HEARTSPEAKZ International Mentoring and Literacy Academy in San Juan is an after-school programme that aims to help students personally develop by working on their self-esteem, financial management and literacy.
Newsday spoke with founder and director of the academy Rinisse Walker, who opened the school in 2016 after seeing a need for a programme to empower young people. When she was at school, she wished there was someone who could teach her class about the different issues students her age went through. Now she has the chance to provide students with valuable information she wishes she had as an adolescent.
"I saw in the school system that there aren't many people doing self-esteem building or confidence-building, and even if it is in the school system, it is really lacking. I decided to put together a programme, get an organisation that focuses on empowering young people," Walker told Newsday.
HeartSpeakz offers mentoring programmes and literacy programmes such as Empowered Girlz Speak, an all-girls mentorship programme. The course is 12 weeks long and focuses on building self-esteem, self-confidence, anti-bullying and coping with peer pressure.
There's a similar programme for boys called Walking as Kings which teaches young men how to have a positive outlook on society and focuses on the same issues as Girlz Speak.
Walker said the transformation of the students over the 12-week programme showed how impactful the mentorship was.
"When we first did our girls' mentorship programme last year, some of the students came in shy and timid. They came from a lot of difficult backgrounds. Within the 12-week programme, each child flourished differently. They weren't the same as they started. Those who were timid, became confident. Whatever parental issues (they had), they were able to work on them. Today they have better relationships with their parents and are doing better in school," she said.
HeartSpeakz also offers a personal development programme which teaches young people entrepreneurship, financial management, how to save money as a young person and etiquette, among other subjects. The literacy aspect of the academy focuses on how how to teach young people how to read.
"A lot of our students, particularly those in primary school, struggle to read. We have a spelling and reading club which focuses on comprehension-building and vocabulary-building, the things they would have difficulty with in society," Walker said.
Then there's a programme for young adults and adults called Confident Women Empire.
"We have a Facebook group, and we have sessions for women and young adults teaching them on the same issue of self-esteem and female empowerment, but the age groups are much older."
After the mentorship programmes are over, the mentoring relationship goes on. She said some of the girls and boys return to the academy to assist with the programme.
"We keep the mentorship process going. It's not just about a teacher and student relationship. The mentorship process has to be ongoing," she said.
Walker believes young people are an investment, and she wants to help them grow and discover the strength within themselves.
"There is a saying that the youths of today are the future of tomorrow. If no one takes time to teach them today, how are they going to lead tomorrow?
"I was driven by that main line, and I wanted to have something to train young people to have self-confidence. It's one thing somebody could believe in you, but it's also important for you as an individual to have a good self-esteem within yourself. That was my main drive for starting HeartSpeakz."