This man is a role model for incarcerated kids. Why? He used to be one of them.
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For kids who have grown up in low-income neighborhoods, it can be hard to see a way out.

Seeing the adults around them stuck in the same cycle of poverty, a lot of kids find it hard to believe that there’s any opportunity for them to be different — to be the ones who make it out and carve out a different way of life. The American Dream seems too elusive. Like it doesn’t apply to them.

Robert Clark was one of these kids.

After losing his mother at a young age, Robert turned to the wrong people for guidance. That, paired with the limited resources in his neighborhood, meant that he found himself going down a path that would almost guarantee continual incarceration. Or death.


Robert Clark. All images via Starbucks. Used with permission.

When he was released from prison at 21, he'd had enough. He wanted out of the life he was living. He cut ties with the people he’d been hanging around and tried to carve out a new life for himself. But it wasn’t until he ran into an old friend that he found direction. This friend told him about YouthBuild.

Check it out:

YouthBuild provides troubled youth a path to success with a program that gives back to the community by building affordable housing and offering continued education. A Starbucks original series.

Posted by Upworthy on Monday, September 26, 2016

YouthBuild is a program that helps low-income kids, like Robert, who have dropped out of school to pursue their GED.

When they’re not studying, they’re building housing for the homeless and low-income families in their own neighborhoods.

"We discover that there is an enormous range of talent that is being locked out of society," said Dorothy Stoneman, founder of the program. "But if the young people are given an opportunity they will seize it."

It’s a two-fold approach. The kids working on bettering themselves while doing something for people who are, in many ways, worse off than they are or in circumstances they’ve experienced. It shows them the path forward while giving them the chance to help others move forward, too.

YouthBuild offers hope.  It offers structure. It offers expectations. And the kids rise to the occasion.

Today, Robert is the first YouthBuild graduate to found and lead a YouthBuild program.

He has a passion for helping others to see their way out of the lifestyle he once lived. He knows these kids. He gets them. And he’s committed to helping them.

Because he was once one of them.

"The early months of the YouthBuild program was a magical experience for me," said Robert. "It introduced me to a voice that I didn’t know I had. It was the greatest lesson for me about the power of love, opportunity, and expectation ... they expected that I would be something. And they loved me until I learned to love myself.”

YouthBuild is definitely about learning and building, but equally importantly, it's about community.

The kids who are served by the program need people to talk to who understand where they’ve been and can show them a new path forward. Someone to believe in them in order to see and believe in better for themselves. Someone to give them hope.

Courtesy of Farwiza Farhan
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Growing up in Indonesia, Farwiza Farhan always loved the ocean. It's why she decided to study marine biology. But the more she learned, the more she realized that it wasn't enough to work in the ocean. She needed to protect it.

"I see the ocean ecosystem collapsing due to overfishing and climate change," she says. "I felt powerless and didn't know what to do [so] I decided to pursue my master's in environmental management."

This choice led her to work in environmental protection, and it was fate that brought her back home to the Leuser Ecosystem in Sumatra, Indonesia — one of the last places on earth where species such as tigers, orangutans, elephants and Sumatran rhinoceros still live in the wild today. It's also home to over 300 species of birds, eight of which are endemic to the region.

"When I first flew over the Leuser Ecosystem, I saw an intact landscape, a contiguous block of lush, diverse vegetation stretched through hills and valleys. The Leuser is truly a majestic landscape — one of a kind."

She fell in love. "I had my first orangutan encounter in the Leuser Ecosystem," she remembers. "As the baby orangutan swung from the branches, seemingly playing and having fun, the mother was observing us. I was moved by the experience."

Courtesy of Farwiza Farhan

"Over the years," she continues, "the encounters with wildlife, with people, and with the ecosystem itself compounded. My curiosity and interest towards nature have turned into a deep desire to protect this biodiversity."

So, she began working for a government agency tasked to protect it. After the agency dismantled for political reasons in the country, Farhan decided to create the HAkA Foundation.

"The goals [of HAkA] are to protect, conserve and restore the Leuser Ecosystem while at the same time catalyzing and enabling just economic prosperity for the region," she says.

"Wild areas and wild places are rare these days," she continues. "We think gold and diamonds are rare and therefore valuable assets, but wild places and forests, like the Leuser Ecosystems, are the kind of natural assets that essentially provide us with life-sustaining services."

"The rivers that flow through the forest of the Leuser Ecosystem are not too dissimilar to the blood that flows through our veins. It might sound extreme, but tell me — can anyone live without water?"

Courtesy of Farwiza Farhan

So far, HAkA has done a lot of work to protect the region. The organization played a key role in strengthening laws that bring the palm oil companies that burn forests to justice. In fact, their involvement led to an unprecedented, first-of-its-kind court decision that fined one company close to $26 million.

In addition, HAkA helped thwart destructive infrastructure plans that would have damaged critical habitat for the Sumatran elephants and rhinos. They're working to prevent mining destruction by helping communities develop alternative livelihoods that don't damage the forests. They've also trained hundreds of police and government rangers to monitor deforestation, helping to establish the first women ranger teams in the region.

"We have supported multiple villages to create local regulation on river and land protection, effectively empowering communities to regain ownership over their environment."

She is one of Tory Burch's Empowered Women this year. The donation she receives as a nominee is being awarded to the Ecosystem Impact Foundation. The small local foundation is working to protect some of the last remaining habitats of the critically endangered leatherback turtle that lives on the west coast of Sumatra.

"The funds will help the organization keep their ranger employed so they can continue protecting the islands, endangered birds and sea turtle habitats," she says.

To learn more about Tory Burch and Upworthy's Empowered Women program visit https://www.toryburch.com/empoweredwomen. Do you know an inspiring woman like Farwiza? Nominate her today!

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Most teachers I've known have bent over backwards to help students succeed during this time, taking kids' mental and emotional health into consideration and extending the flexibility and grace we all could use. But teachers have their own mental and emotional needs, too, and at some point, something's gotta give.

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