Light up with a Luminary: Colleen Adams
15 Dec 2010

The Author


Light Up with a Luminary features a person that has an inspirational life, outlook or philosophy that lights up our awareness and goodness (a Luminary). Each profile offers a small biography as well as an interview or a few of their quotes. If you know of a person which you feel is a Luminary, whether from a past or present, contact us.

Colleen Adams is a very busy woman; she is a business professional, an avid community volunteer and the head of a rising, successful non-profit. I first met her during an interview for a radio news piece about an organization she runs and founded, “Empowered Youth”. Empowered Youth is a mentorship program for teenagers who are, or have been, in the Miami-Dade Juvenile Justice Detention Center, and aims to break their cycle of recidivism (repeat offense) and uplift them and their community. The story of the amazing organization Colleen had started led me to interview her, but what made me want to help her cause and befriend her was her radiating positive energy, her selfless nature and her unmatched passion for the overlooked, underprivileged youth of Miami.

Empowered Youth incorporates many layers:  an in-detention mentoring program that runs every Friday night, and the “Empowered Youth Neighborhood Program” that offers a post-detention program that meets twice a week, with workshops, guest speakers and one-to-one mentors, giving the teens  tools to develop and overcome their situation. The third branch, recently launched and called “Empowered Youth Entrepeneurs”,  is an actual business that allows graduates of the post-detention program to create their own jobs and learn how to manage a business of their own.

You can imagine how busy Colleen is with all of this on her plate; but somehow she heads EY on the side of her “day job” as the director of Community Relations for Perry Ellis International.

What makes Colleen a Luminary is not just the fact that she runs these programs—but that she has a true connection and appreciation for all of the teens she works with. Her love impacts these “troubled youths” and helps them transform their lives. Her care and willingness to help goes beyond the parameters of her organization, as she constantly gives attention to opportunities and solutions for each teen on her own free time. She is optimistic, caring, and a hard worker, and makes everyone feel loved and important. For her perseverance, pure selflessness and heart-centered life, I am honored to feature Colleen Adams as our first luminary.

I got to interview Colleen for SBL:

Melanie(M): You started Empowered Youth a few years ago, when you started visiting the Juvenile Detention Facility on Fridays with a few of your church members. What specifically sparked the feeling that you had to take this on as a more serious and permanent project?

Colleen Adams (CA):Because I kept seeing the same boys come back into the detention center repeatedly, despite what I believed to be their sincere desire not to re-offend and come back.  They wanted to break the cycle, but needed support and resources in their lives to be able to do that.  These boys live very desperate and bleak lives for the most part.  No fathers, born into poverty, born into dysfunctional homes, violent neighborhoods, no jobs, no money and with no resources.  The boys feel trapped in their lives and do not know how to get out…but they WANT to.

M: You and I have unfortunately both heard, “These are criminals! You need to be careful”, “they deserve their consequences”… what have you seen is the truth about these teens who have been incarcerated?

CA: They are good kids from terrible circumstances. I would defy any one of us—given their lives and circumstances—to behave any differently.  Desperation and survival drive so many of their crimes and no home supervision, positive role models or hope the rest.  In the absence of fathers and stable home lives, the streets raise most of these kids, where gangs become a poor substitute for families and acceptance.  These boys are labeled and judged…but no one asks WHY they do what they do or what they truly need to re-direct their lives…to lead the positive lives they truly want to lead.

M: You often say that you don’t have children, but that these troubled teens are your children. I have seen that the feeling is mutual. You are a white, upper middle class woman. These are three possible obstacles you have with working with inner city youth…  was it ever a challenge?

CA: Love is love.  And that is what so many of these youth do not have.  Love is not a color or a sex, it is a feeling of genuine caring and acceptance.  One of my goals for this program is to break down the stereotypes that separate us as people.  I care about PEOPLE who are misjudged and discarded because of the failure of our society, not their own.  When we are cut, everyone’s blood is red.  Tears are not shaded white or black, pain is pain.  The differences are the ones we create.  I don’t see, feel or acknowledge those and have always had the love I give returned to me tenfold.  It is a privilege to work with these fine young men.  There could be no greater riches than to see one of these boys use their skill, talents and abilities to fulfill their greatness. All they  need is someone to believe in them, resources and opportunity.

M: What have these kids, and the EY program, taught you about people, or about yourself?

