Inner City Mom Gives Kids Wings and Empowers Them to Thrive

Daily Point of Light # 7751 Feb 20, 2024

Meet Daily Point of Light Award honoree Cynthia Manuel. Read her story, and nominate an outstanding volunteer or family as a Daily Point of Light.

Cynthia Manuel was born and grew up in poverty on the West side of Chicago, in an underresourced community where her own brother brutally lost his life in the streets. With her mother working two jobs, Cynthia had to learn to fend for herself, but she never stopped dreaming. Cynthia always dreamed of owning a horse and experiencing a life outside of the violence that plagued her community.

Today, Cynthia is the founder and CEO of Heavenly Cynt Youth, an organization that supports 6th-12th graders from underresourced neighborhoods. Her nonprofit pairs athletics with life skills training to equip young people with the tools they need to reach their full potential.

What inspires you to volunteer?

Growing up where I did, it was clear that if I didn’t look outside of this environment, I would never thrive. I took part in a Junior-Senior Scholars program when I was in school. This program introduced me to a completely different life that included horses, track, golf, swimming and other activities kids just don’t see in the inner city.
Other than dreaming of becoming a music, football or basketball star, inner city kids who are products of an impoverished and violent upbringing often can’t even imagine other ways to achieve success. I aspire to give them a different perspective on what life can offer.

Tell us about your volunteer role with Heavenly Cynt Youth.

We provide programs for inner city kids that get them out of their environment and provide them with a safe, nurturing space where they can experience life outside of what they know. Their eyes are opened to possibilities. They learn, they get inspired, and they try all kinds of things they would normally never be exposed to in their community. This opens up their capacity to dream, and not just about becoming a famous singer or a football or basketball star.

I tell people, “It’s hard for kids to dream what they can’t see.”

One of the ways we help kids is by partnering with various organizations including faith-based organizations, community police and hand-in-hand with Love Teaching Youth, an organization which was started by a former police officer. Love Teaching Youth’s mascot is a policewoman we named “Officer Friendly.” We use the mascot to reach the younger kids. We visit schools, teaching stranger danger and police awareness. The police are seen in an extremely negative light by inner city kids but as these two groups interact, police officers are humanized and from the officers’ perspective, so are the kids. The kids start to see the police as advocates, not adversaries.

What is unique about Heavenly Cynt Youth is we aren’t a one-sided after school program that only focuses on a single topic such as academic success. Our mission is to teach them necessary life skills and give them a solid foundation with the skills and tools they need to succeed in life.

Cynthia at the barn teaching youth about equine upkeep. /Courtesy Cynthia Manuel

We serve thousands of low-income youth and families every week. As part of my responsibilities, I facilitate after-school activities, help with homework, teach nutrition, social and emotional development, and violence prevention. In partnership with other people and organizations, we educate kids on gardening, growing crops, rodeos, owning a business, cooking, conflict resolution, STEM, CPR, table etiquette, financial literacy, healthy eating, fitness, and even the little things like how to tie a tie or big things like saying thank you.

We have a lot of fun too, when we take the kids to experience sports and activities that aren’t normally part of their lives. We introduce them to swimming, golf, horses, and much more. All of this empowers the kids. It helps them change their narrative. It helps them dream and gives them the confidence that if they can dream it, they can achieve it.

We only have these kids for a short amount of time. If these kids aren’t taught basic life skills even saying thank you, how can they ever expect to build a better life for themselves? Our kids become more confident and motivated in school. While they’re with us they are less likely to get involved in violence and once they leave the program, they are set up for greater success.

What inspired you to get started with this initiative?

As a single mom raising a son who is now 16, I know what I didn’t want my son to become. I know what I didn’t want him to be surrounded by. If I continue to plant and nurture empowering seeds in the kids I serve, these seeds will grow. I see kids blossoming before my eyes. Now my son’s friends want to be part of what we offer. All we ask for in return is respect. What they get in return is life-changing excursion through resources and opportunities.

What are your long-term plans or goals for the organization?

I would love to see this organization go global. We are unique in that we tap into everything as opposed to typical afterschool programs. We are well rounded and offer something to every kid. Every Sunday we hold a Zoom meeting where we empower kids through workshops such as conflict and resolution, mental health, and the social wellbeing of each individual. We meet the kids where they are, find something they like, and then once they’re in, we plug them into other programs to help broaden their horizons.

What’s been the most rewarding part of your work?

I feel most rewarded when I do something for the kids in my community. Making connections with the kids is incredible. They often come to us with a huge chip on their shoulder, but I immediately break the ice with a pickup basketball game with the boys or a TikTok dance contest with the girls. Once we connect, I often see an amazing transformation in their attitudes.

Kids who graduated from Heavenly Cynt Youth often become youth mentors, coming back to inspire and chaperone the current students. Three young men who graduated from Heavenly Cynt are now in law enforcement and various blue collar jobs in the trades. Where previously they had multiple run-ins with police and despised the police, now they are helping keep the community safe. It’s good to see that they turned their lives around.

What have you learned through your experiences as a volunteer?

Through my experiences with Heavenly Cynt, I’ve encountered people who have faced incredible challenges yet remain resilient and positive. I have learned to value the little things and cherish the opportunities I’ve been given. It has helped me see life in a different light. It has taught me that you don’t have to be a product of where you came from. You don’t have to be a victim.

Cynthia Manuel, CEO of Heavenly Cynt Youth, in a classroom setting teaching social/emotional/conflict resolution and the importance of positive communication. /Courtesy Cynthia Manuel

Why is it important for others to get involved with causes they care about?

Supporting the community demonstrates empathy and concern for the wellbeing of others. It also acknowledges the interconnections that bind us. Through volunteering, we create a more compassionate and caring society.

Any advice for people who want to start volunteering?

Find something you’re passionate about and go volunteer. When you’re passionate about something, it becomes more mentally, spiritually and emotionally rewarding. Where your heart is, your treasures lie.

What do you want people to learn from your story?

I want to emphasize again that it’s hard for kids to dream what they can’t see. I also want people to learn the importance of embracing our vulnerabilities and by sharing them, creating an environment where others feel the same. I’m a product of what many people would consider a one-way ticket to the state penitentiary — if I even got out alive. But I chose to help instead. I chose to open the windows of possibility and the doors of opportunity to the community’s kids.

Do you want to make a difference in your community like Cynthia? Find local volunteer opportunities.

Jarmila Gorman