Last month, my husband & I traveled to Denver to meet with Nicole Mahobian, founder of Colorado Young Leaders, & attend their 2nd annual fundraiser. Nicole and I were first introduced because of a mutual connection we had with Sarah Nininger, founder of (c)3's Spring featured charity, Action in Africa. We wound up chatting on the phone earlier this summer & I instantly was drawn into this story of CYL, its founding, & where it was going! I love the way a story has this amazing capacity to emotionally connect you with the world & the people in it. Upon meeting Nicole in person it's easy to see why CYL has positively impacted so many. What kind of impact, you ask? How about connecting high school students with 45 local nonprofits, where collectively they've logged over 20,000+ volunteer hours! And that's all since it's founding in 2013! But it's more than just the numbers. Behind each of those numbers is a student, a person experiencing life & discovering more about themselves, their passion, & how they can use that knowledge for the greater good. CYL's transformative elements, both for the students they work with and community they impact, are what make it so special...so important.
I hope you'll be moved in the same way I was by her passion to inspire, equip, & connect high school students throughout Colorado. And on that note, here is what Nicole says about how CYL does that:
CYL inspires students through engaging service opportunities, adult mentors, and leadership lessons, allowing them to see their true potential to make a positive impact in others. We equip them with the leadership skills they need to both serve well and succeed in their own ambitions. We connect them with a local non-profit that aligns with their passion.
Nicole, tell us about yourself.
I grew up in Michigan with a single mom, a sister I looked up to in every way, & an obsession with every sport imaginable. Most days I would dribble a soccer ball or basketball to my small Catholic grade school. I played outside until the street lights came on. I ended up being a pretty talented soccer player, traveling the world with the youth national team, & earning a full scholarship to a division 1 school.
In college, I had some pivotal experiences that taught me more about myself & my purpose in life. I started dating my now husband, Aurom, captained my soccer team, spent a month of my spring semester playing soccer + serving in Ethiopia alongside a non profit, & decided to join the Denver Teach for America corps after college.
These four elements of my college life really helped define who I am. Aurom taught me the beauty of balance & slowing down to reflect. Being a captain proved how much I enjoyed teamwork & that leadership required humility. Serving in Ethiopia showed me what I wanted to do for the rest of my life: love + serve people to the fullest. Choosing TFA, catapulted me in a love for high schoolers, teaching, & pulling out their potential in life.
How did Colorado Young Leaders begin?
The vision for Colorado Young Leaders developed in 2013 after I spent 5 years teaching in various sectors. My first two years I taught reading to disadvantaged, minority youth with Teach for America at the worst performing high school in Denver. The next two years I taught English in a private school where primarily affluent youth attended. Two different worlds. Even in these two contrasting schools, I found a common similarity in all my students regardless of economic means, background or ethnicity: they all performed better in a classroom when I first identify and acknowledged their passion in life. After 4 years in the classroom, I used my educational training in experiential Ed leading high school students to Uganda, Chile, Costa Rica & various states on service learning trips. This experience showed me that all youth wanted to make a difference in the world; they just didn't know how to start. When they positively impacted another's life, they too were impacted, gaining confidence & a stronger character.
Is there a particular person or story that drove you to start CYL?
There are really two pivotal stories that drove me to start CYL.
Alberto, a 15 year old Hispanic boy, one of my first students I ever taught, really began my "market research" on a leadership program built on exploring one's passion. He had failed reading since the first grade, yet had been pushed through the public school system because he was too much of a "problem kid" to hold back. During the first week of school, I asked my students to write a paragraph on what they wanted to be when they grew up. Alberto turned in two sentences & almost all the words were spelled wrong. He hated reading & writing, but he loved diesel trucks. I realized I would need to connect my teaching to diesel trucks. We took a field trip to a mechanic shop to learn about all the contracts, instructions, & books one in that field would have to read. I assigned him to read books about diesel trucks & all his papers were on this topic too. He passed 9th grade English & moved forward five reading levels in just one year. Passion drove him to succeed.
Second, all my students who took international trips with me.
I had the privilege of leading high school youth on service trips around the world: Uganda, Dubai, Costa Rica, Chile, and many states outside of Colorado. These trips transformed the students. Many left with a stronger sense of purpose, the confidence to make a difference in others life, & a deep passion for a social issues. However, when they returned home & were thrown back into everyday life, they often forgot. They forgot about the problems of the world & they forgot they had the power to make a positive impact. This is why I wanted to create an organization that allowed young people to serve right in their own community.
These two stories drove my vision because I believe CYL is an organization where students can find their passions & excel in other areas of their lives because of this. CYL allows young people to see their amazing potential to make an impact in others' lives. Since we focus on local non-profits, within walking distance for some of our students, they can realize their ability to make an impact everyday!
What have you learned from your work thus far?
Young people are amazing. There are two major stumbling blocks in a young person truly realizing their potential. First, they are given "labels," both good and bad, too early in life that encourage them to operate a particular way rather than explore who they really are. Second, they hear the word no too often. They aren't encouraged to take risks, adventure, explore, or think differently than the norm or their culture. We are a yes organization. We ask them to dream & encourage them to go after those dreams, then encourage them to go into their community & help others accomplish their dreams too.
What are your hopes & plans for the future?
My hope is to create a CYL chapter in all 63 Colorado counties so that every high school student will have an opportunity to identify their passion, be equipped as a servant leader, & realize their potential before they go to college.