Six years ago, Charlotte, North Carolina resident Olivia Joy Stinson was not your average middle-schooler. After helping her church collect gifts and toys for underprivileged children, the thirteen-year-old decided she wanted to do more. With the help of her mother and her church, Olivia started the PEN Pals Book Club and Support Group for Children of Incarcerated Parents to provide mentoring, education and community service opportunities for children. Today, Olivia is a 19-year-old Winston-Salem State University student who continues to expand the reach of her organization, serving kids across Charlotte between the ages of 2-19. After being awarded a $10,000 grant for PEN Pals by the AOL/PBS series MAKERS: Women Who Make America, EBONY.com caught up with young philanthropist to discuss what it’s like to be honored alongside Barbara Walters as a MAKER.
EBONY: How did you get your organization going and how have you been able to sustain it?
Olivia Joy Stinson: I was just trying to think of what we could do to help these kids who were struggling not just at Christmas and holidays but throughout the year so I kind of came up with the idea of let’s do a program that can support these children and just kind of help them in any way possible. At least if we’re doing things once a month [we can stay connected with them and know what’s happening in their lives].
My mom saw a grant for the National Education Association, a $500 literacy grant on the internet. And I thought that was so important for kids with incarcerated parents to incorporate literacy into the program with the [PEN Pals] meetings once a month to show them you can go to college and you can don’t have to follow in your parents’ footsteps which is why we promote the idea of literacy and getting a good education and I think I just love the idea of paying it forward. So we sat down and talked about it and I gave her my ideas and she patched it up and made it sound good. [A few months later] we received a phone call that we’d received the $500 grant and that was our groundwork and our base and we’ve had to make it stretch.
We’ve gotten different grants here and there, a couple of hundred dollars here and there and we’ve learned to make it stretch and we received the MAKERS grant and one from L’Oreal. We were very pleased. If we can make $500 stretch we can work with $10,000!
EBONY: How often are you in contact with the children and what do your monthly meetings look like?
OJS: Usually we do our meetings once a month just because its’ so hard to do it more often getting together once a month but what we do is we’re always available to anybody if they ever need to talk, we’re always available. And in between meetings we send emails to stay in contact with everyone that’s in the group. About every other month, we get a new book on a topic that affects teens. We kind of just want to make these topics and these issues things teens can be aware of and avoid. One of our books was about drinking and driving and the one we’re doing currently is on bullying and we have a workshop on bullying coming up. We’re going to do different topics. We really just get together and have fun. We discuss what happened in the book, what the issues were and how they can steer clear of them as much as possible. We also do a monthly community service project once a month. I think it’s so important to stress the idea that, yeah my situation may be bad, there is always someone worse off than I am and I can pay it forward and help out.
EBONY: You’ve expressed taking your organization national in the future. Have you taken any steps towards doing that now that you’ve received this grant?
OS: It is a future goal that I’d really like to happen but since we’ve received the positive press from MAKERS and from L’Oreal, we’ve gotten a lot of calls from all over. One of my mother’s friends from Winston-Salem State who is down in Florida called her and said “I’d love to start a chapter down here in Florida,” and we were at a church conference in December and a lady from New York would like to start a chapter in New York and then we have someone who would like to start one in the lower part of the county in which we’re located, so we’re slowly moving.
EBONY: From your church family to your mother, it seems you have a very strong support system around you helping you to realize and sustain your idea and this organization. How has growing up in that kind of support system impacted who you have become?
OS: Oh wow. I think just seeing my mom doing it [for so many years] and having my mom as my role model, and also, when I was 5, she had major surgery to get a tumor removed and we ended up living with my grandparents for probably up to a year when she was sick, and I just saw how people in the church and friends were so giving to us and they were so loving and they helped us in so many ways to make sure I had everything I needed and I know what it’s like to be in need and to have people step up. It’s hard for me not to pay it forward and give back to someone else.
EBONY: I’ve had the privilege of interviewing quite a few MAKERS this past year and there are some really amazing women who are being honored, from Misty Copeland to Barbara Walters. What’s that like for you to be
OS: It’s so amazing but I guess I’m still kind of in shock you hear these big names and you think wow I’m among these phenomenal women. I think because I’m still 19, I don’t think of myself as a woman yet so I think I was just so excited and so blessed and so grateful and to receive wisdom from the next makers it was just so wonderful to be with them and see wow I’m included with these same women. It’s truly a blessing but I’m still in shock!
Keep up with Olivia Joy Stinson and her PenPals organization at PenPalsBookClub.org. The world premiere of Makers: Women Who Make America debuts on PBS on February 26 at 8pm EST on PBS. Check your local listings.
Brooke Obie writes the award-winning blog DistrictDiva.com. Follow her on Twitter @BrookeObie.