July 09, 2014
Katherine’s Story: Hometown Hero Pays it Forward
By Abbie Kopf, director of Content and Storytelling
I was scheduled to meet Katherine Mejia at a Bachman Lake apartment complex. When I finally cross through a dilapidated courtyard and stumble upon her, we aren’t alone for long. Kids excitedly rush up to her and call her by name, reaching for the toys she carries in her hands. To them, Katherine probably looks just like Santa … and they certainly treat her as warmly. It’s easy to see why people are drawn to her. She is a remarkable young woman with sharply intelligent eyes, who graduated valedictorian of Thomas Jefferson High School and won a very prestigious scholarship to Southern Methodist University. She’s a kind-hearted Dallas girl, through and through, and she’s shaping up to be a hometown hero.
Every day this summer, Katherine will visit low-income housing areas, where she hands out nutritious meals and snacks and plays games with more than 100 kids. She does this as part of her AmeriCorps summer job with CitySquare’s Food on the Move program, a mobile feeding program in partnership with PepsiCo targeting low-income youth. United Way and the city of Dallas have set a goal of moving 250,000 people out of poverty by equipping hardworking people with resources to stay on their feet, like the Food to Move program.
The initiative has served thousands of kids. In fact, Katherine was one of them.
Katherine lived in one of the same apartment complexes assisted by the Food on the Move program. It was there that AmeriCorps volunteers told Katherine about educational opportunities that existed for her, and even got her to apply to become an AmeriCorps volunteer herself. Now, she pays it forward – helping kids to become active and to fill their minds with activity throughout the summer time.
The day I meet Katherine, I follow her into an alley where a freak mid-summer rain had cooled the place off enough for a pleasant afternoon of play. It’s not much of a playground, but it does the trick. “Kids get lonely,” Katherine tells me. “A lot of them will spend the day watching T.V., and that’s it.” She says that the companionship of the AmeriCorps volunteers is as much of an incentive for the kids to join in the program as the food. The scene before me echoes her sentiments. I sit on a window stoop in the alley, where Katherine swings the jump-rope in what’s shaping up to be a fairly competitive game of double-dutch, while kids approach her with questions and seek out her attention. Katherine tells me that they remember the names of past volunteers, and ask how they’ve been doing.
I ask Katherine, what made the difference in her path? Katherine is quick to credit her parents and teachers, who gave her the courage to pursue new subjects and interests, but she says it’s all about the attention she was given and the motivation she found within. As she got up in age, she was exposed to a few students from her high school who “got out” as she calls it. “I saw some people graduating and going to bigger and better places, and I knew it was possible.”
Katherine is aware that kids from her area can be cautious. “Sometimes when someone offers to help them, they might think that there’s strings attached, because it’s what they know.” Instead she tries to show them another way. “I try to let them know that they don’t have to go it alone, and that people always need someone to fall back on.”
Katherine’s time is winding down at this apartment complex, and the kids can sense the close of the day. Their eyes start to turn downwards. I ask Katherine what kind of advice she might give to kids like her and she says “Keep doing what you’re doing. You have to search for things, but if you do, they will come to you.”
Katherine is on a pre-med track, so that she can work in pediatrics and continue to help Dallas children. It’s been said that a child’s destiny can mean the zip code that they’re born in, that a low-income child born in Dallas has little hope of moving out of his or her financial position. But Katherine is living proof that the opposite can be true. Katherine benefitted from the attention and motivation of people who cared about her health and education and because of that, she is thriving and will ensure others will too.
United Way of Metropolitan Dallas is bringing people together to improve lives and create lasting change. If you want to make a difference in a child’s life and help improve the trajectory of generations to come, sign up to be a change-maker today!