Shawna Machado, the Spring 2012 Outstanding Graduate from the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee and a former student of mine, got her dream job last week as a counselor with abused and neglected children in Sarasota County. This is a well-deserved happy ending for an ambitious woman who let nothing stand in the way of achieving her goals.
I met Shawna approximately a year ago when she contacted me about becoming involved in the Social Justice Initiative, an on-campus student group for which I am the advisor. I told her about some of the projects our group had developed in prior semesters. She was most interested in our exhibition of consciousness-raising photographs of homeless people living in Tent City in St. Petersburg, taken by Ringling College of Art and Design graduate Christina Swanson, whose stirring work we displayed in conjunction with educational programming on homelessness. Since her interest was piqued, I also informed her that I was teaching a service learning course called “Ending Homelessness: How Can We Work Toward Social Change?” during the summer. She signed up for the class and the Social Justice Initiative and immediately began recruiting members and making plans for the following year, when she would ultimately be selected to serve as the club president.As part of the summer course, each of the students had to journal about their views on homelessness, and we looked to see how those views might change as a result of participation in related service projects and class discussions. Shawna’s journals were poignant and moving. She wrote about experiencing homelessness as a child, and the fact that she was facing it again as an adult after losing her job a few years ago. Shawna told all of us that she was living with generous friends—but I didn’t see the full picture until I was interviewed after graduation by a reporter from Business Insider (read the article here). She didn’t want anyone to treat her differently, so she chose to keep the details of her living arrangements private. What we didn’t know was that Shawna was moving among different friends’ homes, living in her car, sleeping on the beach and house-sitting when she got the chance. She rarely slept and was showering in the locker room facility on campus.
All the while, Shawna volunteered in organizations throughout the city. Her class assignment was to the Early Learning Coalition, where her supervisor told me she wished she could clone her. After she completed the required 18 hours of service, she continued to volunteer for the nonprofit long after our service learning course ended. She was very active in working on the Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness in Sarasota County, serving as a Guardian Ad Litem and working at HOPE Family Services, a domestic violence shelter in Bradenton. Last fall, she developed and moderated a forum on homelessness along with other members of the Social Justice Initiative. She always kept a positive attitude and offered to jump in on any projects where she thought she could be helpful.
Over coffee last week, Shawna told me that she is very hopeful for her future and grateful for all the support she has received from friends and even strangers who learned of her story and wanted to help. She was offered a few jobs upon graduation, but she wanted to wait for news from the County. She has chosen to work with children who are experiencing the difficult and painful circumstances she did as a child. Children in need within Sarasota County will have a friend and mentor in Shawna. If past is prologue, she will do everything in her power to make life better for those in her care. I’m proud to have known her.