JOLIET – At 29, Danara Barlow is less concerned about her career and more on launching a nonprofit she jump-started last year with $2,500 from North Central College’s 2014 Mironda K. Heston Scholarship for Human Service.
With that money, Barlow created Project Better, a four-weekend summer program to motivate low-income youth into considering college and future careers. The program mimicked the type of nonprofit Barlow, a sociology turned psychology major at North Central College in Naperville, wants to form someday.
“I really want to work with people,” Barlow said. “I feel you get left behind if you don’t have the money, the clothes and the food that other people have.”
It’s a story Barlow knows well. She spent her teen years living in the Housing Authority of Joliet’s Fairview Homes, public housing for low-income individuals. College? Never crossed Barlow’s mind, she said, because of a severe vision disability, parents unable to afford higher education and – especially – lack of scholarship options.
“My grades weren’t horrible, but they were average,” Barlow said, “and I definitely wasn’t playing sports.”
But attending the Illinois Center for Rehabilitation and Education in Chicago – which provides vocational and mobility programs for the visually impaired – immediately after high school changed Barlow’s perspective on higher education.
At the center, Barlow met adults of all ages with varying levels of visual disability, including adults that had become nearly blind because of macular degeneration, she said. Barlow, who grew up with the expectation she would participate in household chores, was impressed at these people’s steely determination.
“They wanted to take computer classes and get back to work,” Barlow said. “I thought, ‘If they can lose their vision and still have a good outlook, then I should be able to do the same things.’ It drove me to want to work hard and do better.”
In 2006, Barlow enrolled in Joliet Junior College, struggled with her disability, dropped out and then re-enrolled. It’s a pattern that continued until 2011, when Barlow obtained an associate degree in child development and a certificate of completion in human resource management, she said.
Barlow soon realized her career choice did not correlate well with her disability, especially since overseeing the care and safety of young children would be her primary duty.
“I didn’t want to endanger anyone’s kids,” Barlow said.
Undaunted, Barlow, who had moved to Wheaton with her husband, enrolled in North Central College and blossomed. She is now the co-president of the Black Student Association, and the vice president and chaplain for the college’s gospel choir, Voices of Praise. Barlow is very happy with her school choice.
“It’s like a family,” Barlow said.
Barlow said Dorothy Pleas, director of the Office of Multicultural Affairs, where Barlow works as a student assistant, suggested she apply for the 2014 Mironda K. Heston Scholarship for Human Service.
Heston, a 2002 North Central College graduate, “died from an illness contracted while working in Haiti to improve health care,” a college news release said. Generally, Pleas said, that scholarship goes to students planning to work overseas, but she thought Barlow was a good fit.
“She had a strong commitment to Joliet and giving the children there an opportunity to explore higher education,” Pleas said. “I thought she had a rare gift, a strong personality and the ability to execute that.”
By applying, Barlow learned how to write a budget and a business plan and then market her idea to potential students, Barlow said, mostly by distributing flyers. Seven students, ages 9 through 17, signed up for Project Better.
On Fridays, after using the first session for registration, Barlow took the kids on three college tours, to North Central College, Illinois Benedictine in Lisle and the University of St. Francis in Joliet. On Saturdays, Barlow held workshops at Fairview Homes Community Center on goal-setting and career-planning.
Toward the end of the program, Barlow posted a request on Facebook for school supplies sponsors for all seven youth. Doubting she’d get people responding through social media (“They just want to talk about drama”), Barlow soon had people messaging her saying, “I’ll do it.”
As a result, each student left the program with a backpack full of required school supplies, including paper towels and tissues, Barlow said. She hopes to make Project Better a yearly event and is already working on plans to finance it.
“I want to be the person that sticks around and helps,” Barlow said.