Chanell Grismore recalls a high school classmate of hers who was a natural math whiz, but instead of using his talents to tackle calculus and trigonometry, he turned to selling drugs. She was sure he would have been class valedictorian had he applied himself in school.
That story and others like it inspired Grismore, a graduating UCLA senior, to find a way to help teens who have been in trouble with the law but are trying to turn their lives around.
So for the past three years, she has volunteered with Project BRITE (for "Bruins Reforming Incarceration Through Education"). The UCLA student group provides motivation, friendship and educational mentoring to boys and young men in Malibu's Camp Kilpatrick juvenile detention center and at the South Central Los Angeles facility of New Roads for New Visions, a nonprofit that aims to reduce recidivism. In March, Project BRITE was recognized by the UCLA Volunteer Center Fellows with the Mongelli Award for Excellence in Civic Engagement, which honors remarkable student efforts in community service.
Grismore has risen to become the organization’s executive director, a position previously held by her twin sister, Charmaine, who graduated in 2012 and now works locally as an early childhood educator. (Their mother is also a UCLA alumna.)
Twice each week, Chanell makes the trip to Camp Kilpatrick, where she tutors some of the 14- to 18-year-old residents. Tutoring is customized depending on the needs and requests of the mentees, but much of it focuses on preparing them to pass the California High School Exit Examination or earn their GEDs.
To help keep the young men from re-entering the criminal justice system, Project BRITE also provides instruction on applying for jobs, writing resumes and finding educational opportunities. Once a quarter, the mentees visit the UCLA campus so they can visualize themselves as college students.
"I always tell my mentees that they don’t have to let their environment define who they are," Grismore said. "They don’t always have to be a product of their community. They have other choices."
Forging bonds with the young men can’t be forced or rushed, but when the relationships flourish, they are incredibly rewarding, she said.
In one case, Grismore connected with a 16-year-old who confided that he had an interest in poetry. She made an effort to incorporate Spanish and English-language poetry into their mentoring sessions, and his language skills improved dramatically. Grismore said the relationship became a two-way street — she encouraged him to finish his high school requirements and apply for college, and the young man taught her about cooking.
Their efforts paid off: Grismore's protégé was admitted to a local college and earned a $1,000 scholarship. Grismore couldn’t have been prouder.
"Moments like those kept me going because I saw tangible results of the work I was doing," she said. "Now that young man knows the resources that are available to him and he can go back and share those with his community. So we’re promoting self-empowerment and then community empowerment from that. It’s beautiful."
Vusisizwe Azania, an advisor at the UCLA Community Programs Office, said Grismore's leadership and commitment to public service set her apart from among the hundreds of students he has worked with throughout his UCLA career.
"She is one of the most charismatic and gifted student leaders I have advised through the years," Azania said. "There are few students who welcome the responsibility and challenges of leadership with the balanced approach and enthusiastic follow-through that Chanell consistently displays. During my years as a community organizer, educator and student affairs officer, I have not encountered a more enlightening, empowering and engaging young woman."
Grismore, whose degree will be in biology, said her time at UCLA has inspired her to make a difference in the lives of others and in her community. In addition to Project BRITE, she is also actively involved with the California Black Women’s Health Project and the Black Hypertension Project, which provide health promotion and educational outreach programs.
"Hypertension affects the African-American population at an alarming rate, yet if you ask the majority of African-Americans they wouldn’t be able to tell you what it is or why they need to know about it," she said. "Hypertension is a silent killer, and it’s really affecting our community. Education makes the difference."
The aspiring doctor also held internships at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center and worked at the hospital as a licensed phlebotomist (drawing blood for tests, donations or transfusions), a certification she earned after falling in love with the high-pressure environment of the emergency room.
She said her time at UCLA, and especially her community service, will have a long-lasting effect on her life.
"I will really miss these projects," Grismore said. "They’ve been the highlight of my time here and they’ve really changed me. When I came here, all I could think about was med school. Now I’m also looking at graduate school and working in my community."