For Chris Martinez and Joy Carson, Community for New Direction’s (CND) FOCUS program provided them with exactly what the name says – focus.

Through CND’s Future Opportunities Created for Urban Students (FOCUS) program, central Ohio students like Chris and Joy tour local colleges, participate in monthly student-led service projects, and learn about viable career options from influential community leaders and local business owners.

According to John Dawson, the organization’s CEO, Community for New Direction serves children and youth ages 5 to 23 through its annual summer day camp, after-school program, and mentoring and tutoring programs in more than 20 Columbus City and Reynoldsburg schools. The FOCUS leadership program, funded in part by United Way, provides leadership and development opportunities for urban teenagers.

“We put a lot of energy in preparing each student to understand what college life is about. FOCUS is the vehicle that teaches them that they can be more than what they see in their current environments,” says John.

For the program, staff use an evidence-based curriculum called Winning Futures, which prepares students for the job force and higher education. All students participate in a monthly service project and receive a $20 stipend per session attended. In addition, key community leaders and business professionals present winning career options through the FOCUS Speakers Bureau and the students participate in local college tours.

“We bring speakers in from all domains of the workforce. You may have a banker, a social worker or someone in the technology field come and speak,” John says. “We’ve had pilots come, and we’ve had people from the medical field. We bring people in just to tease their brains with things that
they can do.”

The college tours, which tend to be at Historically Black Colleges and Universities, give the youth the opportunity to see urban kids who look like them attending college. The experience is eye-opening for the students and helps to eliminate a lot of the barriers and misconceptions they may have of what a college student looks like.

For 15-year-old Chris, who loves creating 3D items that he paints and sells on eBay, the FOCUS program has provided clarity about his future. He has learned a lot about local colleges and the programs they offer, and has decided he’d like to become an architect or engineer.

“I’m more prepared because I’m thinking more about what I’m doing after high school,” he says, “and what I can do in high school now to prepare for what I want to do in the future.”

But the FOCUS program goes beyond just showing students the possibilities. It makes those possibilities more accessible, too, by providing ongoing support and scholarships.

“Our outcomes really are measured by each child’s goals for success,” explains John. “One child may want to be a mason. So we would direct that child to a masonry program. Another child may not want to go to college, but would love to work with his hands and be a carpenter. We look at different trades as well. We’ve watched our kids grow and make Columbus a better place in a variety of ways.”

The FOCUS program also serves as a bridge between school and home during a time when many teens are unsupervised. When a student gets out of school, they can go to the program and parents know they’re safe. Staff can provide transportation home once parents are off work.  During the pandemic, John says they learned as long as they have the student on a computer interacting with staff, they can still supervise teens and coach them through a safe evening until parents get home.

According to Joy, the FOCUS program kept her feeling connected to other students and her friends during the pandemic. She also received a FOCUS scholarship that helped her attend the University of Akron, where she is now enrolled as a freshman to study marketing.

John says he appreciates the funding from and partnership with United Way. Without United Way, he explains, many nonprofits would not be able to do what they’re currently doing in central Ohio.

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