Several Carmel Valley teenagers are becoming successful social entrepreneurs through a program called WIT, which gives high school students a platform to create solutions that benefit humanity.
The teens are tasked with essentially launching their own nonprofits, based on their passions and working to create change in their community. The teens work with mentors and also get a college credit from UC San Diego Extension for the accompanying entrepreneurship and leadership course that meets once a week, usually for two hours.
“WIT stands for ‘Whatever It Takes,’ and it really means that,” said Julien Barthelemy, a senior from Carmel Valley who attends Pacific Ridge School. “Because we’re teens, people don’t necessarily believe in us as much, so we have to really prove that we can do it and that we’re just as capable. Our mentors do a great job in making us believe in ourselves.”
The WIT program has continued to grow since it was founded in 2009. There are two classes in San Diego and one in St. Louis.
This is Julien’s second year in WIT; last year, his project was more of a learning process, focused on helping the environment.
“WIT really opened up my eyes to issues in San Diego,” Julien said. “It really makes you work on a project that focuses on and solves a problem.”
This year, Julien has worked on a project called PLEASE or Prevent Loneliness: Elder and Student Exchange, which brings happiness to seniors who feel isolated and alone through activities and kindness. The project was founded by Xochi Perez, a junior at High Tech High North County in San Marcos.
Last weekend, PLEASE had its first event at the Gary and Mary West Senior Wellness Center downtown, doing art and storytelling. Julien and the PLEASE project had to approach several different senior centers until they found one that agreed to participate.
“There’s really no other organization between teens and seniors, having a one-on-one interaction so they can have someone to talk to,” Julien said. “The seniors are so wise, so I feel like it’s a great opportunity for us teenagers, too.
“With their storytelling, they share so many thoughts and ideas, and it’s fascinating,” Julien said. “They have these incredible stories about themselves, and you could tell that they just needed someone to talk to. And they loved doing the artwork.”
Julien, who will attend Bentley University near Boston in the fall, hopes PLEASE will improve and expand as the seniors and teens continue to meet every other week.
A showcase will be held on May 26 to highlight the work of Julien’s PLEASE as well as all the other WIT class projects. The WIT showcase will be held at the downtown Central Library from 6-7 p.m., sponsored by Procopio, Ashford and Mission Federal.
“It’s an event that showcases all of the different accomplishments we’ve had this year with all of our different projects,” Julien said of the student-planned event that will feature food, music, project presentations and networking with entrepreneurs who may be interested in investing in a student platform.
PLEASE will feature stories and poems written by the seniors. Other projects include Tool for Schools, which addresses the burden put on teachers to buy school supplies for their classrooms, and S2S, which addresses the needs for arts programs in schools.
The biggest WIT project is Choose You, created in part by Carmel Valley senior Shivali Joshi.
Shivali, who attends Bishop’s School, is in her third year with WIT.
As a sophomore, she was looking for ways to get involved and stumbled upon a program flier.
“I attended the first class and loved it, and ever since then I’ve wanted to be a part of it,” said Shivali, who did an anti-bullying social media project in her first year. She also worked on a project called Embrace, which brings awareness of body issues to communities with a mission to change negative self-talk into supportive and personality-focused dialogue.
Embrace featured “Embracelets,” bracelets for people to wear with the idea that they would change wrists every time they had a negative thought to heighten awareness of just how much time is spent thinking those negative thoughts.
With seniors from Francis Parker, last year she founded Choose You, a project to eliminate childhood obesity through a teenage mentorship program. The teens provide elementary school youth in lower-income areas with the tools to live healthy, active lifestyles.
“The best gift to the world is education,” Shivali said.
Last year, Choose You pitched their program to a local entrepreneur and they received a $5,000 grant to run a beta test.
“It was really successful — we had a great turnout. We had one kid lose as much as eight pounds by the end of six weeks,” Shivali said. “Choose You empowers everyone with the choice to live a healthy lifestyle.”
As a result of Choose You’s success, they were invited to pitch their program to the American Medical Association in Chicago in March 2014. The organization loved the program, and through a sponsorship with AMA, Choose You has run at Bayside Community Center and Kit Carson Elementary School in San Diego with second- and third-graders. AMA hopes to roll the program out nationally at YMCAs around the country.
Shivali is leading Choose You this year with senior Alexander Barone from Cathedral Catholic, senior Jordan Goodman from Canyon Crest Academy, and junior Andrew Castro from Bishop’s.
The group is working on a mentor guidebook with a full curriculum so that the program can be sent all over the country for teens to lead. They plan to send it to the AMA for review by the end of the month.
Shivali said even she is surprised by how successful this program, created by a handful of teens, has become — a small idea having the opportunity to spread nationwide.
“I think it really is what WIT is about, empowering teens to do things they didn’t even know they could do,” said Shivali, noting that they shatter the stereotype that all teenagers want to do is be on their phones. “We are the next generation of voices, and why not start now, making an impact on other people’s lives?”
Tickets to the May 26 WIT showcase are $27. For information, visit doingwit.org.