Shine Brighter: Three Stories of How to Lead With Love

The Shellie-Ann Braswell “Shine Brighter” award is named after a woman who was an amazing volunteer, mother, wife, friend, professional, community leader, and loving person who made every effort she was involved with, shine brighter. Building Hope, ShinePR, and Shellie’s husband Allie Braswell have come together to sponsor grants to shine a light on the IMPACT volunteers can make on a school community. These three finalists for the Shellie-Ann Braswell Shine Brighter award are inspiring examples of Shellie’s spirit and her ability to lead with love.

As the daughter of a career U.S. Air Force first sergeant, Shellie-Ann Braswell Shine Brighter Awards finalist Sabrina Payne learned early on the formula for succeeding as the new kid on base: Find opportunities to volunteer. Not only do you make friends fast, you’re likely to acquire useful skills to last a lifetime.

Now all grown up and rearing a family of her own in Kuna, Idaho, near Boise, Sabrina has unleashed her blend of tireless volunteerism and practical skills (not to mention a garage full of tools) on 4-year-old Project Impact STEM Academy — a tuition-free K-12 charter school and home of the Dinos — helping it grow and thrive.

“I can reach out and ask her to help me with pretty much anything,” says Pi STEM Executive Director Jill Hettinger. “We have several people in our community who are really avid volunteers for us … but Sabrina just goes the next step ahead.”

Let us scratch the surface of the ways Sabrina sets the pace:

• Applying her power drill to the assembly of a dozen large picnic tables for outdoor classes and al fresco lunches.

• Using her chop saw to cut down the school district’s cast-off high school computer desks for use by academy elementary school students.

• Attaching wood skirting to Pi STEM’s modular classrooms.

• Installing kits, including electrical sensors, to convert drinking fountains into bottle-fillers during the earliest days of the pandemic.

• Organizing community STEM nights for the public to learn about the school’s mission.

• Writing grants to support Pi STEM initiatives.

• Serving as president of the PTA.

• Stomping about inside the academy’s raptor mascot costume (Crichton, for the Jurassic Park series author).

“Literally, she’s there,” Jill says. “I can’t really name a time when we’ve had a volunteer opportunity that she’s not been present.”

“Well, we’re a new school,” Sabrina says by way of explanation, “so there have been a lot of growing pains. At PiSTEM our mission statement applies to all of us. We are all life-long learners. We try new things without fear of failure because we use failures as launch pads for the next adventure. When our kids see us struggle and fail, they give themselves permission to do it too. When they see us problem-solving together and succeed, they see value in persistence. I am proud of the work we have done and I am even more excited for where we are headed.”

To be recognized as a top volunteer nationwide for doing what comes naturally is the one subject that leaves Sabrina speechless. “To be part of such a wonderful group of people … I don’t know that I really deserve that recognition, but I am honored.”

Sabrina’s impact on the families and students makes each day at PiSTEM Academy shine a little brighter, and the recognition is well deserved.

When Shawna Thissen was deciding where to enroll her kids, she didn’t want just any school.

“I knew I’d pour myself into wherever my kids went,” she said. “I’d rather do it at a school like Promesa, where it can have a ripple effect on the community.”

Promesa Academy is a charter school in San Antonio. Thissen has poured herself so fully into the school that she’s a finalist for the Shellie-Ann Braswell Shine Brighter Award.

Ambika Dani founded the school in 2019 in the part of town with the most need. The poverty rate in the 78207 zip code is more than 40%, and almost half the nine elementary schools have been deemed failing by the state.

“Promesa” means “Promise” in Spanish, and that’s what Dani saw in the neighborhood children. “For me, it’s always about the promise of the future,” Dani said.

That philosophy hit home with Thissen. Getting her kids to school requires a 35-minute slog through traffic, but it’s worth the drive to someone who believes every child deserves a good education.

“You’ve got to walk the walk,” she said. “A lot of people say that, but Promesa actually does it. It’s all about equity and love and innovation.”

All of which is made easier by people like Thissen. She immediately volunteered to chair the school’s Family Advisory Council. She created programs like Work Room Wednesday, where parents come in to help teachers pare down endless lists of classroom chores.

Thissen spearheaded Teacher Appreciation week, campus cleanups and the Giving Tree Program, which provided Christmas gifts to more than 100 students and their families. While waiting in the school pickup line one day, she called Dani.

“There’s got to be something I can do instead of just sitting in my car for 30 minutes,” she said. Dani and Shawna brainstormed a literacy program where Thissen and other parents help kids who are struggling to read right before carline.

“She shows so much love and does it without the expectation of any reward,” Dani said.

“Families say we’ve changed the lives of their children. I’ve had parents cry and say they don’t know where their child would be without our school.”

Promesa is more than just a name. It’s a community where people like Thissen help the school’s promise shine even brighter.

Are you familiar with the term “voluntold”?

Neither was Dominique Moore, but since becoming a volunteer at E.L. Haynes Public Charter School in Washington, D.C., she is not only familiar with the term, she has a great definition for it.

“Voluntold is when you approach someone that has a good heart, good substance, and a good character and tell them that something needs to be done … and they need to be the person to step in and do it!” she said.

Dominique stepped in and reinvigorated the social side of the Haynes School community after the devastating impact of COVID-19. Her then 4-year-old son, Grayson, had a well-connected community of friends and families before the pandemic, but like most schools around the country, the community ties were frayed and sometimes broken by the pandemic.

So, Dominique formed a partnership with the Takoma (Md.) Soccer League and created “Soccer Saturday” for students and parents from the Haynes School. It was a little athletic workout and a huge social get together that revitalized the school community. The program started with 50

pre-K classmates and has tripled in size in two years. That means half the school’s enrollment – and their parents – show up for soccer class on Saturdays.

For that organizing effort, and her significant impact on her charter school community, Moore has been selected as one of three finalists for the Shellie-Ann Braswell “Shine Brighter” award.

“Dominique has built a powerful community of families at our elementary school,” E.L. Haynes CEO Hilary Darilek said. “She united a group that comes from different races, different family structures and different parts of the city and brought them all together for the joyful experience of playing soccer on Saturdays. It shows how deeply she cares about our students and community.”

Grayson is 6 now and told Mom he’s ready for something else. So is Dominique.

She is going work with Haynes parents and help expand community activities for their children, starting with a basketball program. She wants to find local businesses and sports camps to partner in the project.

“This is really about giving kids a chance to be together, to have some fun and learn to play with one another,” she said. “We want them to learn to follow some instructions, but we’re not going to be really organized and structured and competitive. We are creating opportunities for families that are less fortunate and need things like this.”

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Picture of William Fay

William Fay

Bill Fay is a freelance writer supplying content for the communication outlets Building Hope uses to promote and expand charter school programs in the U.S. Bill started his career as a sports writer for the Tampa Tribune and Associated Press. He has written about Super Bowls, NBA Finals and college football, basketball and baseball championships. He has turned his attention to more serious subjects like public transportation, personal finance and now, education. He welcomes opportunities to learn more from the charter school audience and become a voice for their community.