Maneke Snowden’s introduction to the Clarence E. Lightner Y Achievers came through her children. She looked at the program for teenagers as a great opportunity for her son, and later her daughter, to better themselves.
Like any good parent who wants to stay involved with her kids, Snowden initially volunteered to work a few hours here and there to help out.
Eventually, as Snowden learned more about the YMCA program named for Clarence E. Lightner, Raleigh’s first and only African-American mayor, her sporadic volunteering turned into a tireless passion for mentoring teens as they make their way through the sometimes rocky terrain of adolescence.
Snowden, 39, of Raleigh, isn’t just another well-intentioned adult offering advice. Now a mother of three with a career in technical project management at a telecommunications firm, Snowden had to work her way through her final year of high school after having a son in the 11th grade.
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Though she managed to graduate on time, she recalls a chaotic life of working nights, missing a lot of school and trying to provide for her son. “I have no idea how I fed my son or myself during those years. I lived in my car, hopped around to different hotels and finally ended up at a friend of a friend’s house.”
She doesn’t shy away from sharing her life story with the teens, letting them know success is achievable and happiness in life is attainable – no matter the odds against them.
“I see them like they’re my own kids,” she says. “I’m going to tell them, I’m going to share. That’s what God puts us here for – not to hoard our gifts but to share them.”
Kendall Harris, director of the program, has watched Snowden in action for three years. Among the words Harris uses to describe Snowden: relevant, transparent, impactful and a good listener.
“She’s dedicated, she’s passionate and caring, especially of the young girls in our program,” Harris says. “She gives above and beyond.”
Earlier this year, Snowden was recognized for her hard work and dedication when she was named the Clarence E. Lightner Y Achievers volunteer of the year.
Creating a safe zone
The Achievers program, which honors the legacy of Lightner as a community leader and consensus builder, serves as many as 125 middle school and high school students per year.
The program is designed for minority teens who live in Raleigh and the surrounding area with a particular focus on college readiness, careers, community service and leadership.
While many of the teens are reluctant participants at first, their attitudes typically change as the year progresses, Snowden says.
Leadership and communication skills are stressed, but the lessons learned are interwoven with games and plenty of fun so the kids keep coming back. It also gives kids who are having a hard time fitting in at school a second social circle to tap into for friendships, Snowden says.
We pull out leadership in them they didn’t necessarily know they had.
Teens at risk of giving up on dreams of college because of lackluster grades are encouraged to continue. “There’s still a college for you even if you’re not a 4.0 student,” she tells them.
Snowden serves the Lightner program in two distinct areas – one drawing on her background as a teen who overcame adversity and the other drawing on the skills she has learned in her long-time career at Sprint.
Snowden says she works side by side with another volunteer to lead the teenage girls in an empowerment group focusing on topics of interest to young females while the boys meet in a separate group.
“We try to create a sense of a safe zone to speak freely and ask questions,” Snowden says. So much so that they make the girls sign a contract of confidentiality. “What goes on in the session stays in the session,” Snowden says.
“You’d be surprised … regardless of economic background,” Snowden says, how many teen girls can be at risk to thoughts of self-doubt and inferiority.
“They peel back layers of themselves they didn’t realize they had. We pull out leadership in them they didn’t necessarily know they had.”
She tells them: “You can do what you want to do – that’s not just talk.”
Giving and receiving
She offers her own personal history as proof.
Tobacco farms and factory work were the basis of Snowden’s family background. For most of her childhood, her mother was in prison – one of the few things she says she’d rather not talk about. Her father wasn’t around either. She was raised by two aunts.
“I kind of bounced around as a kid,” she says.
Instead of bitterness, she offers hope. “The people around me didn’t have it to give. If I have it to give, why not give it.”
Her life as a single mom lasted about six years, she says. After high school, wanting “to make life better for myself and my son,” she earned technical certifications in computer skills, which eventually led her to a series of jobs with tech companies, eventually landing at Sprint, where she has worked her way up from technical analyst to project manager.
She and her husband, Walter Snowden, have been married 16 years.
With nearly two decades of work at Sprint, she is taking advantage of the company’s tuition benefits to slowly earn her bachelor’s degree at William Peace University. With three children and a career, it has been slow going but she says every spring, come graduation season, she’s reinvigorated. “I’ll get there. It might be a couple of years, but I’ll get there.”
Snowden sets aside additional time to help mentor a middle school Lego robotics team through the Lightner Y Achievers. Drawing upon her technology background, Snowden and several other volunteers coach a small group of middle school girls and boys through an annual competition that requires them to build a robot out of Legos and program it to complete tasks or so-called missions. The kids learn to strategize, work as a team and troubleshoot problems, she says.
A second section of the competition challenges the young scientists to come up with an innovative solution to a world problem while a third part of the contest evaluates the kids on “core values,” such as professionalism, displaying grace under pressure, supporting teammates, and encouraging other teams.
“What draws them in is that robot,” Snowden said. What draws Snowden in, and keeps her coming back?
“I really enjoy being a part of it, making a difference.
“Any time you help others, it gives something back to you. While I feel I’m giving, I’m also receiving,” she says.
If you know someone who should be considered as a Tar Heel of the Week, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Amy Galloway Dunn is a freelance writer and editor in Apex. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Born: 1976, Goldsboro
Career: Technical project manager at Sprint
Education: Enloe High School, Raleigh; technical certifications; pursuing bachelor’s degree at William Peace University
Family: Husband Walter Snowden; three children: a son, 22; two daughters, 15 and 7.
About Clarence E. Lightner Y Achievers
The YMCA program for minority teens who live in Raleigh and the surrounding area focuses on careers, college readiness, community service and leadership. Programs parallel the traditional school calendar.
Activities include SAT prep and visiting college campuses, learning to budget, and cooking with a chef.
There is an annual registration fee for the program. Financial assistance is available.
For details go to http://nando.com/3v6.