CA: That differences in our world are the ones we create.  That greed and/or indifference often replace compassion, and that these boys are totally redeemable.  Working with them is like walking into a barren and scorched garden and beginning to tend it, nurture it and one day begin to see the green buds of hope that come with caring for something that just needs love and attention to flourish.

What I have mostly learned is that life without hope produces desperation, and desperation produces the inhumane acts that we ourselves create through our indifference to people’s pain and circumstances.

What I have learned about myself is that we are all the same.  We all want love, respect, opportunity, fairness, justice and hope.  Those emotions are the same in every neighborhood, for every gender and every race.  We dishonor ourselves when we dishonor others.

M: What motivates you to go to the after care program every Monday and Wednesday, and to visit the Juvenile Center every Friday?

CA: Because I know that I am making a difference.  These boys really have no one in their corner.  Few people take the time to see the potential in them, and the good.  They get ‘labeled’ as a ‘bad kid,’ ‘juvenile delinquent,’ ‘trouble-maker,’ and that label becomes them and precedes them.  They totally respond to someone who believes in them, who expects the best from them, and they respond accordingly.  People tend to live up to your expectations of them.

M: If the teens you work with, collaboratively said one message to the world… what would it be?

CA: Give us a chance to show you who we really are.  Don’t judge us before you know us.  Don’t judge us until you find out where we live, what we feel, to what we have been subjected in our lives.  Let us prove your perceptions of us wrong.

M: Now to learn a bit about you–

What do you like to do in the little free time you do have?

CA: I love to sail and be outdoors.  I love mountains, streams…being in and among nature.  I also love to cook and entertain and spend time with friends and family.  I love to work out and stay in shape, read books that educate and inspire me and spend time with like-minded people.  My goal is to always continue to grow and evolve as a human and spiritual being.

M: What is your favorite music? Any specific song that inspires you?

CA: My dad was a musician, so I grew up with an appreciation for many different kinds of music and that remains so today.  It really depends upon my mood.  The kids have even taught me to appreciate some rap!  Music is really every generation’s poetry, and if you listen, you can learn a lot about what they are thinking and feeling.  It is important to listen and to try and understand what they are saying and why.

M: What do you think is your statement to the world?

CA: Liberty and justice for ALL.

We have become such an elitist world of haves and have not’s.  There is so much judgment and so little compassion for those who may look or live differently to ourselves, and that is resulting in so much separation and so much misunderstanding.  We cannot expect to successfully relate to people in other countries when we have shut down communication and understanding with people in our own country.  It is a philosophy that can only lead to the destruction of everything this country stands for and was built upon.

Democracy was designed to lift everyone up, not the select few. These young men should not be penalized twice:  once for being born the wrong color in the wrong neighborhood, and secondly for trying to survive that environment.  That is not liberty or justice for anyone.

As a result of this fundamental injustice, we are creating generations of very justifiably hurt and angry young people who have simply not been given the opportunity they deserve as part of the promise of this country.

Juvenile crime is only a symptom of the REAL crime:  abandoning our young inner-city children.

It is an honor to have worked with someone like Colleen Adams. After the first interview I held with her almost three years ago, and hearing Empowered Youth’s mission, I quickly got involved. I started going to the Juvenile Detention Center and to be honest–I had no idea what to expect. I found teenagers seeking guidance, wanting people who believe in them and who they can believe in for positive influence. All their lives they have been ill-advised, and usually do not have the tools or the environment to move in the right direction. All it takes to change their reality is to show up with selflessness and with the willingness to talk about life and its potential for an hour. Amazingly, just an uplifting conversation can inspire them to want to take the first steps to turn their lives around.

A few months ago, I began going to the after care program for a more one-to-one involvement. It is not easy at times: some of the teens have anger, fear and a protective wall. All you ever have to do if you doubt the potential for change is to turn towards Colleen and see her grace and patience (and results!); it will guide your success. You realize that all the teens have a useful voice, and consequently deserve for it to be heard. She always says, “Show up for these kids…it will be the most rewarding experience of your life.”  From personal experience I can say she is 100% right.

I know she would want us to remember the incredible advantage we have had to have love and support in our lives from people who believe in us. Thank you Colleen for sharing these basics with those who need it, and for inspiring others to do the same.

Empowered youth could use support (whether volunteering or donations). If you are interested in helping or getting involved, you can contact Colleen:

May the entire universe be filled with peace and joy, love and light!

Photo Credit: Rashaud Michel

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