May 30, 2024

How One Leesburg High Program is Changing Mindsets, Shaping Futures in Lake County Youth

9.6 min read| Published On: May 30th, 2024|

By Roxanne Brown

How One Leesburg High Program is Changing Mindsets, Shaping Futures in Lake County Youth

9.6 min read| Published On: May 30th, 2024|

Fueling Dreams

The late Zig Ziglar, a nationally renowned author and motivational speaker, once said, “Your life is a result of the choices you have made. If you don’t like your life, start making better choices.”

Great concept, but it’s usually easier said than done. Just ask the countless people trying to dig themselves out of bad choices. Better yet, think of someone with their whole world still ahead of them trying to come up with the best choices for their future with little or no knowledge, guidance or support. 

Leesburg High School students, however, have plenty of hope in the form of The Powerhouse Youth Project, an initiative intended to help students find their passions and purpose.

Executive Director Scott Chevalier and dedicated community leaders involved as mentors — Scott calls them, “hope dealers” — do everything they can to ensure that participating students succeed. 

“We believe every student has a passion and a purpose. They may not know it. They may not know how to identify it, verbalize it, understand it or what to do with it, but they do,” Scott says. “There’s something in every person that says, ‘this is what I love,’ and when they find it, life changes because they’re engaged in something they’re passionate about and that they enjoy every day. Most adults spend their life looking for their ‘why’ so we want to give these kids a head start, help build that bridge with them.”

The program is a godsend for sophomore Grace Dennison, 16, a Powerhouse student. Though skeptical, she started last September, but once she embraced the program’s purpose, it’s not only grown on her, but completely changed the course of her life. 

“I was going down the wrong path and I kept getting in trouble, so they (school personnel) said this would be the best option for me,” Grace says.

Little by little, she began looking forward to attending Powerhouse sessions.

“It’s changed how I see myself and it’s made me realize I can do better, that there are opportunities out there for me and that it’s not just life passing by day-by-day,” she adds. “Once I put my trust in the program and in Mr. Scott and everybody else and got to know them better, I was like, ‘OK, I actually have people, besides my family and stuff, who truly care about me and really care about what happens to me.’”

Seventeen-year-old junior Gabriela “Gaby” Santiago says she was not fully on board with the program and was simply going through the motions at first. 

Today, after two years, she understands and very much appreciates the Powerhouse mission because she’s now poised to be the first in her immediate family to graduate high school. After that, she’s intent on opening her own nail salon, something she never even considered before Powerhouse allowed her to dream big.

“When you really take the time to listen to what they have to say to you, it really opens your eyes and you really set yourself up for something different; something more than you ever had before,” Gaby says. 

“In the beginning, I felt like I had to act different just to please the trainers and mentors, but they wanted us to come in here and be ourselves without judging us for what had happened before,” she says. “They encouraged us to focus on who we can become and what next steps they could take to help us. I realized this was something I couldn’t let pass me by and felt strongly that if I didn’t take it now, who knows when I’d have the next opportunity?”

The Point of Powerhouse

The Powerhouse Youth Project strives to guide young individuals in discovering and pursuing their passions with a focus on three core values: that every student has a passion and purpose, that everyone needs someone in their life to achieve their purpose and that every choice will cost you something.

The process starts by connecting with students using a high-tech/high-touch strategy to identify their strengths, personality dispositions, life mission, possible career matches and potential obstacles to reaching their goals. Students are then springboarded into a mentorship strategy focused on career development and keeping them on track for life.

Scott says the program he’s led for two years focuses on empowering students through choice. And he reminds them that — every chance he gets — that now is the time to make positive choices. 

Scott conceived Powerhouse in Nashville, Tennessee to inspire and guide at risk students in pursuing their passions. Scott soon learned how difficult that was to accomplish through one-time, 55-minute assemblies he took from school to school. The program was put on hold in 2007.

