Seven high school students from the That’s My Child mentorship program travelled to Washington, D.C. for a week of tremendous learning, growth, mentorship and work.

After a rigorous application process, these students were selected as the participants for this year’s trip: Marching On: From Montgomery to D.C. This year was the seventh year of an annual all-expenses paid educational trip for students to the nation’s capital. Marching On is a non-profit created and led by Phillip Ensler, a civil rights lawyer in Montgomery and they partnered for the first time with That’s My Child: a Small Forces partner organization That’s My Child is a youth organization based in Montgomery, Alabama that teaches youth financial literacy, conflict resolution, and hosts programs to keep high school kids engaged and flourishing.

In a recent interview, we spoke to Charles Lee, founder of That’s My Child and Jonathan Peterson, the program director of the organization. They spoke so passionately about how impactful the trip was for both the students and them. Right from the beginning of the trip to the end of a week packed with significant activities, they were constantly growing and learning. They visited several significant landmarks such as the White House, the Capitol, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the Holocaust museum, George Washington University, Howard University, the Supreme Court, and Google. They also had the opportunity to meet with several leaders such as local representatives at the state level, some of the members of Obama’s advisory board, and leaders in the Department of Education.

For Lee, two of the most inspiring places were the National Museum of African American History and Culture and Google. On the African American museum, he said: “It just had so much history.” He added: “To end any story or any chapter, you have to know the beginning.” He also said he admired just how much Google invests in their staff. For Peterson, one of the trips he enjoyed deeply was the behind the scenes tour of the Supreme Court. “We didn’t even know that above the Supreme Court was a basketball court. It blew the kids away,” he said. He also loved that the kids were able to speak to leaders in the Department of Education to voice the concerns and challenges they face in their schools as well as suggestions for how things can be improved.                

The trip was more than just educational. It was also an empowering and inspiring experience for the students and leaders alike. Upon meeting fellow African American students in college at Howard University, they were able to see people like themselves succeeding and recognizing that they too can build aspirations and dream big goals.

The whole journey from beginning to end did not come without any difficulty, though. It was quite challenging trying to get some of the youth to step out of their comfort zone and overcome self-doubt even from the application stage. Reflecting on the process, Peterson said: “If they don’t try, they’ll never get a shot, versus if you do try, at least you do get to take that shot and you can learn from that even if you don’t get what you want.”

The leaders, however, found it truly rewarding seeing them put in all the effort into applying and watching them get selected. Lee reflected on the joy he experienced watching the students come together to raise “spending money” for one of their fellow students who had indicated that he did not have enough. The students further expressed love and gratitude as they wrote letters to the leaders which they gave them on the plane ride back home.

Now that they are back, there is still work left to be done. Peterson and Lee spoke about how they were all inspired but they wanted to make sure the students remain as motivated back home as they were in D.C. Speaking on what drives them to keep going and persevere in being such a positive influence on students in Montgomery, they both agreed that they want to build a legacy as well as plant seeds now so that these students know from the start that they are loved and they have a purpose in life.  

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