Two years ago, Niesha Freeman and her husband skipped their honeymoon so that she could pay stipends to the young people enrolled in her program, Knowing Your Destiny, which supports high school and college students, helping them earn money and save for future educational expenses.
When the couple was looking for a house to buy, she pushed, successfully, for a double in New Orleans East because she wanted to live in the same area as the young people served by her nonprofit.
To date, Freeman 28, has not taken a paycheck from the 4-year-old program.
“Niesha’s thrown her whole self into this. She is a servant leader, a humble servant leader doing this for no gain of her own,” said Crystal McDonald, director of entrepreneurship at Propeller, which supports New Orleans social entrepreneurs like Freeman.
Right now, Freeman is working hard to push Knowing Your Destiny out of a temporary hiatus begun in December when the program’s cash reserves dipped too low to pay stipends on time for its earnings-savings arm, called GeauxReady.
The students earn the stipends by working events for Centerplate, the company that runs concession stands at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome and Smoothie King Center, homes of the Saints and Pelicans.
To earn money for Knowing Your Destiny’s website, insurance and nonprofit 501(c)(3) paperwork, Freeman began volunteering in early 2015 for the Centerplate fundraising program, which pays nonprofits for volunteers who work events.
But because Centerplate often takes six to eight weeks to pay its nonprofits, Freeman needed cash reserves to pay the GeauxReady students within a week of their shifts, to make sure that participants didn’t lose trust in her program. She also needed money to cover operating expenses for other Knowing Your Destiny after-school and summer programs at an affordable-housing complex in eastern New Orleans.
On Wednesday, Freeman took a step forward when she earned second place in Propeller’s PitchNola education competition, winning $2,500 for GeauxReady by giving a short PowerPoint presentation that won thunderous applause as Freeman explained what motivated her to start the program.
Freeman had attended the first few days of her freshman year at Helen Cox High School in Harvey when Hurricane Katrina hit. Her mother, an aide in Charity Hospital’s third-floor mental health unit, was offered an apartment and a job in Mandeville, but with no place for Freeman and her two siblings to stay.
So, for the next three years, the family moved to Texas, Georgia and Florida, then back to New Orleans, where Freeman graduated from L.E. Rabouin High.
Amid all that unrest, she had set her sights on attending Clark Atlanta University with Maya Fizer, her best friend since both were in second grade at McDonogh No. 15 Elementary in the French Quarter.
“That was the one thing I could look forward to,” said Freeman, who used the accounting and spreadsheet skills she’d learned at her Atlanta high school to try to fit together her financial aid and Clark’s tuition costs. But she couldn’t make it happen.
“I never want someone else to experience that feeling,” she told the PitchNola audience.
Knowing Your Destiny participants set aside a portion of their stipends to put into Louisiana SMART savings accounts for college. For some students, the work experience for Centerplate comes at a time when they are too young for most fast-food places to hire them.
Mykaya Thompson, 20, a student at Delgado Community College, started with Knowing Your Destiny when she was 16 and attending L.B. Landry-O. Perry Walker High School. “By the time I turned 18, I was a cashier. By the time I was 19, I became a manager,” Thompson said.
Knowing Your Destiny students are able to join their school’s sports teams or cheerleading squads because they can pay for their own uniforms and shoes. When they need school supplies and uniforms, they can buy them.
Some students use the stipends to make payments on the cellphones they often need to text teachers about tough homework problems or to arrange rides to sports practices and games.
The morning after her PitchNola victory, Freeman was up early, running numbers and trying to determine how quickly she could restart Knowing Your Destiny. “It’s my baby,” she said.
McDonald is confident that Freeman will work through the program’s growing pains. “She’s got a ton of momentum,” McDonald said. “The work she is doing is effective, and she’s actually demonstrated that.”