Sunburst Youth Academy project uses targeted loans to aid families across the globe

Sunburst students with their projectsStanding in front of a poster-board display, three young women shared the story of Phylis, a single mother and farmer from Kenya, making the case for a modest investment that would help her pay her children’s school fees.

It was clear the students were already personally invested.

The trio was one of a dozen student teams that gathered inside a meeting room at the Sunburst Youth Academy in Los Alamitos last week to make professional pitches for loans on behalf of global citizens they’ve never met.

Led by Sunburst teacher Allen Witten, these presentations have become a biannual project at the academy — and a twice-a-year chance for Sunburst cadets to make a difference in the lives of others.

Operated by the California National Guard in partnership with OCDE, the Sunburst Youth Academy is a community high school for at-risk youth. Students who get into the program are immersed for five and a half months in a military-style environment where they can earn high school credits while developing leadership, pride, confidence and academic skills.

And you can add empathy and problem-solving to that list.

“Hopefully our students are learning a little bit about their world and making real-life connections with real people who are struggling — or can benefit from the little bit of help that we’re able to give,” Witten says. “It’s a good, sustainable way of trying to do our little part.”

Improving conditions elsewhere

The projects were inspired by the Girl Rising campaign, which seeks to educate and empower girls and young women around the world.

Witten says Sunburst students studied a documentary about nine girls from developing countries and the hurdles they had to overcome to receive a quality education. Afterward, the Sunburst students shared their thoughts and ideas with students from Japan, Argentina and Palestine via an online forum.

The assignment could have ended there. But Witten designed this project to ignite actions capable of improving conditions in other corners of the world. So he connected his classes with the nonprofit organization Kiva, which helps crowdfund loans for underserved communities.

Working in teams, students got to select candidates they thought would most benefit from personal loans. They zeroed in on those who needed money to escape poverty, access educational opportunities or otherwise overcome adverse conditions.

Students in Witten’s five classes initially collaborated on about 30 projects, and school officials selected the top 12 to be showcased. For nearly an hour on Tuesday, panels of judges — they included military personnel and OCDE staff — made the rounds, listening to three-minute presentations and asking questions.

Honing presentation skills

Standing bolt-straight in their khaki Sunburst uniforms, Cadets Gainey, Lopez and Garcia focused their efforts on 45-year-old Violeta from the Philippines. Violeta, they said, worked to support seven children by raising livestock. She had requested a loan of just $225 to install a sanitary lavatory for her family.

Sunburst students with their projects
Sunburst Youth Academy Cadets Gainey, Lopez and Garcia make their pitch on behalf of 45-year-old Violeta from the Philippines.

“We feel like not only just Americans or the wealthy need their proper hygiene,” Cadet Lopez said. “We feel like everybody around the world needs the proper health and hygiene to have a stable life.”

Just as they shared facts about Violeta, the three cadets also demonstrated that they had researched her home country, offering information about the Philippines’ geography and economy.

That’s part of the assignment, says Witten. And so are presentation skills.

“Whenever our students are able to present to people outside of the classroom, it really raises the stakes,” he said. “It’s much different presenting information to dignitaries than it is just in the classroom in front of your peers.”

In the end, three projects were selected for loans of $250 each, and two more received $125. Witten said Kiva has a repayment rate of 97 percent, so that money will almost certainly be available for future projects.

“These are little things we can all do to improve the lives of girls and women in the developing world,” he said. “We’re trying to take small steps to provide quality education for these women and just do good in general.”