Seventeen-year-old Taylor Edwards says she has always been shy, but this October — in front of 100 people — she was able to give her first speech.
Leadership, Education, and Athletics in Partnership (LEAP), a New Haven nonprofit that aims to provide a community for impoverished youths aged 5 to 23, had asked her to attend a fundraiser and speak about how the organization had helped her.
But, without the confidence she gained through the organization, she may never have been able to speak in front of so many people.
Delivering the speech, Edwards said, strengthened her sense of self-assurance.
“I felt good that I had been chosen to make [the speech],” the high school senior said, adding that she felt it had gone well.
Edwards said she joined LEAP in middle school because she wanted to spend more time with her friends in the program. Because of her interactions with LEAP counselors and her peers in the program, Edwards said she learned how to open up to others. Now, she said, she has also discovered a love for teaching.
For her mother, LEAP was a way to ensure that Edwards “stayed off the streets” and didn’t fall into “bad company.” But the organization also had the effect of boosting Edwards’ self-confidence, she said.
“LEAP was a very good support for Taylor,” her mother said. “She became more open socially.”
Before she joined LEAP at age 12, Edwards said she found it difficult to talk to people and was always the “quiet one.” When she first joined the group she only knew a small number of people from Fair Haven.They used to brag about how much fun they had going on skating trips and beach trips with the organization, she said, adding that she grew jealous and decided to try it out.
Edwards said she now feels she “grew up” in LEAP. The organization turned out to be much more than an activity she did with just a few friends.
One of the biggest hardships in Edwards’ life was the transition to Hamden High School, where she had to enroll in ninth grade after her family moved from New Haven to Hamden. At her new school, she said she struggled at first because she found it difficult to make friends. All of the students seemed to be part of cliques, she said, and none of the teachers made an effort to get to know her.
Edwards was extremely lonely, she said, and during this time she leaned on the LEAP community — in which she had cultivated a strong network of friends and mentors — for support. Within six months, she said, she had found a close group of friends.
Her English teacher at Hamden High School, Richard Pershan, said he believes she now has a “very nice” group of friends, including the head of the African American Association and the “star” of the basketball team.
Edwards said that she had a very good relationship with her counselors at LEAP, with whom she had always done both social and academic exercises every day, and that they helped her to engage better with her peers.
LEAP youth development Manager Tai Richardson, one of Edwards’ counselors, said that is part of the mission of the program: he hopes both to prepare his students academically as well as give them a position of social leadership.
“I had no idea how much [joining LEAP] would change my life,” she said.
Within two years of joining, Edwards became a “Leader-in-Training” at LEAP, a position that requires her to travel to various nearby public schools and work as a “mini-counselor” tutoring younger children.
A PASSIONATE TEACHER
The shy girl changed into an excited and talkative young woman in front of her students, her mother said.
“I like when people look up to me,” Edwards said.
Pershan said he believes Edwards feels empowered by LEAP and “more special about herself.”
Though Edwards said she came to love teaching from her time at LEAP, her teaching style is most strongly influenced by her mother, she said. Her mother never played favorites among her seven siblings and stepsiblings, Edwards explained, and she uses the same method when tutoring her young students.
Edwards is also a LEAP College Prep Scholar — she meets with staff regularly to work on the college application process — and is applying to a variety of colleges along the East Coast and elsewhere. She said she has decided she needs to “get out of Connecticut.”
Still, her mentors at LEAP said they hope she remains close by.
“We want Taylor to come back and work with our kids in our summer school program,” said Richardson, who has worked closely with Edwards over the last couple of years. “We want her to go to a college nearby in Connecticut so that she can be a senior counselor while she’s a student.”
The emotions of loneliness and displacement she experienced growing up, she said, sparked her interest in human psychology. Now, further inspired by her favorite TV show “48 Hours,” Edwards said that although she had wanted to be a teacher since eighth grade, she now thinks she might want to become a forensic psychologist. She hopes to attend the forensic psychology program at Albany State University in Georgia, but said she wants to continue working with children in some way.