By Matthew Morton, coordinator of Bonner Leadership
and Community Outreach Initiatives and former Bonner
senior intern, Stetson University
Bonner Leader Matthew Morton
poses with a teen from Spring Hill.
When fifteen-year-old Amarri spoke up for the first
time at a youth council meeting we knew it was a breakthrough.
To many, talking at a meeting carries little glamour,
but not for a timid young woman who has grown up in
Spring Hill, Florida, a community in daily struggle
and poverty. This was a step worth celebrating.
Amarri now confidently serves as one of the principal
teen leaders for CAUSE, the Campaign for Adolescent
and University Student Empowerment. CAUSE is a community
youth empowerment program started by students from Stetson
University and teens from Spring Hill.
Serving hundreds of youth and children with afterschool
programs and a youth-run foundation, CAUSE was named
the “best youth outreach” at an institution
of higher education in the state by the Florida Leader.
If you compliment one of our Stetson students on the
work they’ve done for youth, however, you might
be thanked and corrected. As we see it, it is what we
do with the youth that has made great things happen.
As one teen serving on the youth council succinctly
said, “We want you to stand with us, not over
Stetson students, staff, and faculty have learned—sometimes
the hard way—that stories of transformation like
Amarri’s generally do not happen passively or
quickly. Meaningful community empowerment requires more
than resources, volunteers, a large staff, and good
intent. It entails a supportive and committed relationship
with individuals in the community. This means that each
teen must be valued as an expert and resource in the
community, not as an object or the mere recipient of
The Bonner program at Stetson champions this philosophy.
Every year, dozens of service-minded students receive
scholarships for their passionate commitments. The Bonner
students volunteer eight hours per week with a single
community project or agency throughout their college
career. CAUSE is one of those many initiatives.
Above all, students are encouraged to forge meaningful
relationships between each other and with members of
the community. This fosters a deeper attachment to the
Bonner program and its service sites. It also encourages
the students to value members of the community as fellow
human beings with remarkable gifts and wisdom of their
own. The goal is to have students not simply going through
the motions, but truly engaging with the community in
which they’re working.
Students in CAUSE, for example, soberly realized that
teenage boys in Spring Hill were spending a lot of time
on the streets. They were more difficult to get and
keep in the program. To address the problem, we started
having weekly “guys’ nights out.”
It gave the college men and male teens regular opportunities
to participate in an activity together. The youth now
feel as if it is their time with older young men whom
they trust, which keeps them coming back.
Young people in communities like Spring Hill often
lose trust for people outside. Many youth have endured
lives of broken promises in their schools, communities,
and families. The Bonner model encourages consistency,
making sure participants see the same familiar faces
of caring college students every day. After a while,
the students are no longer volunteers. The students
become friends. That is what we strive for.