Jefferson Award Winner Helps Youth Thrive In Tough NeighborhoodsBy Sharon Chin

Ronald Easley says Oakland gangs were his life at an early age. Then when we was 16, fresh out of juvenile hall, he says, “I walked into a life changing experience.”

Easley became a new man, he said, under the guidance of the East Oakland nonprofit Youth Uprising. Its president and founder, Olis Simmons, took him under her wing.

Simmons explained, “I said, ‘You made a mistake and you’ll have to pay for that mistake, but I’m going to be your friend all through that.'”

Today, 23-year-old Easley works at Youth Uprising as a cook.  He says Simmons saved his life.

“I didn’t really have a mother figure in my life, or father figure, too much,” said Easley. “I kind of looked at her like that.”

Simmons founded Youth Uprising 10 years ago for young people aged 13 to 24. She was working with the county health department when she realized she could do more to transform lives in East Oakland’s impoverished neighborhoods.

“The truth is that we are not all the mistakes that we make. We’re not the circumstances we were born into. We’re so much more,” Simmons said. “And we deserve the opportunity to become our full selves.”

Simmons says one of the reasons that Youth Uprising works is because it opens new doors of opportunity for young people.

Youth Uprising offers dozens of programs, taught by volunteers – whatever the young people want to learn, from art to courses on education, careers, health, and civic participation.

Executive Director Dr. Carole Dorham-Kelly says Simmons believes nothing is impossible if you want to change your life.

“She is an innovative leader, seeing things people won’t see, taking risks people aren’t willing to take,” Dorham-Kelly said.

Youth Uprising has served 13,700 young people in the last decade. Five thousand of them have landed jobs, from summer employment to corporate leadership roles.

What does Easley say to Simmons?

“Thank you, and I love you,” he said.

“I thank God how lucky I am to have meaning in someone else’s life,” Simmons replied.

So for helping thousands of youth rise up to rebuild their lives, this week’s Jefferson Award in the Bay Area goes to Olis Simmons.

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