High school students ‘think global, act local’

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Ponte Vedra High School senior Chase Magnano is one of 234 students recognized nationwide as Distinguished Finalists for their impressive community service activities by The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards, a nationwide program honoring students in grades five through 12 for outstanding volunteer service. Magnano will receive an engraved bronze medallion.

The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards is conducted by Prudential Financial in partnership with the National Association of Secondary School Principals.

“In our 25th year of honoring young volunteers, we are as inspired as ever by the work students are doing to address the needs of a changing world,” said Charles Lowrey, chairman and CEO of Prudential Financial Inc. “We hope that their resolve, their initiative and their perspectives on society’s challenges move others to consider how they can make a difference, too.”

Magnano cofounded Teens Helping Refugees Integrate Via Engagement, also known as JaxTHRIVE, a nonprofit organization that has provided more than 85 refugee students in the Jacksonville area with programming focused on English, STEAM and career and life skills. Magnano’s efforts include raising more than $50,000, recruiting volunteers, collaborating with other local community organizations and establishing JaxTHRIVE chapters in several schools.

The catalyst for the initiative was an experience Magnano had on a family vacation to Germany the summer before his sophomore year. They stopped in Hamburg and, through a family friend, were invited to share an Eid al-Fitr dinner with Syrian refugees. Eid al-Fitr marks the end of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting.

I was pretty nervous going into it,” Magnano said.

But the family’s son, about Magnano’s age, was wearing a Star Wars T-shirt. Both were surprised at how much they had in common — Star Wars, TV shows and they even had the same songs in their playlists. He said they ended up talking the rest of the night.

“He was from the other side of the world,” Magnano said. “There were so many similarities. It doesn’t matter where you’re from. Everyone is so alike when you come down to it.”

He said that was the most memorable part of the trip and it stuck with him after returning home. He wanted to find a way to get involved, to help the local refugee population and meet more interesting people like the Syrian refugee Star Wars fan he connected with in Hamburg. He said he wanted to “think global, act local.”

Magnano had heard about World Relief, a government organization that partners with local churches and community-based organizations to provide support for immigrants and refugees who are seeking a place to call home. It’s common for kids recently resettled in America to fall behind in academics because of language and culture barriers, as well as gaps in attending school. Magnano volunteered to help with English and get them caught up.

“I think education is one of the best pathways to a good future,” said Magnano, who describes himself as a math nerd. “Being able to show someone else math is cool is exciting. It’s kind of fun, really. They’re smart, but there’s a language barrier. Sometimes they can learn a month of math in four hours.”

Magnano’s longtime friend, Grace Freedman, also volunteered and the duo wanted to find a way to continue volunteering throughout the year – on Saturdays.

They were able to organize volunteers to help, but World Relief suffered a budget cut and was no longer a viable partner. The possibility to continue tutoring student refugees seemed to be over. A local non-government organization, Kim’s Open Door, stepped up to help. The privately funded nonprofit somewhat filled the gap World Relief budget cuts had left, but the program had to be scaled back.

Magnano and Freedman started JaxTHRIVE as a way to raise funds to have the impact they wanted. To date, more than 200 volunteers have donated 500 hours to help 85 refugee kids.

“In another bit of crazy perfect timing, I competed on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” Magnano said. “I came back with prize money from that and wanted to do something better than going on shopping spree. I used a portion of the winnings as seed money.”

Volunteering with World Relief, Magnano and Freedman were able to establish a rapport with other like-minded people and gain their trust. They worked alongside Kim’s Open Door, which resulted in support for infrastructure, transportation and access to kids. The Girl Scouts have volunteered through their gold and silver projects. They just started a GoFundMe page with a link from jaxthrive.net. The Ponte Vedra High School lacrosse team held a camp to teach about the sport, unfamiliar to most of the refugee students.

“It was great to see all the kids connect around the sport,” Magnano said. “Barriers between anyone faded away as they bonded over common interest.”

JaxTHRIVE has held two community galas that have not only raised money, but also brought awareness to the difference between refugees and immigrants. Magnano wants people to understand what these students are going through. In addition to being the new kid from across world, they’re not at grade level. Tutoring helps them catch up.

“They’ve taught me more than I could have taught them,” he said. “About resilience — coming from somewhere so different and experiencing extraordinary hardships. They come through with a good attitude, ready to learn or to have fun. They have good energy, good light. Especially when you might think they may not have that good energy because of all they’ve been through.

“I realize the problems I’m dealing with are temporary; they’re small. The kids remind me to bring that light and to remain positive,” he said.

Cofounder Grace Freedman graduated last year and is attending Yale. Magnano graduates with the Class of 2020 and has been accepted to Princeton. When they began JaxTHRIVE, they committed to being at every event to make sure it was running as smoothly as possible. As chapters in about 13 area schools formed, other students stepped up to lead and they are just as excited as Magnano and Freedman. This year, the push has been to get people thinking about how JaxTHRIVE runs day-to-day and finding leaders to continue the initiative. Working with them, there is a succession plan for next year.

“I never understood the value of teaching,” Magnano said. “Until you start doing it, you never see how profound the impact will be. It’s been really, really incredible to work with such a great group of kids.”

For more information or to support JaxTHRIVE, visit jaxthrive.net.

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