a good tutor.
“They found this so rewarding,” Becca explained. “It gave them the opportunity to impact how new tutors work with our students.”
Several of the Ambassadors, including Denise, applied this experience to welcoming not just new tutors, but new students. “I want to encourage someone because someone else encouraged me,” Denise explained.
According to Becca, the change in Denise’s self-esteem is visible. “As soon as Denise sees a new face, she goes over to them, welcomes them, helps them get started. She’s a ray of sunshine in the classroom.”
MANNING THE BOOTH
Where to go, how to get there, what to bring, what to do, what to say — To even the most seasoned outreach person, the logistics of a resource event can be a little overwhelming.
Fortunately for the Ambassadors, Becca brought in the best to show them the ropes: The Original Ambassador: Margo.
Literacy advocate, tutor, and Seeds Class of 2012’s Margo Hudson spoke with the group.
In the beginning of Margo’s long journey with Seeds, her self esteem was low and she felt she had nothing to offer. A decade later, she’s no longer shy and quiet, and she feels she’s found her purpose helping others. Margo is now the face of literacy in Cleveland, with her own business cards and her image on the side of city buses.
“Students really enjoyed their time connecting with Margo, seeing what’s possible, and learning from her,” Becca said.
Initially, Ambassadors were paired with Margo or a member of the Seeds staff for resource fairs. After a few events, they took the lead. Eventually they gained enough experience and confidence to set up and work tables on their own.
“This was especially helpful when Seeds had more than one event to attend in one day. We didn’t have to choose where to go,” Becca explained. “Seeds was able to reach so many more people in the community, in a much more impactful way.”
THE NEXT CHAPTER
After more than 70 events collectively, Denise, Sheila, and other Ambassadors can see the results of their efforts. People they met during outreach events continue to come through the doors at Seeds. The Ambassadors are always there to help with first-day jitters.
“I just tell ‘em, it’s harder to survive without a GED than it is to earn it. I have all the resources and support system here, so there’s no limit to what I can do, and what they can do now, too,” Sheila said.
Being part of the Ambassador team is an honor, Denise shared. “I feel grateful that I’m needed and acknowledged, and trusted, and I’m so appreciative that you think that much of me.”
Becca is preparing to welcome a new cohort of Student Ambassadors, but we haven’t seen the last of Denise, Sheila, and the others. They’re now mentors, inspiring the new Ambassadors to welcome even more students to Seeds.
- Sheila Barnes
- Melissa Hill Nance
- Denise Sanders
- Lenora Wilson
- Miranda Bridget
- Barb Driscoll
- Shakeiya Edwards
- Shawanda McWilliams
- Hannah Sankan
- Chanel Sims
- Kathy Taylor
- Rosie Walker
Special thanks to
- Becca Huntington for contributing to this article
- John Martin, Outreach Coordinator, for working with Ambassadors
- Margo Hudson, for being such a great example of what is possible
- And last but not least, to the inaugural class of Student Ambassadors. We couldn’t be happier to have you as part of the Seeds Family, representing the program in the community. We’re so proud of you!