By Clyde Hughes | AC JosepH Media
ATLANTIC CITY — Shalanda Austin was a high school dropout and single mother at 19, a situation that could have defined her life in a negative way.
But looking at her one-year-old son, Austin became inspired to want a better life for him. Now, the award-winning founder of the In My CARE Mentoring Program, it is Austin who is inspiring young girls around the city as one of the most respected youth organizers in South Jersey.
“I was inspired to want more for my son and I,” Austin told Front Runner New Jersey recently about her newfound determination. “I went to school to obtain my GED, diploma, and then I attended Vo-tech to receive my cosmetology license. After working in the beauty field for over 10 years I enrolled in college to obtain my degrees in criminal justice and political science.
“I was then inspired to work at the elementary school and fell in love with helping our children. My son and I use to have a conversation about how sometimes your life may not be on the track that it should be because of some obstacles we have to overcome, but as long as you remain inspired to do good you always have a chance to change the direction you travel on that track,” Austin continued.
Today, when Atlantic County officials talk about “unsung heroes” in the community, if Austin’s name is not the first person mentioned, she quickly comes up afterward. But Austin said her collaborative spirit allows her to live by the motto, “Community, Not Competition.”
“I always include everyone to participate when In My CARE puts together any community event,” Austin said. “In My CARE’s success is in the hearts of the Aunties (Mentors) that give of their time and creativeness and spirit of unity to the program, the youth and the community.”
In My CARE — whose acronym stands for Connecting, Aligning, Restoring and Empowering — started in 2014, seeking to reach young girls, their parents and even grandparents.
“In My CARE Mentoring Program is my baby and was birthed out of the desire to help our young girls navigate through the vicissitudes of life,” Austin said. “It gave us great joy to have the opportunity to be a beacon of light to our community, our youth, and our parents.”
Austin’s mother came to Atlantic City from Philadelphia in search of a better life and to find a place to raise her children. Austin was the youngest of six children and home was where she learned the meaning of unity.
“I’m used to the term ‘it takes a village’ because it really does,” Austin said. “My mother was a hard worker, and she was very strict. She taught us to look out for one another and those that you love and to remember that there is no blessing attached to being selfish. As a child growing up in Atlantic City, I always loved that community vibe.
“I grew up with neighbors that looked after one another, and youth that had respect for the adults, and the church which was the center of the community. One of the things that I picked up on growing up is when something good happens or is happening that can empower or uplift, we should always be willing to share that information with others to empower them,” she added.
Sharing that empowerment is one of the major themes for In My CARE.
“We started out with a sincere desire to be a mentor-to-mentee program and as life began to happen and mentors were not able to commit, we then became a group program,” Austin said. “We would meet every week from 4:30-6 p.m. for ages 8 to 12 and 6:30 to 8 p.m. for ages 13 to 18 and dinner time was 6-6:30 p.m. for both groups which increased unity amongst the girls.”
Empowering Work and Events
In My CARE has hosted the Community Awareness Luncheon, Purity Ceremonies, and Black Girls Rock (Jersey Style) events where they honor 12 women from our community that have overcome obstacles and were active in the community.
The organization hosted numerous events, including 5 Day Etiquette Courses, Atlantic Counties 1st Family Conference, Career Awareness, Feeding and Honoring our Veterans, Community Movie Nights, Hosting Thanksgiving and Christmas Dinners for our Senior Citizens at Jeffries Towers, Drug and Alcohol Awareness Lunches and Dinners, Mother-Daughter Book Club, Game Nights and youth conferences.
“We hosted Police and Me Youth and Law Enforcement platforms, which we were blessed to have New Jersey Attorney General Gubir Grewal along with the Atlantic County Prosecutor Damon Tyner, New Jersey Superior Court judges, local police sergeants and officers; and before Covid-19 we were able to do college tours,” Austin said.
Austin said in one event, they conducted a youth mock election where 12-year-old participants prepared speeches for their roles in government and ran for office.
