Reaching Out, Changing Lives

Student creates day camp for homeless and disadvantaged youth

Written by Ann Beckmann
Photography by Chris Joseph Taylor
June 8, 2012
There’s a resilience about Seattle University student Shandra Benito that drives her. You see it in her ever-present desire to give back to those who face struggles much like her own.

A Seattle native, she was born hard of hearing, required hearing aids and attended a deaf and hard-of-hearing preschool. Then, as she entered kindergarten, the transition to a mainstream public school posed new, more daunting challenges.

“It was not a good feeling. I struggled to fit in,” says Benito, who begins her junior year at SU in the fall. None of the other students used hearing devices like hers or knew sign language. “For the first time in life, I realized I was different.”

Those were tough years for Benito. Then one day, just as she was about to enter middle school, a family friend had a chat with her.

“He said being hard of hearing sets you apart and makes you cool. He told me I should own it rather than be ashamed,” she says. “From then on, I had new confidence. … That’s when I first realized mentorship with kids was what I wanted to do.”

That talk with a family friend not only boosted her confidence, but it also inspired her to start a nonprofit called Reach Out in 2009. Small efforts, Benito says, just might be what it takes to empower young people to succeed. As she describes how that ripple effect can impact all in its wake, her enthusiasm is infectious. This is what propels her today and you can see it in her heartfelt smile.

Reach Out offers summer day camps for disabled, disadvantaged and homeless youth. Think summer camp with a twist—children up to age 13 go on field trips to museums and the science center, do arts and crafts and participate in activities that build social skills and self-esteem.

Mary Thompson, a sophomore creative writing major and volunteer mentor with Reach Out, says her efforts give her a great introduction to the nonprofit world.
“Shandra and her work have been a huge inspiration,” Thompson says. “She has shown me what it means to really give. Shandra's dedication and generosity shine through Reach Out. The work that she does is incredible."

With insights from her volunteers, many of whom are SU students, Benito designs each day camp for the needs of an individual nonprofit. She meets with organization directors to determine how volunteers can best serve their young clients.

Among those agencies is Abused Deaf Women’s Advocacy Services as well as First Place, a Seattle nonprofit that provides education and support for families in crisis. Joyce Scoggins, volunteer manager for First Place, says she’s impressed with Benito for starting Reach Out.

“I think her program will provide our students with confidence to know it’s OK to be who they want to be and that they can learn from each other,” says Scoggins.”The kids will be learning besides having fun.”

Benito, a Sullivan Scholar at SU, recently won a $5,000 grant for Reach Out from Social Innovation Fast Pitch. As a result, this summer she’ll extend her reach to other nonprofits, including Neighborhood House. She anticipates participation will grow to more than 90 youth and mentors.

The SU social work major reflects on what drew her to the university. Benito says she realized how well her motivation and approach to learning connected with the values of a Jesuit education.

“A lot of the Jesuit messages resonated with me,” she says. “Coming here, I realize everything in my life worked out exactly as I had hoped. Everything fell into place. People here are very supportive. The Sullivan scholarship really allows me to pursue this dream of mine. I’m proudest of the fact that … I do work I love and empower others to do it as well.”
Shandra Benito