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‘Whatever It Takes’ class will give teens a chance to positively impact their communities

WIT teens Melanie Gonzalez and Manali Joshi at the University of Virginia Youth of Color Matter conference with David Johns, executive director of the White House Commission on Educational Excellence for African Americans and grad fellow Lauren Mims. Courtesy photo
WIT teens Melanie Gonzalez and Manali Joshi at the University of Virginia Youth of Color Matter conference with David Johns, executive director of the White House Commission on Educational Excellence for African Americans and grad fellow Lauren Mims. Courtesy photo

The teen leadership and entrepreneurship program Whatever It Takes (WIT) is bringing its successful formula to Carmel Valley this November. Over the last few years, WIT students in classes in University City and at the downtown Central Library have taken advantage of a program that not only gives them a chance to affect social change but to take a college level course and receive credit from the UC San Diego Extension.

The deadline to apply for the new Carmel Valley class is Friday, Oct. 30.

WIT founder Sarah Hernholm knows a little bit about doing whatever it takes, building her program from the ground up five years ago.

“There is nothing better than to be able to live your dream come true,” Hernholm said. “To me I have the best job on the planet. I got to create a job that I wanted to wake up for everyday.

“I want to shift the perception that teenagers are not passionate or engaged…they are if people are willing to listen to their ideas and help them into reality. I love working with teenagers and I just see that they’re so capable.”

Natasha Tayebi during a previous WIT class. Courtesy photo
Natasha Tayebi during a previous WIT class. Courtesy photo

While working as a teacher in California, Hernholm became a victim of the “last in, first out” policy—every year that she was a teacher she had to fight to keep her job at the end of the year.

“I loved teaching and I loved having a classroom but it was frustrating. Psychologically it didn’t make sense to me because I knew I was good at my job,” Hernholm said.

After four years of pink slips she decided to take what she had learned in the classroom and make it work outside of the school districts.

In the beginning in 2009, WIT started as a TV show in the vein of “Extreme Home Makeover” where Hernholm would take students who wrote in about something they wanted to fix in their community and have the whole community join in to solve the problem. She pitched the idea to networks but they were doubtful that kids would be dedicated enough to do the work.

“I knew they would be because I know what teens are capable of,” Hernholm said.

As things like community murals and talent shows to raise money for charity took off, the possibility of a TV show faded but more and more schools were asking for a WIT program at their school. Hernholm opted to become a non-profit, reaching kindergarten through high school students after school.

Eventually WIT evolved into just focusing on high school teens with the unique angle of providing college credit.

While WIT chapters are in St. Louis and San Diego, more national expansion is on the way—WIT will be in Austin, Texas in September and then in New York City in 2016.

“We will keep growing to wherever there are teenagers, which is everywhere,” Hernholm said. “I just think this is what I was put on this planet to do, to advocate for teenagers and make sure they have a platform for their voices to be heard.”

WIT classes meet once a week for a 30 week-course. The teachers are all entrepreneurs and they guide the students through lessons in personal leadership development and business development. Hernholm still remains active as a WIT instructor.

As part of the class, students have to start a business or project and it has to address a social issue in a unique and sustainable way. Through this process, the teenagers may fail or mess up but that is all a part of launching a business.

“WIT gives them the space to fail; there’s too much at stake at school, “ Hernholm said. “This gives them a chance to build resilience and grit. They have to take a risk, fall and get back up. They can learn to see failure as feedback and keep moving.”

WIT San Diego classes have tackled everything from the teenage self esteem to loneliness in the senior community. Carmel Valley’s Shivali Joshi, a Bishop’s School graduate who now attends Claremont McKenna College, was involved in one of the most successful WIT projects, Choose You.

Choose You is 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. As a result of Choose You’s success, WIT teens were invited to pitch their program to the American Medical Association in Chicago in 2014 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.

One San Diego teen wanted her WIT project to educate the public about the harassment she receives while taking trolleys downtown. The project brought together a student from Bishop’s and a student from the Pruess School, a charter school for low-income students—two very different walks of life.

Through WIT projects, the teens are learning about other people, cultures and communities they might have never been exposed to otherwise.

“In the real world and in college, these kids will have to work with people from different walks of life and they can come off elitist, ignorant or both. This gets them started building bridges and can have a significant impact on how they work in the world,” Hernholm said. “We do a disservice when we isolate our children.”

As part of the WIT curriculum a big “Pitch Night” is held in November in front of 10 judges (no parents allowed)—the students present their projects in attempts to receive funding.

As Hernholm said, WIT is not fake work, it’s real work and the program is very clear about its expectations of the students. So far, she has seen that the teens are willing to do the work to live up to those high expectations.

“I love doing what I do. Teens are willing to have tough conversations and as a result, they become committed to making the world a better place,” Hernholm said. “It’s awesome that I get to do this for a living.”

Students can apply to WIT by filling out an application, available online. All applicants must then undergo an interview, usually by a WIT graduate. It is a tuition-based program but if students cannot afford it, they can apply to receive financial aid. One-third of WIT students receive financial aid provided by corporate sponsors like the Moxie Foundation in San Diego and individual donors.

For more information, visit doingwit.org.