Note from Florida Weekly: This is part of a series of columns written by members of the Second Muse cohort working in partnership with the Southwest Florida Community Foundation in Collaboratory. SecondMuse is a company that helps support and nurture “homegrown” entrepreneurs.

These are people from our community who are working hard to establish or grow businesses here in our neighborhoods. They have identified needs in our marketplace and are starting up companies to meet them, while strengthening our community. SecondMuse and the foundation believe that people are the core of our economy, and that is an important step in Southwest Florida philanthropy, to help people establish businesses here, to create jobs here and keep the talent and enterprise here.

From teacher to student, student to community, generation to generation, I Will Mentorship Foundation helps prepare youth to not only participate in but also shape the future — their future and the future of their community. As a native of Fort Myers, I came back to give back. I grew up in the Dunbar community and was once one of the youths who I Will Mentorship is targeting to empower. The foundation’s mission is driven by my passion and desire to change the trajectory of youth not only of this community but others as well.

Unlike many youths who are led to believe that college is the only pathway to success, I do not recall being given the opportunity at an early age or as a high school student to access the resources that would have prepared me for either vocational or collegiate education. Without such direction, I enlisted in the military and spent 20 years serving my country where I was exposed to opportunities, travel, education, discipline and experiences that helped me grow and excel as a person.

Among many of our programs, IWMF teaches soft skills and emphasizes eStem (environment, science, technology, engineering and math) to all of the students. Our programming provides access to hands-on 21st century technology, college prep curriculum and environmental education to under-resourced communities and schools. Our programs are designed to improve eStem proficiency, coupled with a robust support system for teachers and virtual reality lab that brings material to life, thus helping create the kind of transformations that change lives.

Over the past four years IWMF has served over 2,000 youths, which has created new challenges like many nonprofits experience. As demand for services expanded beyond the ability of a volunteer-based organization, we struggled to effectively manage, support and scale our program to be most effective. The opportunity to join the SecondMuse cohort came at a leap-of-faith moment in which we made a critical decision to transition from all-volunteers to bring on salaried staff. We experienced many growing pains in our delivery of services and other pitfalls in the process but were able to gain the help of the Second-Muse cohort tabletop mentors and guest speakers.

The sessions were demanding and helped us develop a strategic plan for staffing infrastructure, marketing and sustainable growth. As a result, we hired key staff in positions that are essential to develop a solid foundation for financial sustainment and dynamic programing to meet the needs of 5–12 grade youth. Starting in the fall of 2020, we will expand to Collier and Charlotte counties, targeting rural and immigrant communities which have limited resources to provide hope to youth who are capable of more than the community is able to provide.

Under this new structure, we believe that an additional 83 youths will be accepted into college with at least 60 percent of college paid for; and an additional 51 youths will enter vocational schools, and over 800 youths will be exposed to eStem programming or 21st century skill training for the first time.

For more information on how to get involved, see ¦