Inspiring Underserved Youth Through Creativity and Community

Daily Point of Light # 7776 Mar 26, 2024

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

Originally from Harlem, Kanika Cousine is a student at Metropolitan College of New York where she is working toward her Master’s Degree in Special Education. She has always liked to help people and since 2019, she has dedicated herself to unpaid service, establishing a youth organization in New York and Washington, D.C., to expose underserved youth ages 14-24 to the art of filmmaking and community development.

Students are selected for transformative internships either during the school year (September to May) or during a six-week summer program, where they learn everything there is to know about filmmaking. The internships also focus on community service, including feeding the unhoused and working at community gardens. Kanika says that her mission goes beyond education in the art of filmmaking. It provides an alternative path that steers youth toward the future they want, by empowering them and teaching them valuable skills.

Kanika also donates her time and energy to working with and advocating for young adults in the New York City foster care system. Kanika was once part of the foster care system, so she has an intimate understanding of the unique challenges these children and young adults face.

Kanika Cousine, founder of Journey of a Dreamer and volunteer with Casa NYC. /Courtesy Kanika Cousine

What inspires you to volunteer?

I’ve always liked to help people. Young people are into videos, TikTok and YouTube. I thought I could help them develop skills in filmmaking as a way to empower them and broaden their horizons. It’s more than just filmmaking, though. They learn leadership, cooperation, communication and the value of community.

Tell us about your volunteer role with Journey of a Dreamer and Casa NYC.

I’m everything when it comes to Journey of a Dreamer. I’m a one-woman band. I’m the founder, supervisor, program creator, advocate and fundraiser. I meet with my students three times a week for both filmmaking and community service — not on the same days. Right now I have seven students in filmmaking and four in community development. In this session, it’s split pretty evenly between girls and boys. So far, the majority of my interns have been young men.

Youth organizations and colleges screen students to determine their interest in the arts and filmmaking. They provide me with interns. I purchase all of the filmmaking equipment and teach them the ins and outs of filmmaking, including everything from lighting to scene setup and editing. They develop skills that equip these amazing young individuals with practical skills. They learn how to conduct interviews. This is a brand-new program that’s only in its first year but it has such incredible potential.
I teach much more than filmmaking. The internship empowers them through creative expression. Youth feel safe, supported and empowered to share their stories. They develop the skills to find career opportunities in the film industry and in community development. We set one student who was truly passionate about filmmaking with an organization that would help him obtain a filmmaking scholarship. These opportunities are normally not available to underserved youth. These internships are a way out from a stereotypical path that many underserved kids are expected to take.

Community development is a big part of our internships. It encourages youth to engage with the community in a positive way. They contribute and so they feel a sense of belonging. When you belong, you care and when you care, you help.

Outside of Journey of a Dreamer, I am also a dedicated volunteer with Casa NYC. This is an organization that works with New York City courts to support foster care youth. Kids in foster care have been through a lot. It’s hard to navigate life when faced with such adversity. Many have mental health issues and for the kids who are never placed in homes but spend their childhood in facilities, they have no sense of home or family.

As an advocate, I stand up for the rights and well-being of youth in foster care. Right now, I’m working with a 21-year-old young woman. My job is to help her secure housing and advocate for her where she can’t advocate for herself. Many kids in the system are afraid to speak up, and they don’t know the questions to ask or to advocate for themselves. If they’re willing, we teach them life skills. I say “if they’re willing” because many have such deep trust issues that they won’t accept help. They’ve been let down so much that they often don’t believe we’re there to help. At first it was even hard to make a connection with this young person I’m helping now. I had to step back and give her space and just let her know I’m here for her whenever she needs me.

In the past, kids would age out of the foster care system at 21, but it’s been recognized that at 21 most of them immediately become unhoused because they just aren’t ready for the big world. Now, the age at which they leave the system is 24. We help them become independent by securing housing and assisting with job searches.

What inspired you to get started with this initiative?

I was in foster care, so I understand what these young people are going through. I gained my first internship at 15. My mentor was just amazing. She inspired me to create my own programs for underserved youth. It didn’t happen right away, however. I ran into obstacles, mainly fear. I was so afraid of failing. In 2019 I gathered up my courage and decided to go for it.

What are your long-term plans or goals for Journey of a Dreamer?

I want to be able to offer much more than the internships that I offer. I want to expose the kids to more opportunities and form more partnerships with other organizations that serve our youth so I can expand the potential career opportunities for underserved youth in New York and Washington.

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

I feel rewarded when I see them happy. When they come to me, when they’re new interns, many of them have this heavy sadness about them. They have gone through a lot. Seeing them in a positive space makes me feel good. I know that my internships are a success because some of the kids return to volunteer and help me out with the current batch of interns.

At first, many of the interns come because they want to get paid, or they’re bored. They don’t necessarily want to learn anything about filmmaking. Sometimes, it’s hard to connect at first but I don’t quit on them. I form a connection with them before we start making films and once they start, they’re all in. They become very engaged. This program allows them to be creative and explore options they didn’t even know existed.

My Washington students are currently working on a documentary on youth mental health. They learn how to work cameras, conduct interviews and become leaders. Sometimes, I give them a topic but a lot of times we brainstorm ideas together and agree on a topic. Filming takes place in a studio and on the street. Their finished films are shown outside the group too. We’re working on submitting their films to film festivals; then, their films can be seen by the general public.

Summer youth employment interns contribute to the community by assisting in the East Side Garden in Manhattan. /Courtesy Kanika Cousine

What have you learned through your experiences as a volunteer?

I had to overcome the fear of falling when I started this organization. Once I took that step I’ve become much bolder in taking chances. Now I take chances and motivate young people to take a chance on themselves. For kids in the foster system or from underserved communities, this is huge. Many of them don’t have a support system that encourages them. If anything, they’re told what they can’t do or be. They are not encouraged to pursue their dreams.

These are paid internships, which I believe helps give these youth a sense of pride in what they do. Many come into the program just because it’s a way to get paid, but they are transformed by the experience.

I partner with the Children’s Aid Society, the Madison Square Boys and Girls Club and Casa NY in New York City and in Washington, I work with local high schools. These organizations are the sources of my interns. Funding for these internships comes out of my pocket and some comes from the organizations I work with. The organization pays the internship, and I host the students. If I find an intern outside of these organizations, I pay them from my own pocket. It’s worth every penny.

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

Getting involved helps youth grow as people. It allows them to help others and themselves as well. They experience a lot of personal growth. For example, two of my interns had always said they’re not artists. This belief came from lack of support from their environment. During the internship they found their creative expression and blossomed as artists. When they started the internship they didn’t believe in themselves; now they have confidence.

Any advice for people who want to start volunteering?

There are plenty of volunteer opportunities available in any community. You know what you’re interested in so start there. Volunteer organizations are always looking for help.

What do you want people to learn from your story?

Believe in yourself. Overcoming fear is the biggest obstacle in any endeavor. Don’t allow your obstacles to end your journey. We can all rewrite our stories. The internship program becomes a catalyst for change. From tending community gardens to feeding unhoused communities and creating evocative works of cinematic art, our collective efforts make a lasting impact on the youth. Where once they didn’t have a support network, now they do.

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

Jarmila Gorman