Lauryn Hill puts values into action
By Jessica Turco
The Refugee Project is aptly named. Most of the participants have few if any positive outlets to escape social ills that pervade our society. In this context, they are Refugees, and the Project provides safe and transformative havens for them through social programs.
Lauryn Hill, Grammy winner for best album of the year ("The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill") always had a passion for improving the lives of underprivileged children and encouraging positive social action.
In 1996, the talented, world-known phenomenon, from South Orange, N.J., founded The Refugee Project with the original goal of creating an institution for young people that would influence positive, long-term change.
The project's mission is to enlighten students with 11 core values and to enhance their personal growth, community service, education, cultural awareness and interpersonal skills.
"Long before Lauryn became a celebrity it was in her heart to do this project," says executive director of the Project and longtime friend Raqiba Sealy. "The passion has always been there. She loves people, and she wants to see a better world."
The Project started as a two-week camp in the Catskill Mountains, where kids would receive positive mentoring with the purpose of improving their attitude toward all aspects of life. It has grown to an ongoing mentoring program involving children and their parents -- and if goals are reached, it will spread nationally and even internationally.
Hill just finished a summer-long tour and didn't have time to visit the kids attending camp, as she usually does. Instead, she bussed them to her concert at Jones Beach, N.Y. She gave them a shout-out during the concert, then met with them personally after the show.
"We practically had to strap them down, they were so bubbly," says Sealy who traveled with the children. Sealy became friends with Hill's brother while attending the University of Pennsylvania and met Lauryn and the rest of the family.
"When I first met Lauryn, I could see she was going to be a star. She has this bright light shining in her being and in her core. She is continuously moving up and improving," says Sealy.
This drive carries over from her music into the Project, which she wants to continue to build.
"Lauryn will tell you herself, 'Long after I'm done singing and rapping, the Refugee Project will be here making a difference.' And that's why I say she is so tremendous in initiating this when she had the opportunity to.
"Every nonprofit organization dreams of having a famous face advocating the purpose," says Sealy. "I think it is commendable that while Lauryn was blowing up with the Fugees, she took a platform for this cause." While other blooming celebrities aren't thinking about anyone or anything but themselves, Sealy explained, Hill used the opportunity to start The Refugee Project.
But Hill doesn't just put her name on the Project; she puts her self into it. From conceptualizing ideas with Sealy and the rest of the board of directors to actually attending the camps and meeting the kids, Hill stays closely involved.
Her name, her cause, her positivity inspired support from big-name companies like Armani and Nike.
"Nike has donated products for various incentive programs that we do for the kids," Sealy said. "And Armani is one of our biggest contributors."
There are currently 100 students, around the ages of 10 to 13. Most of them have been scouted through the Project's outreach program that finds children through interacting with teachers and counselors in inner city schools. They in turn suggest students who are financially or otherwise in less fortunate situations.
"We get the student's name and talk with their parents," Sealy says. She explained that the parents must be willing to work with the child and the mentor in order for the program to succeed.
Many parents don't know how to sit down and talk to their children, says Sealy, and they fear they don't know what they're doing. The Circle Mentoring Program is a way to keep the parent, child and mentor involved.
The parent and child develop open communication skills so they can discuss anything from academic to social issues, and the mentor acts as a member of an extended family. This reinstates the traditional way of the community raising a child, not just the parents, explains Sealy. "The parents who want to find solutions and work with us are the ones who we work with."
Mentors range in age, ethnicity and come from a variety of backgrounds. They represent a light in the child's life that may guide them to an open door otherwise unnoticed.
"We feel that ultimately a person has to be inwardly compelled to succeed, and we are just providing a means for them to take a shot and follow what is already inside them," says Sealy.
"We love to have college students involved in the program," Sealy says. The Refugee Project is working to establish college-campus chapters that would allow students to become involved with local children as mentors. For now, students who want to get involved can call the project office at (212) 431-2604 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Violence and drugs have permeated U.S. culture, and it is not just limited to the inner city.
"Kids are at risk across the boards," says Sealy who grew up in the Bronx and says that it is much worse today than when she went to school.
By spreading the Project through the National Youth Initiative, people across the country can get involved with their local youth and deal with problems specific to the area.
"We want to use positive peer pressure," Sealy says. By using positive role models, kids will think it's cool to be smart, to go to school and be successful, she says.
"We want to mass-market positivity."