Rays of Hope
Lisa Hall, a resident of Jackson and an assistant librarian at Lawrence High School, grew up with a mother that always participated in community service. So, when Hall had children of her own, she passed on this love of service. When her son was four, they would visit the Ronald McDonald House to volunteer. Hall’s friends who were mothers also begin to spend a lot of time taking their children to volunteer at soup kitchens and nursing homes. In 2006, they decided to formalize their service by creating Rays of Hope, an organization focused on developing future leaders through community service and advocacy.
Since then, Rays of Hope has grown to include around 40 students throughout Central Jersey, ranging from age 8 to 18. Once a month, these students come together for a different service project. “In December we were at the Homefront homeless shelter in Lawrenceville. On Good Friday, we were in Perth Amboy at the care center feeding the homeless. Next month, we will be in Howell at Tent City, helping them with their organic garden,” Hall said.
These events are organized by Hall and her assistant director Tyneshia Douglas, along with the Youth Leadership Board, including president Amaya White, vice president Jaida Rodrigues and secretary Alina DeZoysa. “One of the great things is that we let our Youth Leadership Board run this organization. Once a week, Amaya and the leadership team have a conference call and make plans for the following month or week, and they work on projects all throughout the year, so they do a really good job as far as really running the organization,” Hall said.
For community service events, not only do students, but their families often come to support as well. “When we go out and serve, most of the time parents do like to come, and they help a lot. At a big event, we’ll have over 50-60 people coming out. One of our large events at the Homefront shelter is making pancakes and have Santa Claus give gifts, so we need a lot of help for those types of events,” she added.
Through these events, students are exposed to different realities that they may not have previously interacted with. “Going into the homeless shelters, I got a different perspective of what it’s like, and what the people are like there. We have this image portrayed from different things in media, and then actually going into these communities and serving in these shelters created a whole new image for me of what homelessness is,” White said.
Along with community service events, Rays of Hope also works on developing student leadership skills. “We do leadership training because we want our members to go out and not only serve but be advocates and leaders in the community. In September, we took a trip to the 9/11 Memorial and had a conversation with first responders, to understand what that experience was like. We wanted our students to be able to understand what it was like to be a first responder in those types of drastic situations,” Hall said.
During Martin Luther King weekend in January, Rays of Hope takes a trip to Washington D.C. to take college tours of HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities), which help the predominantly African-American student body explore various opportunities for higher education. That Monday, the students then go to help in schools in various communities in D.C, “and do whatever we can to make the schools look better. This time, the kids painted encouraging words on the walls in some of the schools,” Hall said.
“This year, we were even able to take some students from Lawrence High School, and we actually got someone to pay for their whole trip. These are students who have never been out of the area, so this gave them the opportunity to not only visit colleges, but get more involved in community service,” she added.
Through both the leadership trainings and the experience of organizing these events, students such as White, who lives in Old Bridge and joined Rays of Hope as a freshman in high school, have grown to understand the skills behind leadership and management. “I consider myself a leader, but being a part of Rays of Hope has made me feel even more qualified as a leader because of the skills I’ve learned. Through the leadership workshops, I’ve learned how to present myself on social media, and learned how to plan events like a walk-out, a 5K, or other things in our community,” White said.
Hall believes Rays of Hope has had a meaningful impact on not only the students, but the communities around them. “Definitely in the community, just to have young children go out and serve at places like nursing homes and Tent City, that in itself has been impactful. Nowadays, our kids get a bad reputation, so going out and seeing them serve in the community, it really shows people that they care, and it definitely makes the children feel good about what they’re doing. In addition to that, getting that sense of pride of helping someone in need has definitely been a benefit for the children,” Hall said.
Hall attributes much of Rays of Hope’s success due to its local scale. “What’s great about us is that we’re not connected with a national organization, where I’d have to get approval to do things. If a young person comes to me and says Ms. Lisa, I want to have a conference or an event, I can say that we can do that. I don’t have to get a lot of approval. I can do it, and we have done it,” she said.
However, one of the obstacles of having a locally-based organization is scaling up marketing and fundraising. “We started off very small, and we haven’t really had the manpower to expand in terms of marketing and grants. So a lot of things that we do, the members or I provide. For instance, if we’re going out and purchasing something for a project, it comes out of our own pockets,” Hall said.
To help improve marketing and fundraising, Rays of Hope become incorporated as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. “Having the 501(c)(3) matters when you’re talking to business owners and people who are trying to help the organization. I think it will benefit us in the future once I’m able to get the help that I need,” Hall said.
To honor student and adult community service volunteers for their efforts, Hall is organizing a Rays of Hope Leadership Achievement Award ceremony on June 23rd. “At this event, we’re honoring some of our esteemed New Jersey leaders. In addition to that, we’re honoring some of our youth members. This is our first time doing, and we definitely are in need of sponsorship,” Hall said.
The awards are decided by Hall and Douglas, and given to students who have excelled in terms of community service and those that are now heading off to college, such as White. Meanwhile, “for the community members, there are leadership awards in different areas such as education, religion, community and sports,” Hall said.
While the scholarship banquet would mark the end of White’s role as president, she hopes to continue helping with Rays of Hope in the future. “It’s been an amazing experience, and I know that once I go off to college, I’ll always be able to come back to Rays of Hope, keep helping, and possibly lead one of the leadership developments as one of the key speakers.”
Looking ahead, Hall hopes that the organization continues to expand and spread its impact. “I would love for Rays of Hope to expand in different states. I hope to connect with schools and recruit members to be a part of Rays of Hope,” which kids would appreciate since they can get volunteer hours towards
“I think it’s important in this day and age where youth are taking a platform, that we encourage our youth to speak up and be heard. Now’s the time to focus on these types of organizations, because we really have to develop our children into being future leaders,” Hall concluded.
For more information, please visit www.raysofhopeinc.org, or reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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