Local high school students accepted into national leadership program for their community efforts


What is it to be community-minded? Picking up trash and attending community forums to be better informed about local issues are ways residents can contribute to making neighborhoods thrive. These not-so-small acts represent the physical manifestations of what community-mindedness is. Learning to see the world around you as an extension of yourself and to feel responsible for it — that’s what it is to be community-minded.

While some feel at home inside fences, others see their home in a much broader sense.

Local students Chase Magnano and Catherine Culliton want to make their broader home a better place. Recently, they were selected to participate in Bank of America’s Student Leaders program for their success with community leadership in St. Johns County. The program sponsors them in an eight-week internship and leadership summit in Washington, D.C. to meet members of Congress, fellow student leaders and learn about diversity and nonprofit work.

Both students were selected because of their work founding civic programs. Magnano started the nonprofit, JaxTHRIVE in 2017, which helps empower refugee students, and Culliton founded Club ARC, which promotes acceptance of individuals with intellectual disabilities.

Magnano was inspired after volunteering with World Relief Jacksonville. After he found out the organization was closing from lack of funding, he set out to make his own peer-facilitated organization to help refugee students with English, math and cultural integration. In a little over a year, he raised $50,000 through grants and donations.

Culliton’s inspiration was closer to home. She founded and currently acts as president of Club ARC at Ponte Vedra High School after seeing how the ARC Village of Jacksonville independent living community benefited her brother, Robbie. Being a regular visitor, she wanted to help her classmates become more accepting and dispel myths associated with those living with intellectual disabilities.

In between their high school responsibilities, both students, aged 17, were able to create real positive change in their community, earning them eligibility in the Bank of America Student Leaders leadership training course.

The eight-week internship took place at Woodland Acres Elementary school, where they mentored students after school. The elementary is in the Arlington area where many students come from low-income households.  

“Both of us come from strong families that always push us to be the best we can,” Culliton said. “We saw that not all these kids were having like the same opportunity. It (was) our job to take a role of a mentoring position and help make a change in their lives. I think we both became very connected with the students — more so than we ever thought.”

Cullion and Magnano worked with the students not only on subjects like reading comprehension and math, but also on life skills like advocating to speak on their own behalf or how to give a proper handshake.

Magnano said he learned there were some similarities between his work with underprivileged students and refugees.

“When you’re really high energy and being really positive and excited with them, that's a completely 100% critical skill when working with anyone, but especially refugees,” he said. “To bring the same dynamic to these kids really excites them like regardless of how familiar they are with (the subject matter). Hey, we're doing math and it's the summer, but you know, we're gonna have fun doing it and it's going to be a good time.”

Culliton said that there wasn’t a “huge difference” between working with children with special needs and the students of Woodland Acres. She said that just being able to “connect with people” was universally helpful when being in a mentor role. “They're all kids,” she said.

During their visit to D.C., Magnano and Culliton were in their element. Surrounded by hundreds of other community-minded young people, the students made fast friendships that helped them foster their own philanthropic efforts and support their friend’s causes.

Magnano and Culliton have come back to Ponte Vedra with renewed passion for JaxTHRIVE and Club ARC. They are Facetiming their new friends from around the county and visiting prospective colleges. Thanks to the invaluable skills they learned with hands-on community work and training in D.C., they’re both excited to take on the world.



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