Empowering Students through Storytelling
We at insidewink LOVE personal stories and we truly honor our storytellers. The courage, vulnerability and trust it takes to tell a story creates meaningful bonds between the speaker and the listener. So , when we learned of Richard Reyes and PLUS ME (+Me) Project we knew we had to tell THAT story.
Richard has created a project model that creates opportunities for youth from low-income communities to work with storytellers in developing their own personal voice. By offering storytelling & writing workshops, students grow in confidence, strength and motivation, realizing their own importance and power. These empowering skills and experiences will carry them through college and the years beyond.
Founder and executive director of PLUS ME Project, Richard Reyes, earned his bachelor’s degree in Critical Theory & Social Justice from Occidental College and his master’s degree in Educational Foundations from California State University, Los Angeles. He is a social justice advocate who believes every story matters and has shared his narrative of becoming the first in his family to earn a college degree with over 150,000 students across the country.
Understanding & Appreciating the Power of the Word
“Go confidently in the direction of your dreams; it is something that has always resonated with me and a motto I strive to live by. “
— Richard Reyes
Founder and Executive Director of PLUS ME Project
How did the +ME Project come about?
Throughout my senior year in college, I visited 77 middle and high schools and shared my story of getting accepted into Occidental College (and becoming the first in his family to attend college) with over 12,500 students across Los Angeles. My goal that year was to connect with and inspire at least 10,000 students by highlighting the obstacles I overcame and hoping it would encourage them to remain resilient on their road to success.
I will never forget the day I finished reading Nonprofits For Dummies and decided to expand this necessary work by taking the first official step to launch the PLUS ME Project. I was extremely excited, absolutely terrified, and truly had no idea how that decision would forever change my life and the lives of so many others.
PLUS ME Project
Why was the organization created?
As a first-generation college student growing up in an underserved part of Los Angeles, I lacked many resources in high school compared to the majority of my college classmates.
The two that most affected me were an absence of relatable role models and an inability to articulate who I was to the world. This greatly affected my confidence throughout my teenage years and into adulthood. While my resilience helped me earn a master’s degree, most students who find themselves in community college after high school do not earn a single degree. In 2013, I launched PLUS ME to ensure more students had access to the resources I lacked.
Tell me about +ME Project and its programs.
PLUS ME Project activates the art of personal storytelling to increase confidence in youth as they pursue college, career & life goals. Our job at PLUS ME is to magnify every student’s potential by helping them discover and affirm the greatness within them. The heart of our work centers on the personal narrative and we use the art of storytelling as the delivery method in all our programming.
Beginning with Guest Speakers and ending with Achievers, each program serves as a step toward assisting students in identifying their specific gifts and encouraging them to own who they are. Our most popular program, Storytellers, guides youth through a self-reflection process in our customized My Story Matters Journals and helps them realize they are not alone through dialoguing with their peers. At the end of our five-hour program, youth sit in a community circle and have the opportunity to own a piece of their story in front of their peers.
As a community partner, we bring our trained team of relatable role models to conduct storytelling presentations and workshops both in and out of school. We also recruit volunteers to share their stories with youth in classrooms throughout the city.
What do you personally spend most of your time doing for the +ME Project?
This year I will be spending the majority of my time supporting my team in fulfilling our strategic plan. This means I am either in meetings with them, observing programs on the field, meeting with donors, or envisioning where we will take PLUS ME in the future. I love the role of being an executive director and look forward to where 2022 will take us.
The PLUS ME project Team
What inspires you about this work, perhaps a specific program or a story?
I love witnessing the growth that students experience in our programming over the course of five hours. From witnessing them connect with our speakers to watching them showcase vulnerability and share their stories with their peers to reading the survey results to understand deeper how our work impacts them. It is inspiring when youth feel seen not only by their peers but by themselves. That is the magical work that we do and it is inspiring to witness it happen time and time again within our cohorts.
Please give me an example of the way you’ve seen storytelling work to make a difference.
One of our programs focuses specifically on recruiting volunteers to share their stories in classrooms with youth. To date we have trained over 450 individuals and I love seeing the shifts that stories have on the adults we engage with. Many of them go through our training program and experience their own realizations through the self-reflection process.
They realize they have a story that can resonate with youth – which to some is astonishing. Watching them navigate through the butterflies before sharing their story to a classroom of students is special and reminds me how universal our work is.
Once our volunteers have the opportunity to share their story and get the chance to reflect on the experience, it is clear that they understand the impact they have made. Storytelling works for us because we see it as a way to experience transformational change for both the storytellers and listeners.
Beginning the Storytelling Process
How has the +ME Project improved or evolved over time?
Over the past eight years, our diverse team has developed innovative storytelling programs that have impacted over 100,000 students and trained over 400 volunteers throughout Los Angeles to share their stories. This work began with a single program (Guest Speakers) in 2013 and flourished into a full 5-program series for students (Guest Speakers, Leaders, Storytellers, Writers, and Achievers) and two adult programs (Educators and Parents). In that time, we went from a staff of one to a team of 15, allowing us to exponentially increase our scope and impact.
What are your goals for the next 5 years?
My goals for the next five years are to grow and expand the impact we are having in Southern California and beyond with our current model. I like to view it as having spent the last eight years building the ship and now having the opportunity to sail it. We know what works and we know there are countless students across the city, county, state, and country that would benefit from our programming. I look forward to working with our Board of Directors to grow our partnerships, team, budget, and impact.
What are some areas of opportunity for your organization? How can readers get involved?
PLUS ME is in a growth phase right now where we are expanding our reach and increasing the number of students we are impacting with our narrative workshops. Part of this strategy growth includes recruiting and training more volunteers to share their stories in classrooms with students. Anyone can learn more about our volunteer opportunities and upcoming virtual trainings by visiting our website. We would love help spreading the word to bring more individuals into the PLUS ME community.
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