Durham Entrepreneur helps teens learn skills for financial independence


In a small retail space in a shopping center in East Durham, 25 teenagers pretend to be celebrating their 100th birthday.

“I never expected to live this long,” says My’dia, a 13-year-old with glasses and long red braids. Standing at the front of the room, she gives her birthday speech to her mock centenarians.

In her youth, she says, she was shy, friendless and unproductive in her free time. She wasted valuable hours binge-watching TikToks and sleeping. But when she turned 13, she enrolled in a summer program called POOF that changed the trajectory of her life; She discovered her passion for modeling during a field trip to a fashion conference, she says, graduated from fashion school and made $20 million a year modeling for Gucci and Balenciaga.

At 40, after marrying and having two children, she changed careers and became a therapist.

“The legacy I left was to be a fashionista, a diva, a good mother and a therapist who helps others,” My’dia concludes.

Leaving a legacy is a core theme here at POOF, a teen workout center tucked between a beauty shop and a Family Dollar on North Miami Boulevard. POOF – which launched as a summer camp in May but will soon operate as an after-school program – aims to provide East Durham teenagers with a safe, stimulating space to improve their entrepreneurial skills, learn about financial independence and reflect on career paths.

The programme’s name, a double acronym standing for both ‘Planning Our Own Future’ and ‘Planning Our Own Funeral’, speaks in part to the choices East Durham teenagers face as they come of age. East Durham’s violent crime rate is 42 percent higher than the citywide average — which is specifically 73 percent higher than the national average — and some East Durham neighborhoods have up to 82 percent of children living in poverty, according to the Durham 2021 Community Gang Assessment.

POOF founder Destiny Alexander, who was born and raised in East Durham, says many of the children in the summer program were friends with the teenage girl who was killed in the shooting near Wedgewood in June.

“That’s the reality,” says Alexander.

But the idea of ​​”planning our own funeral” can also be seen in a more positive light, she says.

“Dying is inevitable, but we are in control of our own heritage,” says Alexander. “Planning your own funeral is another way of saying, ‘Plan for what you will be remembered for.'”

While Alexander’s mission is long-term, POOF is most clearly focused on implementing immediate change.

The program challenges teenagers to choose one of more than 25 different careers, or “paths,” to study over the course of three months — options include repairing cell phones, running a photo booth, window tinting, and the design of t-shirts. All of this does not require a license or degree, thus allowing teenagers to make quick money. (Because POOF is staffed with just three teachers, including Alexander, the program brings in volunteer mentors to coach students along the way.)

A teen’s chosen path can evolve into a side job, a career, or simply provide them with a model for financial independence, Alexander says.

Financial literacy is a core element of POOF’s program: teens are encouraged to open bank accounts and also receive daily classes on topics such as budgeting and lending.

“We’re teaching them how to make that money, so we also have to make sure they don’t screw it up,” says Alexander.

Alexander is a reputable source on the subject; She has single-handedly funded POOF with profits from her own photo booth business and rents out the center as a function space on the weekends to pay the bills.

POOF’s upcoming after-school program will look a lot like its summer camp, with a condensed daily timeline that includes slots for tutoring and schoolwork. The program is offered in 90-day segments with activities running from 2:30 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. each day.

While the program is listed at $30 a week, Alexander says she will never turn anyone away if they can’t afford it; The main obstacle to participating in the program is the waiting list of more than 100 teenagers. (Durham Public Schools are also experiencing outsized demand for their after school care program). For now, each segment is limited to 25 students — Alexander says she wants to make sure each student gets individual attention — but with more funding and space, programs could grow in the future.

Towards the end of each 90-day segment, teens in the POOF area will set up booths for their chosen avenues—phone and computer repair stations, clothing displays, and the like—and open the doors to the public.

“​​We want them to show us that they can regurgitate what they’ve learned,” says Alexander. “Then we’ll break up.”

The morning I visit POOF, I walk through the front door and immediately find myself in the middle of a dance circle. A Migos song blares and the teenagers let go.

Since it’s summer and the group will be here by 6pm, Alexander likes to start the day with a few hours of lounge time, she says. For most teenagers, this seems to mean getting out their ya-yas, although some are dozing on a couch.

After a few minutes, Alexander gathers everyone in POOF’s central room, a room with folding banquet tables, plastic chairs, and gray walls, empty except for a small gallery of inspirational posters that say things like “Strive for progress, not perfection” and “You’re exactly where you need to be.”

At this point, Alexander would normally turn on an instructional video, but because I’m with her, she decides to quiz the students on topics from previous films.

“Who does the pipeline to the prison affect?” Alexander asks the room.

“Us,” the teenagers answer in unison.

“Why is that?” asks Alexander.

“Because of the color of our skin,” they say.

The morning video usually informs about a subsequent writing exercise; For example, the day before my visit, the students watched a film called Why Japanese People Live the Longest and then wrote their 100th birthday speeches. (Alexander asks My’dia to give her speech while I’m there.)

Teenagers typically spend the rest of the day studying their life paths, learning finance, going on field trips, and doing community service.

After Alexander asks the students to rattle off their records of volunteering—feeding homeless people, donating blood, picking up trash, working at the Durham Rescue Mission, and helping out at a senior citizens’ center—she asks them why they come to POOF .

“To stay off the street,” says one teenager, and others join in, “To communicate with people.” “So I don’t have to be home.” “Because you and your daughter make me feel safe.” (Alexander’s adolescent Daughter Jordan participates in the program.)

Then a student turns the question to Alexander.

“Why do you come here every day, Miss Destiny?” he asks. “What made you decide to do this?”

The group falls silent—most don’t know their backstory—and Alexander begins to talk.

She dropped out of high school and got pregnant when she was 19, she says. A month before she had her little boy, his father was sentenced to 25 years in prison.

“I knew three things would speak against my son coming into this world,” says Alexander. “He was black, he was a boy, and his father went to prison.”

To support her son — and daughter a few years later — she started working three jobs and got her GED, then earned a bachelor’s degree in social work and a master’s degree in public administration.

She had three other jobs while she was in college, so her professors came to her car to make sure she was awake and ready for class, she says. It wasn’t the kind of life she wanted for her children.

“I didn’t want my kids to ever have to work for anyone unless they wanted to,” says Alexander. “I wanted them to learn an entrepreneurial mindset.”

She enrolled her son in the YMCA’s after-school program and made sure he was literate and financially proficient. Her son spent his final two years of high school at the North Carolina School of Science and Math, she says, and is now on a full scholarship to UNC-Chapel Hill.

“I made sure he stayed off the street,” says Alexander. “He didn’t have any free time. I wanted to give you what the YMCA gave my son.”

After working as a social worker for several years, Alexander started her own photo booth business and saved enough money to start POOF, with the goal of helping students plan for their futures as well as protecting them.

She’s lost friends to gun violence since she was eighth grade in East Durham, she says.

“I understood what it was like to plan my own funeral because I had lost so many people tragically, but I also understood that a funeral doesn’t have to be tragic,” says Alexander. “We have a story, but what do we do with our story?”

Later in the day, Alexander tells me that she’s not usually quick to share her life story — Bill Gates and Oprah only shared their stories after they found success, she notes — but in this scenario, she felt opening up was key to build trust in their students.

“It was also important to me not to dress up too much for you,” says Alexander. She’s wearing a t-shirt that reads “BLACK. NICE. PROUD. I AM QUEEN”, plus sandals and capris.

“Because I have to be my authentic self with them.”

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