By James Donlon
Last November, Amy Donofrio was on the stage of the Florida Theatre for the TEDx convention. At her sides were eight of her high-school students. She tells the audience she’s going to share her class’s data.
One by one she lists off prompts.
“Please raise your hand if you’ve ever been detained by police.”
All eight students raised their hands.
“If you’ve been detained and questioned by police three or more times.”
Seven raised their hands.
“If you’ve been shot at? If you’ve seen someone get shot? If you’ve had a close family member murdered?”
Seven of the students raised their hands for the last question.
Donofrio is a teacher at Robert E Lee High School and the teens are her students. They are part of The EVAC Movement, a program focused on turning the personal tragedies of its 15 members into positive change.
The program started as an after-school leadership class in 2013, but Donofrio transformed the course from a room of first year high school “at-risk youth” to an organization of “at-hope leaders.”
“What I realized was that I was applying my solutions to their problems, and I didn’t even know what their situations were,” Donofrio said.
EVAC is the word Cave backwards, a reference to Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave.” The program has students reflect on their personal “caves” and their current situations.
Donofrio starts each school year with a lesson on the “Cave” as well as a viewing of the Disney film “The Lion King.”
“The students get to reflect on their own lives in the context of these stories,” Donofrio said.
“Simba as a young cub whose father is murdered, runs away but learns to overcome his situation. The students learn how to recognize their situations and we can start to discuss how to grow from them.”
Donofrio’s classroom at Lee High School in Jacksonville is a whirlwind of positivity. The walls are pasted with posters and signs spouting positive messages about growth and strengths. Student’s assignments hang from clotheslines. The tables and chairs are arranged in a semicircle where students can reflect and discuss topics.
“The first year was rough,” Donofrio said.
“The kids didn’t click with one another. The lessons didn’t work. At first it didn’t really look like it was going to work out.”
Once the students started sharing their stories, however, they began to bond with one another over loss and tragedy, according to Donofrio.
Donofrio remembers facing resistance when she decided to invite local police officers to the class to discuss the teenage rights.
“At first it was just a basic discussion of respecting police and authority, but the officers offered to return and started to listen,” said Donofrio.
Together, through sharing stories and educating themselves, the students find ways to overcome their hardships and bring positivity into the community.
“For me, I had to grieve the reality that far too many youth were going through the unthinkable,” Donofrio said.
“It shouldn’t be this way.”
The impact of the program is already in effect. In June of 2017 the students won the National KIND Schools Challenge by starting a project titled “#YourStoryIsMine.”
The project allows the students to share their experiences with the rest of the school through a bulletin board at the school. Each week, one of the students writes a personal recount of a personal experience and passers-by can post notes to the board to react, show support or relate to the story.
Some of the topics include losing a sibling, homelessness and incarcerated parents.
The project’s goal was that by sharing stories, the students could start a dialogue and conversation about their realities.
The EVAC program has earned national recognition. In 2016, the students had a private meet-and-greet with President Barack Obama for their work with juvenile justice.
Scott Schneider, the high school’s principal, is hopeful for the growth of the program.
“We’re looking into widening the program into something that includes young women as well.”
A similar course for young women has been created for the 2017-2018 school year.
Davin, an 11th-grade student at Lee high who asked his last name not be used, is one of many young men affected by the EVAC movement.
“When I was 9 my Mom became disabled,” Davin said. “After that we moved around often, living with aunts and relatives. It was tough but having a community to work with and talk to helped me out.”
The lasting effect it has had on the teens who have participated is strong.
“EVAC is one of the things I’m most proud of in my entire education career, and I’ve been doing this for a long time,” Schneider said.
“It’s not because I’m responsible for it,” he said. “It’s because I’m so proud of seeing young men become even greater men.”