South Orange girl starts program to support less fortunate peers

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NEWARK, NJ — While most 12-year-old girls are thinking of different ways to decorate their own bedrooms, South Orange resident Briana Anderson is spending her time beautifying the bedrooms of unaccompanied minors at the Newark YMCA.

Briana, a sixth-grader at South Orange Middle School, is one-third of a group called “BAM,” a social network formed by Briana, Amina Anekwe and Marley Dias. BAM exists as a social support for adolescent girls who like to laugh, play and give back.

Throughout the year, the girls participate in fun adventures together and with other girls. An important part of their time together is that they support, design and implement social action projects that help community members.

“We started BAM in third grade when I first moved to South Orange; Amina and Marley were very inviting,” Briana said in a recent phone interview with the News-Record. “We came up with the acronym and then we started doing social action projects.”

All three girls, who met at St. Cloud School in West Orange, also attend Super Camp, a program run by GrassROOTS Community Foundation. This foundation is a public health and social action organization that funds, supports, develops and scales community health and wellness programs for women and girls, particularly those who are impoverished.

Briana, the “B” in BAM, has recently launched her social action project, called “#RoomForChange.” Briana has adopted six bedrooms on the sixth floor of the Newark YMCA, which temporarily houses unaccompanied minors. These children are usually placed at the Y by the Essex County Court because their parent or guardians are unable to care for them. Briana’s mission was to create warm spaces where children can feel safe and comfortable during their stay.

Briana and her mother, Valencia Wills, were first introduced to the Newark YMCA while volunteering with their church, The Life Christian Center in West Orange, which has adopted rooms at the Y in the past.

“We know that we have to give more to our community and to the world and what you put out is what you get in,” Briana said about her inspiration for the large-scale project. “We won a Disney Friends for Change Grant, and we created a time where we could have three different events of our own, using our talents, and we decided to use the resources that we have and use the Newark YMCA.”

“Bri is an animal lover and took the kids from the sixth floor to visit the animals because they aren’t allowed to have pets and got to know those kids a little better. The owner took time out of his day to tell all of the kids what it is to take care of a pet and the importance of having something or someone to take care of,” Wills told the News-Record. “Last year, while at the Shake a Paw dog shelter, Bri learned that the unaccompanied minors in the YMCA are usually sent there because they are on the streets or their parents couldn’t take care of them and she felt like brightening the room might make them happier.”

Armed with the conviction that everyone deserves a safe, comfortable and inviting personal space, Briana set off on her mission of adding some personality to the rooms at the Y by reaching out to the local community.

“One of the people at GrassROOTS knew people at Home Depot and Ikea and that’s how we got donations from them,” Wills said. “Home Depot donated 14 gallons of paint, plus an additional five, and then paintbrushes and tarp. Ikea donated lamps, dressers and rugs for all of the rooms. One of my friends put me in contact with her painter and he donated his painters and did the painting for five of the rooms and Bri painted one of the rooms herself.

“It has been awesome to see the happiness in Bri and see her in the living room as she painted some of the paintings that will go in the rooms,” she continued. “It’s really cool to see her doing it with such ease and she has such a giving and caring heart. “

Daryl Brown, who serves as the director of housing at the Newark YMCA, is also enthusiastic in his appreciation for Briana’s work.

“We showed her the sixth floor and explained that the kids are brought here in the middle of the night, and that it’s a children-only floor, because the other floors are more family-oriented,” Brown said in a recent phone interview with the News-Record. “We do the best we can for the rooms but the young lady wanted to make the rooms more warm and friendly, so my staff and I helped put the furniture together but everything else was Briana and her team.”

Briana’s passion, especially for one so young, struck a very personal chord with Brown.

“I’m amazed at such young talent and at these young ladies that have the passions and ideas to come up with what they did,” he said. “When I was 12, all I wanted to do was play sports and that was it. People donate thousands of dollars every year to the Y, but I don’t think any of that compares to what she did.”

Though painting, furnishing and decorating six rooms was no easy feat, Briana says that she is far from finished with making the Newark Y a happier place.

“My dream is to finish all 19 rooms on the sixth floor and adopt the whole floor,” she said.

Photos by Shanee Frazier and Courtesy of Valencia Wills