“I don’t want to show kids how great life can be without a pathway to pursue it,” Scott says. “That’s just not fair. They need to have something that’s sustainable.” 

Fast forward to 2017 after Scott and his wife moved to Clermont. During a conversation with Clermont Police Officer David Colon, Scott learned that the rate of youth crises in Clermont was alarmingly high, a fact that reignited the spark of Powerhouse in Scott’s heart. Recognizing the urgent need for intervention, the groundwork was laid for a new chapter of Powerhouse.

Once Scott learned about the realities of Leesburg High School students facing homelessness and instability, LHS emerged as a focal point for a revamped Powerhouse. When Scott met with LHS Principal Mike Randolph about bringing Powerhouse to students, Randolph’s response was a solid, “When can you start?”

Statistics underscore the gravity of the situation: Approximately one in five students in the United States grapple with anxiety and/or depression, while 29 million children — 40% percent of youth — are deemed at risk due to various socioeconomic and environmental factors. This staggering reality reinforces the importance of programs like Powerhouse in providing support and resources for vulnerable youth.

“I believe that every child deserves the opportunity to succeed, regardless of their circumstances and through programs like Powerhouse, we can provide them with the support and resources they need to thrive,” Principal Randolph says.

Powerhouse strives to cultivate resilience and purpose in students, regardless of their circumstances, through mentorship, career expos and comprehensive development strategies. The mission is to inspire, educate and empower the next generation by giving them hope and something to strive for.

Nathan Jerome Shaw, Jr., a dedicated Powerhouse trainer, has witnessed the program’s profound impact. Drawing from nearly two decades of working with young people, Nathan emphasizes the importance of nurturing individual passions and purpose. 

“Passion is purpose revealed,” he says. “Our youth are the nation’s greatest asset, but we don’t act like it. If this is our greatest asset, this is where we’d be investing. These kids deserve better than a system that sets them up for failure. It’s time to change the mindset and invest in their potential. 

When you see a life change, you see a game change.”

Nathan stresses the pivotal role of creating a space where students can discover their true potential. Powerhouse breaks barriers and instills confidence in students through engaging sessions focused on self-discovery, resilience and the power of dreaming big. Mentorship opportunities further enable students to envision bright futures.

Nathan emphasizes the importance of planting seeds of empowerment and nurturing them over time. 

Questions and answers on the chalkboard in the Powerhouse classroom at LHS sum up the program perfectly. They read: “When were you born? No choice. Where were you born? No choice. Who birthed you? No choice. Why were you born? You get to choose!”

Powerhouse’s key players stress the critical need for community involvement and financial support to sustain and expand the program’s impact. 

“Our mission is simple yet profound: to inspire, educate, and empower the next generation of leaders,” Scott says. “Together, we’re changing lives and building a brighter future for our youth.”

Hope Dealers 

Volunteers and mentors, made up of community and business leaders, are an essential part of the Powerhouse program. They make a huge difference in the lives of the students they’re partnered with for guidance, internship opportunities, advice and friendship. 

Scott is always looking for help from adults willing to make a heartfelt commitment to be there for the students. Those community leaders already involved say the program is as rewarding for them as it is for the students.   

“I see how much we’re needed in these kids. It’s very rewarding, but it’s also nice to see it actually making a difference,” says Elliott Ward, a mentor and owner of Blue Island Sportswear in downtown Leesburg. “Some things you hear about and it’s going on someplace else. This is local and we’re making a difference here and it can go everywhere. It’s a very exciting thing to be a part of.”

“Being a mentor at Powerhouse allows me to share my journey and inspire these young minds to dream big and chase their goals,” says Alex Garro, one of the successful business leaders who bring entrepreneurial expertise to Powerhouse. 

Seeing the transformation in these kids, from disengaged to determined, is incredibly rewarding. “It’s about changing lives one person at a time and making a difference in our world,” Alex says. 

