Graduation and prom are major milestones that mark end of one journey and the beginning of another for many high school seniors.
But lockdowns and school closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic deprived thousands of local seniors the chance to experience them.
In an effort to help seniors celebrate, Houston police officer Sheldon Theragood came up with a plan.
“I knew parents wanted to bring some type of sunshine to their kids,” said Theragood, founder of Theragood Deeds, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to provide mentorship and outreach to Houston youth.
Theragood partnered with Jennifer Smith, founder of The Achieving Academy, a nonprofit that teaches life skills to high school students. Together, they launched a senior shout-out social media campaign to recognize local seniors.
“My target is naturally high-schoolers,” Smith said. “It made sense that we recognize seniors, especially during these hard times that were already filled with disappointment.”
Soon after they began posting senior shout-outs, the duo started collecting donations as giveaways to seniors. To make it fun, Theragood and Smith held weekly drawings via Facebook and Instagram.
"Seniors completed a form in which they identified their high school, which college they would be attending, their anticipated major, and they wrote a brief reply sharing how they were impacted by COVID-19,” Smith said.
“We were able to sponsor more than 35 kids with gift cards, free senior photos, gift bags, balloons, and goodie bags for seniors on the way to college,” Theragood said. “A lot of people donated $50 or more gift cards.”
Both Theragood and Smith balance their volunteer work with full-time careers. For Theragood, this means working on the frontlines of the pandemic, while continuing to mentor kids who participate in his organization's mentor program.
“Everybody that knows me, knows I’m for the youth,” Theragood said. “Anything I can do to satisfy them, to teach them, to motivate them, that’s what makes me feel good. It’s a passion for me.”
To stay connected with his mentees, ages 12 to 17, Theragood hosts Zoom meetings with them and other Theragood Deed mentors. Daily texts and phone calls also help Theragood and his team find out how the kids are coping with life during the pandemic.
“I usually go out in the field and meet up with my kids face to face, so this is something that is totally different for me,” Theragood said. “But to still have that tool to connect with the kids is awesome because it’s still a way to communicate, it’s still a way to see the kids.”
For now, Theragood is focused on coming up with new ways to hold annual events his organization sees as vital to the community, such as his Real Talk with Youth and Backpack Giveaway held each August.
The event aims to inspire kids through positive stories and provide them with a backpack filled with school supplies.
“It’s tough,” said Theragood of the uncertainty the pandemic is causing.
Even so, Theragood sees his outreach to the seniors as a teachable moment to his mentees.
“I teach my kids that even though times are rough and down, you still have that mentality to want to give,” he said. “You can be that person to rise up and be that leader towards other people that are in need.”