The Nonprofit organization I’m Saving Myself (ISM) has proven it can do what it set out to do and more. The proof is in an old metal file cabinet (the kind you rarely see today outside of antique stores and old movies) located in their basement-level offices in Benton Harbor, Michigan. In it, is a list of files kept safe, lovingly and, for the most part and until now, quietly and away from the rest of the world. These files contain the names and the life stories of dozens of young people who were each walking a path of low self-esteem and self-destruction without hope of a bright and happy future … names like Deavondre Jones, Katie Giguere, Michelle Brooks, Jessica Williams, just to name a few. Students who were hurting, but instead of wallowing in self-pity, they decided to take complete control of their lives and embrace their purpose.
This same file cabinet also holds the dreams of Bonita Mitchell, a native of Southwest Michigan and the founder and executive director of ISM. A fan of the legendary Stevie Wonder from the age of 5, she couldn’t have imagined that she would one day become his wardrobe consultant and travel the world with Mr. Wonder, inspiring those inside his team of band members and background singers. “I felt so blessed to have my dreams come true, but when I came home, I was saddened to see such a lack of hope and dreaming in the youth of Southwest Michigan. I had to come back and teach them their own value and that, not only can they dream, but that those dreams can come true, just like mine did!” Now, her dreams have changed, but they are still coming true because now, she’s giving kids the tools to make healthy choices through what she knows and loves best … music and the performing arts.
And they are responding … by rejecting risky behavior and negative self talk, by embracing education and by creating their own paths and their own success stories. Stories that will make you cry tears of sadness and then, tears of joy. Stories like that of Deavondre Jones, who witnessed his brother being shot, critically wounded and changed forever. Deavondre became his brother’s primary caretaker only to suffer loss again at his brother’s unexpected passing. “Deavondre came to us a very angry eighth-grader”, remarks Bonita. “But”, she continued, “He loved to dance and when we uncovered that, I knew we could turn this kid around.” She explains: “You see, we are not a music organization, we are a behavioral health organization. We help build self-esteem which can help prevent mental health issues like anxiety and depression. Music and the performing arts are just the vehicles we use to administer our healing. The music is what draws the kids in.”
Deavondre thrived. He went from being homeless to graduating from a junior college to attending Columbia College in Chicago on a President’s scholarship and representing the student body on Columbia’s board of Trustees. Most impressively, in 2013, he introduced the concept of DanceSpire – mixing performance art and motivational speaking to deliver inspirational messages. Through live performances and online videos, DanceSpire promotes the values of fearlessness, consistency and education. As it states on the homepage of the website, “DanceSpire challenges categorical thinking and believes that any idea, regardless of someone’s age, is possible. We just happen to express it in a really cool way.”
Michelle Brooks was molested at the age of 8 by a family friend and had attempted suicide three times when she experienced ISM and discovered that she could rise above her environment, overcome her shyness and sing. She was named the organization’s first Diamond in the Rough (raw talent to be nurtured) and it changed her life. As she puts it “… college was but a dream that most teenagers like me never see come true. The I’m Saving Myself organization helped me transition from high school to college … If it wasn’t for the ISM organization, I probably would be another statistic or a product of my environment. ” Now, she has become the first college graduate in her family and, she still sings! Michelle lives in Dallas, TX … She takes every opportunity to talk with kids about her experience and how they, too, can overcome their circumstances.
Katie Giguere was a shy, bullied teenager when she first met Bonita Mitchell and became part of the I’m Saving Myself Program. She went on to have her recordings reach number five on the Christian record charts and became a published author of the book titled, Being the Fat Girl, which chronicles her story of overcoming low self-esteem and bullying.
An ISM participant heard Katie sing the song titled I’m Saving Myself at one of the organization’s school program culmination concerts and it inspired him to give up his very detailed plan to take his own life. Although the song was about sexual abstinence, he interpreted it as saving himself from his circumstances and made a conscious decision to live! He, in turn, inspired the organization to expand the meaning of the organization’s name from meaning avoiding pre-marital sex to avoiding all destructive behaviors. And the inspiration lives on.