Focus on Mentoring

Doug White, a University of South Florida graduate student in journalism, will unveil the work of his protegés this afternoon during a board meeting at the Tampa Housing Authority office in downtown Tampa. For the last 10 weeks, White has been working on a photojournalism project with a group of four youths as part of THA’s Focus on Mentoring Program.

Their work will be on display for the THA board in a gallery of photographs, which they took during the program.

“I think the adults are going to be very surprised by the quality of the work they’re going to see,” White said. “If you didn’t already know, you wouldn’t guess the photos were taken by kids.”

White’s students were selected by THA for the FOM class: Brittany Brown, 13; Cecilia Cantave, 11; Melanisha Hamilton, 11; and Ramon Rosado, 16.

White said his calling to help these kids was subtle and unexpected.

FOM creator David Handschuh, a New York Daily News photographer, was presenting at a Poynter Institute seminar when he first met White. The Poynter Institute, based in St. Petersburg, is a training school for journalists.

At the time, White was writing a thesis on controversial graphic images and photojournalism ethics while Handschuh was looking to launch the FOM program.

Handschuh found funding for the program after a meeting with Mary Fox, a manager at Planergy International, which had an energy conservation contract with THA. Handschuh pitched his educational concept, and Fox decided it would fit with the community service efforts at THA.

After securing the project’s finances, Handschuh contacted White to teach the program. White immediately accepted, and during the next few months they developed and honed the program’s goals.

Then came Sept. 11.

Handschuh was injured while photographing the World Trade Center attacks. White, who was working as an online reporter at Poynter, found a picture on the internet of Handschuh being carried away from the rubble.

White said the effect of that picture soured his taste for immersing himself in the disturbing photos of Sept. 11 for his master’s thesis.

“The picture of David captured him at the worst moment of his life, injured on the street, covered in debris, not knowing if he was going to live or die,” White said. “And suddenly my thesis topic was no longer just a theoretical academic pursuit. I now had a direct connection.”

With the support of Jay Black and other journalism professors in the USF-St. Petersburg grad program, White switched from his morbidly-themed thesis to the more uplifting project.

The Curriculum

To instruct his students in photojournalism, White had them visit and photograph events such as the Gasparilla Children’s Day Parade and the Florida State Fair.

The children also visited the Poynter Institute while it played host to the National Press Photographers Association’s Best of Photojournalism Contest. They spoke with some of the leading photojournalists in the country, including Michele Stephenson, director of photography for TIME.

Stephenson spoke highly of the children, describing their presence as a welcomed change to the harsh scrutiny of judging.

“It was a treat to just look at the material with the kids,” Stephenson said. “It suddenly wasn’t just work anymore.”She said her favorite aspect of the visit was their simple, yet adept observations.

“They weren’t shy about anything,” Stephenson said. “They’d tell you exactly what they did or didn’t like about the picture. They got right to the heart of the matter.”

One of the students, Cecilia Cantave, said she liked visiting Poynter most because “they were nice and respected us.”Prior to Poynter, the group toured The Tampa Tribune, WFLA-Newschannel 8 and, meeting with Joseph Brown, director of photography for the Tribune. Brown came in on his day off to teach the kids about convergence and the age of digital cameras.

“It exposed them to events that they would not otherwise see,” said Sam Harris of THA’s Public Safety and Youth Services.Harris said he views the program as a means for kids to identify with professional interests later in life.

“It gave them insight into photojournalism,” Harris said. “Anytime you do that, you plant a seed. Maybe when they’re in high school, and someone starts talking about photography or journalism, they can use this experience to say, ‘Hey, I’ve done that.’ They’re more likely to participate if they can relate.”

According to Handschuh, that is exactly what the program is intended to do.

“Focus on Mentoring … introduces visual journalism to youngsters, many of whom have never had the opportunity to use digital cameras and computers,” Handschuh said.

The children were given access to two new Dell computers and six Nikon Coolpix digital cameras.

“We just want to give the kids an opportunity for a different, exciting and enjoyable type of employment and an incentive to stay in school and seek higher education,” Handschuh said.For at least one of White’s students, that incentive is already having an effect.

Ramon Rosado, who credits his high school English teacher for encouraging him to get involved, said the FOM program has motivated him to attend college at USF. Instead of spending his Saturdays watching television, he chose FOM to help him become more productive.

“He was the oldest in the group, and I was continually impressed by his goals for the future,” White said.

Since neither of his parents went to a university, Ramon is curious about what it means to “go to college.”

“I just want to see the grounds, the library, the students in classes, and the difference from high school,” said Rosado.

A New Path

When White first told his professor about using the FOM project for his thesis, Black told him that this change would affect more than just his academics.

“My great experience with the mentorship program led me down a different career path,” White said, “And I realized I wanted to do something full-time where I was making a direct impact.”

Although White has focused on journalism since high school and will receive his master’s degree in journalism next week, he has now accepted a job outside the field.

White will work for the Kids Wish Network, an Oldsmar-based nonprofit organization that helps fulfill the wishes of terminally ill children.

“The decision to switch from journalism to the nonprofit world was a tough one, but one that became clear over the last eight months,” White said.

In addition to the mentoring program, White was influenced by the loss of a good friend and mentor, Dennis Foreman, who died of cancer. Before his death in February, Foreman chose to focus his sympathy on children with cancer, not himself.

“It just seems appropriate that I’m now moving into a position where I will be able to assist some of the children he so eloquently spoke of,” White said.

White will work to secure funds for the organization and provide content for the Kids Wish Network online.

“I will be working to help the organization grow and help even more children,” White said. “I really can’t think of a better or more rewarding job.”

Contact Chris Budzbanat