CHRIS JOYNES JR. always had a taste for travel, but until recently, the farthest the 17-year-old high school student had gone was a childhood trip to Niagara Falls.
That changed when he started Summer Search, a national nonprofit program that partners promising low-income high school students with mentors who help shepherd them through high school and college. It also offers them opportunities for transformative travel during their sophomore and junior years.
First trip for Joynes, an incoming senior at Boys' Latin Charter School of Philadelphia, was a monthlong backpack trip into Wyoming's rugged Wind River Range last July.
Last month, there was a three-week trek to Peru, where Joynes quickly applied lessons learned from his first trip: namely making new friends quickly.
Before he realized how much he and other students had in common despite outward appearances, Joynes had been slow to open up in Wyoming. He wasn't about to repeat that mistake again. So when he spotted another student on her way to Peru during a layover in Miami, Joynes made a beeline to his new pal.
"That first trip really taught me to be myself," he said. "So I just sprinted over there and introduced myself and met more people as my loud, rambunctious self."
I've always been a big advocate of giving city kids opportunities to see how much bigger the world is than their block.
An "outdoors" class I signed up for on a whim at John F. Kennedy High School in the Bronx helped teach me that lesson. It also taught me that I was allergic to grass during a camping trip with donated tents full of holes that forced us to sit-sleep on the ground and that Jordache jeans may have looked cute (at the time) but were not the proper attire for the bunny slope on which I spent the day sliding down on my butt while searching for my skis.
But mostly those (mis)adventures taught me how many opportunities there were to be had outside of our comfort zones.
Every kid should have that chance - no matter what neighborhood they live in.
So I was impressed by Summer Search and how the nonprofit started by Linda Mornell in 1990 in California helped change students' perspectives about the world and about their own future. A majority of the students who participate are first-generation college students.
Currently, the Philly program, which began in 2006, is serving 86 high school students from 10 schools, which nominate the students, and 105 college students. From 2013 through 2015, a majority - 73 percent - of the enrolled high school sophomores are still enrolled in their senior year.
A majority - 99 percent - of all participating seniors in the program nationwide graduate from high school; 94 percent go on to college.
Joynes grew up in Germantown in a single-parent household with his mother, a dedicated mom, who, he said, is often working.
Joynes still can be guarded, said his mentor Jess Dignam, but he's quickly realized just how much is available to him if he only opens up and stays on the right path. And right now that path includes plans for college at Loyola University or Boston University. (And yes, as a BU alum, I pushed for the latter.)
"I hope that in two years Chris is on a college campus where he feels like he can be completely and totally himself while studying something that he's really excited about," Dignam said.
And FYI - Dignam plans on steering him through any obstacle until he is.
While talking to Sonia Torres, director of marketing and communications for the program, the word "transformation" came up often. And after talking to Donaciano Botello Torres, no relation to Sonia, it was clear it wasn't just some buzzword.
Torres, 26, was a Summer Search participant in 2004 in California. Now he's a part-time program assistant, and one of their best endorsements for the program.
Torres recalled feeling lost after his mother died. He and his siblings were raised by a hard-working father who worked the fields all day while they navigated a rough neighborhood overrun with gangs.
"We were at a really pivotal moment," he said of himself and his brother, who also participated in the program. "We could either go the wrong way or rectify some of our mistakes."
Summer Search was the life-changer they needed.
Torres is now pursuing his master's in higher education leadership at Sacramento State. He gets a little giddy when he realizes how far he's come.
"To go from being a kid who never thought he'd go to college to now being in a master's program and working for the program that helped make that happen is definitely crazy," he said, laughing.
Before Summer Search, Joynes may have thought the same thing about some of the opportunities he's received through the program. But now the only thing that seems crazy is for Joynes not to go for it all.
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