A senior at Kingsbury High School, Marlena Mireles is one of three Memphis-area students to receive the 2015 Keeper of the Dream Award by the National Civil Rights Museum. The award recognizes young adults who are making a difference and changing lives by helping to overcome conditions including poverty, hunger and addiction. Marlena actively volunteers with Streets Ministries as leader for education and outreach programs. For the last three years, she has worked closely with second-graders in the group’s after-school program that helps youngsters with homework and builds their reading skills.

Marlena spoke with with Chalkbeat soon after receiving the award last fall. She offers a message to other teenagers on why they should get involved in community service.

You received this award for the volunteer work that you’ve done with Streets Ministries, a Christian organization that works with impoverished youth in Memphis. Tell us about that.

Streets Ministries is like the building we use, and I work with (the after-school program) called Street Smarts. It’s for second-graders who attend Kingsbury Elementary School. We work with them on their reading skills and bond with them, and we share the Gospel with them.

What’s it like to work with second-graders?

They’re very jittery. You have to keep their attention, so you have to use voices when you’re reading or read a line, then they read a line to you, to make sure they’re understanding and following along. It’s hard … but I really like it. I see something in kids that I guess most people don’t see. I didn’t used to like kids because they were always so annoying to me. But I didn’t understand that sometimes it’s not their fault. They’re loud and obnoxious because they’re kids. You just have to love them.

What drew you to community service?

Helping people — knowing you make a difference in someone’s life maybe just once — it’s worth it to me. I feel like we’re here … more than just live to your own life, but to help others too.

What would you tell other teenagers about the power of community service, and why they should volunteer?

"If you sit at home all day and watch TV, you’re not putting anything into where you live."Marlena Mireles

They should do it to make a difference. If you sit at home all day and watch TV, you’re not putting anything into where you live. The community is just going to stay where it is. Like our reading level is really bad in this neighborhood, and that’s why we’re putting so much attention to it — to make a difference. But it doesn’t have to be reading. It could be playing basketball with kids and showing them that someone older than them cares.

How does it feel to receive the Keeper of the Dream Award?

I was really shocked. I didn’t feel like I did enough to win this kind of award. I just help with little kids. But it feels good to know you’re doing something. And it actually helps you. I didn’t know doing second-grade work would win me an award, but now I’m (eligible) for a scholarship called Leadership Scholarship Program. It’s full tuition so that allows me to have more open doors. You just never know.

 

The National Civil Rights Museum is located at the historic Lorraine Motel in Memphis where civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968. It is the only museum in the nation that gives a comprehensive overview of the American civil rights movement from 1619 to the present. Other recipients of the 2015 Keeper of the Dream Award are Antonio Scott, a senior at Houston High School in Germantown, and Emma Johnson, a sophomore at Evangelical Christian School in Cordova.