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MAKING A MARK: Woman inspires youth through same group that inspired her

Ragen Johnson is empowering young people to be the best version of themselves, and she's doing it through the same group that pushed her as a child.

HAMPTON, Va. — A student becomes the teacher. Ragen Johnson was in middle school when she joined Alternatives, a Hampton-based nonprofit developing Hampton Roads youth for nearly five decades.

"You didn't have to be the most athletic," said Johnson. 

"You didn't have to be the top of the class in grades. It was for all kids. This is a community that's not just all talk... They put their time and investment into young people."

Twenty years later, she's on her third year as the group's executive director. "We invest at a young age in middle school in giving them a voice and leadership opportunities and showing them that, as a young person, you can make a contribution to your community," said Johnson.

Under her lead, Alternatives has launched initiatives like a childhood obesity prevention program and a mindfulness curriculum for elementary and middle schools.

"As we have seen, even last year, the issues change," said Johnson. "And so, we have to change with that and say to our young people, 'Tell us... how you're feeling about this. What are our ideas on this?'"

The nonprofit also empowers young people to fight for social justice. "We don't pick the issue for them. They pick," said Johnson. "And then it's that... partnership that we bring that helps them... to implement those things in the community."

By looking back and paying it forward, Johnson said she's helping to build up the community where she grew up.

"We're still giving young people opportunities to develop themselves as leaders, to talk to city officials and school board members and other adults, and offer solutions in their voice," said Johnson. "And that's what it's really all about."

To learn more about Alternatives' leadership opportunities- including youth ambassador programs- for middle and high school students in Hampton, York County, or Poquoson, contact Michelle Simpson at msimpson@altinc.org or 757-838-2330.

Alternatives also provides programs to childhood centers on the Southside and Peninsula and after-school enrichment to elementary school-aged children. The nonprofit recently released a guidebook to help parents and families support their students.

All programs are free for children and families. Visit the group's website, Facebook, or Instagram page for more information.