It’s been said that the success of future generations depends on the choices people make today, both individually and collectively. Two teachers chose to use their platforms to change lives this summer by bringing the legacy of the New Jersey “Lights On” program to Bloomington High School.
BHS math teacher Brandon Thornton was inspired after seeing an interview on “Ellen” with Akbar Cook, who created Lights On as principal of West Side High School in Newark, N.J.
With the risk of becoming a victim of gun violence, drugs, and engaging in things that endanger young lives, the Lights On program aims to keep students involved in activities so they are safe and off the streets during the summer.
“Bloomington-Normal had a deadly summer last year and after hearing students reflect their opinions about the city, some said it was dangerous, boring, and no opportunity for growth and that hit me,” said Thornton, who attended Illinois State University and has taught at BHS for eight years.
“I love this community and hearing those reflections threw me off, so I wanted to do something to make a difference,” he said. “The goal with this event is to bring the community out and show the students that we value them so that in return they’ll value their community.”
Alongside fellow BHS teacher and event organizer Alyssa Scott, Thornton worked with the BHS Promise Council, Project Oz, Boys and Girls Club and other organizations to fund the event and offer activities on the last day of school May 24. Parents and teachers donated supplies. Restaurants like Avanti’s and Domino’s gave them deals on food.
“I shared the video of the ‘Ellen’ show on Facebook and made a status saying, ‘Hold me accountable, I want to do this at BHS for our kids. Who wants in and where do we start?’ Tons of people began messaging me extending support,” he said.
Mary Yount is an advisor for the Promise Council, a sustainable network of caring adults who aim to connect and engage community resources that meet the specific needs of BHS students. Yount assisted with requesting a $600 grant to help buy Connect Transit bus passes for students to use during the summer.
“State Farm, who oversees all of the Promise Councils, asked us to write a grant for an educational opportunity at BHS, and after hearing about Brandon’s Lights On project, we knew it was the perfect cause to donate to,” Yount said.
“With this event we hope to impact the lives of students by giving them the opportunity to engage this summer,” Yount said. “There are companies here to offer jobs, and overall we just want to show students the outdoor activities they can get involved in so they can have a fun summer and come back to us in the fall.”
Along with many organizations collaborating on the event, barbers and stylists from Paul Mitchell Cosmetology School offered free services to students.
Admissions Assistant Marissa Hough said they jumped at the opportunity to give back.
“We know that this is Lights On first year here at BHS, and I think it’s very impactful, so I hope that it comes back annually so we can continue to show the kids how much we care,” she said.
BHS sophomore Alexis Hemsworth was happy to see her classmates get involved.
“So many students showed up and I think it’s awesome that everyone is engaged! A few of my friends are playing basketball, some are getting their nails done. I saw one guy walk away smiling after getting his haircut, and I’m just so happy to see people signing up for programs that will keep us safe this summer,” Hemsworth said.
Thornton said he wants to organize monthly Lights On events and add new businesses and services, like cooking training, martial artists, and the trades.
“I had a kid come up to me and ask, ‘Is this only for the good kids? Can I come?’ And it was heartbreaking, so overall I just want people to know that this is open to all youth and that we have the power to create a new narrative for the community if we all come together and show the students that we value helping them find opportunities to succeed,” he said.
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