“Just about all of our politicians showed up to support them and we also had a live voting machine so the youth could see how voting really worked,” Austin said. “We are hoping to get rid of any negative thoughts that our youth wrestle with when it comes to reaching their goals.”
In My CARE also provides help to single parents and grandparents raising children.
“Our ultimate goal is to help our youth reach their full potential and to become productive citizens in society,” Austin said. “This is why we want them to know that their growing pains are meant to strengthen them, not to stop them, and they can do anything they put their hearts, minds and hands to.”
Austin has won numerous awards for her work, including those from the Atlantic City NAACP and the Atlantic County’s annual Community Spirit Award during its Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. celebration.
“I am grateful for every [New Jersey State] Assembly and city resolution, freeholder proclamation, and state commendation but I have to say that the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Spirit Award is the one that touched me the most,” Austin said.
“I always looked up to the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and to be in possession of an accolade that has his name on it is and will always be such a blessing and honor to me, not only because of his name, but for his journey and what he stood for and what he has gone through while giving unselfishly to a community that didn’t always appreciate his sacrifice. Nevertheless, he kept pushing for civil rights and being a voice to those who often felt like they had no voice. He will forever be honored,” she continued.
The Rest of the Story
Here are some of the other topics Austin shared with Front Runner New Jersey.
FRNJ: Who has and continues to inspire you (parents, teachers, etc.)?
Shalanda Austin: I believe that inspiration is progressive, meaning there are levels to inspiration that is constantly being developed. For instance, I’m inspired by my sisters and brothers daily because they encourage me. By that, I’m inspired to encourage others. I’m also inspired by women and men that have overcame obstacles that could have shut them down, but they got up and they fought for their right to exist in society. I’m also inspired by youth that people count out and then they become something great. However, I was first inspired by my mother (May God rest her soul). My mother didn’t let nothing and no one stop her. She was never a follower. She was always a leader.
FRNJ: What has been your biggest surprise from youth you have participated in your program?
Shalanda Austin: I think the biggest surprise for me was when you have a youth who you really think you’re not reaching because she may not be as vocal as you as believe and then you find out that young lady is the one out recruiting other youth because of her love for the program. Or when a mentor receives a text message out of the clear blue from a mentee that simply says, â€œI love you auntieâ€ (the mentee call all mentors aunties because it increases a more personal relationship).
FRNJ: What remains your biggest challenge — in your organization and general?
Shalanda Austin: Finances are always a challenge for grassroots organizations. We would be able to do so much more with more finances. A permanent space for the program is another challenge. We have a once-a-week space but I know we would make more of a community impact if we had a place of our own which is one of our program goals.
FRNJ: FRNJ works to present role models to the community. How seriously do you take your role as a role model? Why?
Shalanda Austin: I take my role as a role model very seriously. First, I’m a child of God so I try to keep myself in good light and surrounded with good positive people because once you say you are a Christian the spotlight comes on. I also realize that young people are watching me, and not just those in the community but those in my family as well. I often talk to youth about their presence on social media, at school, in the community, and at home. One of the things I often think about that keeps me on my role model toes is the fact that I know that I don’t just represent myself but I represent my husband Peri, my son Taj, my sisters and brothers in my moms absence, my nieces and nephews, my god children, and the In My C.A.R.E. Program, Inc. For this reason I try to remain respectful, honest and representative of the community that I serve!
FRNJ: Where do you see yourself in five years?
Shalanda Austin: In five years, I see myself in a political role advocating for youth and community on a greater level.
FRNJ: Anything else you would like to add?
Shalanda Austin: I also had the opportunity to author four books, “Say It til You See It,” “My Life a Neat Mess,” “Feed Your Spirit-Starve your Flesh,” and the new youth book, “The Respect Factor.” I am also an appointed Atlantic County Youth Commissioner since 2019. I am also the founder of the local and national women’s ministry called Sista’s of the Sanctuary that meet on the prayer and devotional line twice a week with women from different states.
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