Laniesha Merritt was born in 1982, the year her father went to prison. She was 15 when he was released.
By then, Merritt was considered underprivileged. But she was secured by the village her single mother built around her in Southeast Raleigh’s public housing and low-income communities.
“I witnessed a lot of violence, drug dealing and using, a lot of division and lack of support from parents who were on drugs, or not there,” said Merritt, 35. “Kids out all night playing, jumping around on old mattresses. It’s the same thing going on now.”
Not all statistics leave permanent marks. Merritt, an Enloe High School graduate, earned a degree in music production from Full Sail University in Florida. After a stint in Atlanta’s music industry, she returned to Raleigh and has since worked at the N.C. Correctional Institution for Women and as a detention officer with the Wake County Sheriff’s Office.
“Growing up in the environment I was in showed me the route I didn’t want to go, and it showed me what our people need,” Merritt said. “I believe God put me in certain situations for the experience, so that I can relate to the people exposed to the same environments I grew up in.
“I figured if I could educate myself enough and get some support, I could give them the tools to dream of something better, something greater.”
In 2012, Merritt started Own Your Dream, a nonprofit that gives a platform for low-income children to discover, explore and showcase their talents. She quickly added programs to boost self-image and self-esteem, and to teach leadership skills and strategies to resist gangs.
Using her own money – plus donations, volunteers and a trio of board members – Merritt has orchestrated the annual Own Your Dream Youth Talent Showcase. The group also distributes school supplies, participates in Toys for Tots and hosts a teen summit. It also introduces youth ages 6 to 17 to career opportunities in photography, music production, dance, and STEM – science, technology, engineering and math.
Dream of Cooking will introduce 16 youth to basic cooking skills during a six-week program that starts Sept. 23. Led by Raleigh chefs, the classes are open in two age groups, 5-12 and 13-17.
Registration is $25 by Sept. 3. After that, each class costs $15.
In June, Merritt introduced 25 children to STEM by inviting Jackie Johnson, creator and founder of the Mop Top Shop educational program, to share her signature brand of hands-on STEAM – the “A” is for art.
During the daylong workshop, Johnson saw young eyes grow big with awe as workshop participants made their own art bots, or robots that create art, using wires, batteries, motors taken from electric toothbrushes, colored pens and Styrofoam cups.
“I’m hoping they will get more excited about education, more excited in school when they hear topics we’ve introduced, and more excited to compete,” said Johnson, a former IBM executive who created the “Mop Top the Hip Hop Scientist” character in 2004 and launched weeklong STEAM summer camps in 2009. “They just have to be exposed to it.”
Merritt recently partnered with Southeast Raleigh’s Preeminent Charter School to present a year-round after-school version of Johnson’s workshop. The school also welcomed Dream of Cooking, she said.
Next up, Merritt plans to give voice to struggling parents, promote fitness, offer tutoring and start an Own Your Dream Book Club.
To keep her own dream afloat, Merritt recently started raising money by selling T-shirts she makes herself emblazoned with #SOLUTIONS, a double-entendre of sorts that names the business Merritt envisions to employ ex-felons and nutshells her philosophy of life.
“My goal, really, is to be an example for people who are underprivileged, and who are ready to give up because of the obstacles that come with that,” Merritt said. “A lot of people know my family and know where I come from, so for me to overcome all of that, it gives them hope.
“That makes me proud of what I do. I don’t complain. I think of solutions.”
Lori Wiggins writes stories about people and places in Southeast Raleigh. Email ideas and suggestions to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Find out more
Go online to www.ownyourdreamnc.com.