It was about eight years ago when Crystal Russell introduced her middle school students to speech and debate. At the time, she just wanted to expand on a persuasive writing lesson, but she soon realized the greater impact the exposure was having.
“It not only strengthened my students’ critical-thinking skills, it made them better researchers and better writers,” Russell said of her Southlawn Middle School students. “Plus, I saw them coming out of their shell and becoming more confident. It was good for them as students but as human beings as well.”
The realization led Russell to launch a speech and debate club at the school, then another when she was transferred to a new school and eventually, the Destiny Driven nonprofit, which works to foster leadership and civic engagement in Montgomery students through exposure to debate and public speaking.
One of two Montgomery nonprofits to be selected as a “Community Thrives” grant recipient, the $10,000 awarded by the USA TODAY NETWORK program will allow Russell to launch a community action six-month fellowship that will include paid stipends for the 15 Montgomery youth fellows who participate.
The goal: “I want the students to understand debate is much more than winning a trophy or speaker points. It is essential to making the community a better place,” Russell said. “We introduce them to speech and debate but the program is bigger than that because it teaches them to be the change they want to see.”
Destiny Driven and Habitat for Humanity — which was awarded a $5,000 grant from the program — were among 180 local nonprofit recipients nationally, totaling $2 million.