Upper Arlington News

Jefferson Award

UA teen overcomes homelessness to help others

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MIKE ELICSON/DISPATCH
Nashawn Stevens, who now lives in Upper Arlington and will graduate this spring from Walnut Ridge High School, is one of five local Jefferson Award winners.
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By ThisWeek Community News  • 

Homeless as a child and later abused and kicked out of his last foster home, an Upper Arlington teen recently was honored for helping others.

Earlier this month, 18-year-old Nashawn Stevens was one of five people selected from a pool of 20 nominees to receive a Jefferson Award in an annual contest sponsored by WBNS-10TV and Nationwide Insurance to honor individuals who do extraordinary things in their communities without expecting a reward.

Stevens now lives in Upper Arlington and is a senior at Walnut Ridge High School. After graduation, he plans to enroll at Bowling Green State University and study to become a dentist.

"I have this dream," he said. "I want to create a program to give free services to those who can't afford it. I want to give back."

Angela Lariviere, program director of Youth Empowerment Program (YEP), a Columbus nonprofit organization that involves homeless youths in community service, leadership training and advocacy, said Stevens has been giving back for years.

He came to YEP at age 12, about two years after his mother decided she no longer could care for him. He entered the foster care system, and some six years afterward, Stevens and his mother moved to Columbus to live in a homeless shelter.

Before that, Stevens and his mother, who gave birth to him when she was 17, lived in a tent in a park in Camden, N.J.

Lariviere said Stevens came to YEP as an angry kid but one who was willing to get involved in program activities and initiatives.

"He has a good soul and giving spirit that has been there since the day we met," Lariviere said. "He was given a bad deal and he was angry about it. He turned it around and started volunteering every chance he got to keep himself occupied."

Through YEP, Stevens became involved in youth and homeless advocacy programs, and he's lobbied in Columbus and Washington, D.C., for legislative changes, including raising the minimum wage for youths who must support themselves and family members.

He also began mentoring other kids who've faced homelessness and abuse.

At the same time, he was struggling to focus on his own schoolwork after being physically abused by a family member who was fostering him -- he once was beaten with a cord -- and frequently being forced to live elsewhere for days at a time.

"I didn't think anyone wanted me to succeed, and I didn't try," Stevens said. "As I started doing my (YEP) service, my self-esteem got boosted.

"Sometimes there are cases where kids want to give up because they feel with their families they're not safe or they're not good enough," he said. "It just helped me realize things I went through were there to motivate me and it made me stronger and gave me values."

About two years ago, Lariviere and her husband decided to take Stevens into their home after he'd spent many nights with them because of his unstable foster home situation.

"It wasn't always suggested that I do my homework," Stevens said of his foster home at the time. "It was suggested I clean up the house and do things (my relative) wanted done.

"During Christmas and the holidays, he would kick me out and tell me to find a place to live. I didn't have a place to live."

Lariviere said she and her husband already had fostered more than 20 children over the years and planned to provide a household devoid of foster brothers and sisters until their daughter and son graduated from high school, but their children urged them to take in Stevens.

"My son and him are very, very similar, and they've always plotted to go to Bowling Green together," she said. "They're just like twins, except Nashawn is short and African-American and (my son) William is 6-foot-2 and white.

"Nashawn deserves everything good at this point," she said. "He's just really good-spirited, and he helps everyone. He's paid his dues."

Stevens said he was "surprised and honored" to receive a Jefferson Award. He is focused on finishing high school -- the only school he's ever attended for more than one year -- and getting to Bowling Green.

However, after recounting his upbringing and talking about the award, he asked if he could promote the third annual YEP STAR dinner, which is being held from 6:30 to 9 p.m. May 11 at the Westin Hotel, 310 S. High St., Columbus.

Organized by YEP and the Ohio State University Star House, the event seeks to raise funds to help Columbus' approximately 6,000 homeless youth. Tickets are $50. Additional information can be obtained by sending an email to Lariviere at angela.yepdirector@gmail.com.

"We're looking for anybody that would like to come and help support us," Stevens said.

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