“Not every child has that level of village supporting them, so I wanted to do more and this program has allowed me to,” says Margaret Renaud, manager of Staff America, a recruiting company in Ocala that trains the students on career readiness. “They’re the young people that will take care of our generation, so we have to pave the way for them to be successful by giving them what they need.”

Margaret offers tips on things like resume writing, interview and people skills, dressing and speaking professionally, leadership, confidence building and more.

“Sometimes, we’re not thinking of the world through their perspective but I try to, and I like to tell them, ‘You have to be the hero of your own story,’ and that’s where we come in. We help them tap into that personal power and encourage them to be more of who they want to be every single day,” Margaret says.

Student Impact

Kaya Cuomo came to Powerhouse after she learned about it through friends involved in the program. Despite being relatively new, Kaya finds the program impactful, especially appreciating the sense of care and support it offers. Reflecting on her experience, Kaya emphasizes the message that no matter the challenges one faces, there’s always something greater awaiting them. 

According to Kaya one of the biggest takeaways from Powerhouse is, “Something is out there that is bigger and better than anything you’ll ever know. And it’s for you.”

Senior Jasmine Benjamin, 18, says the program impacted her greatly after she fell behind on her credits for graduating. She says she may have given up hope if it weren’t for Powerhouse giving her the push she needed to refocus despite challenges.

“The first time I came to Powerhouse, I didn’t like it, but after giving it a real chance, Mr. Scott and the others inspired me to find a better path for myself and work hard to not fall behind again,” Jasmine says. “I have goals now and a plan for myself and I’ve started to realize that you’re going to have to take control of life, or life is going to take control of you.”

Jasmine hopes to return once she graduates. 

“I’d never had what I found at Powerhouse. I didn’t feel there was much hope for me, and that definitely made me spin out and do things that I shouldn’t have done, make choices I shouldn’t have made,” Jasmine says. “But now that I’m here, I’m so glad and blessed and thankful that I can stand up and say I’m a part of Powerhouse.

“I wake up now and be like, ‘Yeah, that’s what I want to do. I want to come back here one day, look at the kids and tell them I was once in their shoes. I want to say, ‘I was sitting exactly in the same seat you were, but that doesn’t mean anything; you have other choices. There’s hope for you.’”

Gaby also feels grateful for Powerhouse, but it doesn’t end there. Gaby’s participation not only benefits her but also brings pride and hope to her family, especially her father, who eagerly awaits her return home from school to hear about the words of wisdom and experience Scott and other trainers offer at Powerhouse.

“My dad never finished high school and he’s always regretted it. When he learned about Powerhouse and saw the chance it offered me, he was all in. Now, I come home excited to share what I’ve learned, knowing it’s not just for me but for my family’s future too,” Gaby says. “It doesn’t matter what age you are; you can change your life at any point.”

What Next?

With continued dedication and community support, the Powerhouse program is growing. Scott hopes that it can make a lasting difference in the lives of students for many years to come, ensuring that as many students as possible have the tools and opportunities to build bright futures for themselves and their communities.

Looking ahead, the vision for Powerhouse is to secure additional funding and attract more mentors to expand its reach and impact more students with the resources and support they need to thrive academically and personally.  Scott says the program will soon be offered at Umatilla High School, South Lake High School, Alee Academy and Mount Dora High School and Eustis High School, but the possibilities are endless. What if the program could somehow be sourced for homeschoolers or even young adults out of school who’ve hit a dead end?

“You only get so many days on this earth, so why not find what you’re passionate about and find a way to pursue it?” Scott says. 

The time to do it, you guessed it . . . is now.  


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About the Author: Roxanne Brown

Originally from Nogales, Arizona, Roxanne worked in the customer service industry while writing independently for years. After moving to Florida in 1999, Roxanne eventually switched her career path to focus more on writing and went on to become an award-winning reporter for The Daily Commercial/South Lake Press newspapers for 16 years prior to coming on board with Akers Media as a staff writer in July 2020 – her dream job come true.

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