There are sooo many wonderful groups making life better for people in our area. But there’s one that you may not have heard about yet – and it’s making a big difference in the lives of girls in Neosho.

Over the past year I’ve gotten to know one of our local news anchors, Jennifer Penate, through her volunteer work at Lafayette House, and she is an absolute treasure!  She has a real heart for women’s and children’s issues, and a commitment to doing her part to help people in need.  Aside from her commitment to her work, her heart and her hope lie with helping girls who she describes as being  “right where I was.”

In early 2013 Jennifer was invited to Benton Elementary in Neosho by a fourth grade teacher, who noticed that Hispanic girls in his class were smart and had great potential, but seemed to lack confidence and self-esteem. He asked Jennifer (and two other Hispanic professional women) to come and talk to his class about their personal experiences overcoming challenges to achieve personal and professional success.

The talk had a big impact, and Jennifer wanted to continue working with the girls on a regular basis.  But it wasn’t until she moved from reporting to the evening anchor job in 2014 that she found herself with a little more free time.  She contacted the teacher to see if she could implement her program, the school said yes, and JoyFull Hope was born!

The mission of JoyFull Hope is to empower girls and encourage them to unleash their full potential.  The program is focused on 4th grade girls, and the school initially selected 8 of them to start working with Jennifer. The group started meeting once a week during lunch and recess.

Now in its second year, JoyFull Hope has 12 fourth graders as well as the original 8 who are now in 5th grade.

The first JoyFull Hope session starts with what Jennifer calls the “I AM poem.”  The girls are asked to write 8 lines about themselves, starting with the phrase “I am.”

I am smart.
I am good at sports.
I am short.

Jennifer has a curriculum, but keeps the program topics fluid – discussing whatever girls have on their minds. Her curriculum includes sessions on kindness, coping with stress, bullying, culture & diversity, education, and unleashing your full potential. She taught one lesson on powerful women in history, giving the girls historical role models.  She has also had guest speakers come in to talk about careers.

But if a subject needs to be discussed, the girls can bring it up.  Recently, the class was upset by the suicide of a local middle schooler. So they spent some time talking about their grief, and ways to cope with it.  Jennifer says that the program really opens the lines of communication – the girls trust her, and she makes them comfortable talking about their problems, issues, and lives, and that builds their confidence.

Jennifer’s road to broadcasting and dedicated mentor wasn’t completely smooth.  She has a really fascinating story!  She credits her parents’ brave move to the United States from El Salvador, their hard work and their commitment to education to creating a path for her.  Her appreciation for her parents is evident when she tells her family’s story:

When my mom was pregnant with me, El Salvador was in a civil war. There was a curfew in place, with soldiers patrolling the streets to enforce it.  So when my mom went into labor, she had to give birth in my grandfather’s apartment, because residents weren’t allowed out.
My dad had been in the military in El Salvador.  The year before I was born, wanting a safer life for his family, he emigrated to Los Angeles, where he had family.  He began working, and when I was one, he brought my mom and me to LA to join him.  We lived there until I was 5, and back then, Spanish speakers in LA schools didn’t learn English til 3rd grade.  So, I spoke only Spanish.

When I was 5, my parents had friends from our same village in El Salvador who were living in Northwest Arkansas.  Their friends told them about good jobs and low crime rates in the Rogers area, and encouraged my parents to move, so we did.

After they arrived in Arkansas, Jennifer’s dad got a job in a tool manufacturing company, and her mother worked in a chicken plant.  On her first day of first grade, speaking no English, Jennifer rode the bus to school alone.

I pretty much cried every day.  I didn’t understand English, I didn’t have any friends.  My parents didn’t have any resources or know how to help me – with English or with my homework.  So I learned on my own, with help from other Spanish-speaking children in class who would translate for me.

About two months into my school year, there was an all-school assembly, and I received an award for Achievement –  for quickly learning enough English to get by.   Her parents framed the certificate and hung it on the wall.

For Jennifer’s parents, education was top priority. Her parents told her she would go to college – don’t ask how, they told her, we’ll make it happen. And her mom started saving.

After high school, Jennifer went on to the University of Arkansas, graduating with a degree in journalism. After a short internship in Atlanta, she was offered her first reporting job, for KODE in Joplin, in September 2011.  And that led to the phone call from the teacher, and the founding of JoyFull Hope.

One reason I’m so passionate about JoyFull Hope is that it is helping girls who are where I was once. I found that cultural differences can make it very hard to advance socially and academically, so I want to help them bridge that gap. With the girls, I teach them that skin color, background and economics don’t matter. It’s what you can accomplish.  And then I tell them that if they set goals and plan –  they can accomplish anything.

Jennifer’s goal is to expand JoyFull Hope, and recruit more mentors, but she knows her career may require a move eventually. She laughs.   “I can plan all I want, but I know I’ll end up wherever God has in mind.”

It’s Wednesday again, and Jennifer and the girls will start today’s JoyFull Hope mentoring class like they do each time, with their JoyFull Hope pledge:   I will dream with all my heart. I will achieve it with hard work and determination. I will become a woman who will change the world.

Full of Joy and Hope.  Don’t you love seeing talented people give their time and talent to build up our kids?  I just love that there are women like Jennifer, working so quietly but effectively to make the world better for our kiddos!

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