Jana Jones Halls
As a teacher, Jana Jones Halls was passionate about helping students succeed in the classroom. Then she realized a greater calling was helping them succeed in life.
“There’s so much need outside of the classroom that has to be addressed for many students to have a chance to be successful,” she said. “The issue of poverty is so overwhelming.”
A native of McLean, Va., Jones Halls came to Wilmington, NC, after graduating from Christopher Newport University in 2003.
“I was thinking about San Diego, but my mother absolutely did not want me moving across the country,” she said. “I already had friends here and loved the area. So Wilmington seemed like a good place to start a career.”
She wanted to work with children, but was unsure in what capacity. She worked with special needs students at Codington Elementary for three years before joining the faculty at Wilmington’s Friends School as a language arts teacher.
In 2007, Jones Halls participated in the first of two mission trips to Kenya, life-changing experiences for the minister’s daughter.
“That really transformed my life,” she said. “I was actively pursuing the possibility of moving to Kenya to teach when I realized the things my heart was connecting to in Kenya were here.
“It’s like God told me ‘Open your eyes. Yes, people in Kenya need you. But there are people here who need you,’” she said.
At the time, Jones Halls was working through her church in volunteering at the Church Without Walls, a local mission serving homeless individuals and families. She was struck by the tremendous challenges many of the children faced.
“It was such a dichotomy between those kids who were starving for love, and sometimes even food, and kids I was with during the week,” she said. “I loved teaching and felt like I could go far with it. But my heart was telling me where I needed to be.”
In 2012 Jones Halls “made a leap of faith” and joined the Americorps HandsOnSchools program as the community outreach coordinator at D.C. Virgo Preparatory Academy, encouraging greater parental involvement with their children’s education. A year later, in July 2013, she was named Executive Director of Wilmington’s Blue Ribbon Commission on the Prevention of Youth Violence (BRC).
Created in 2008 to address the needs of at-risk youth, it brings together elected, faith-based and other community leaders, as well as volunteers with extensive knowledge of the roots of youth violence. A key initiative of the BRC is the Youth Enrichment Zone (YEZ), a community-wide effort intended to transform a high-poverty, under- resourced, high-crime area into a safe and caring environment for children and families.
“It’s a daunting task knowing that any day you could see your kids’ photos on the news or get a call that something happened to them,” she said. “So you celebrate the small successes. And, in those moments, you know it’s all worth it.”
Jones Halls remembers one student who had a history of bad decisions and hanging out with others who were negative influences, but who became active in the YEZ program. It was a turning point in the student’s life.
“It used to be that he would probably drop out and not graduate from high school, and now he’s talking about what kind of college he could get into,” Jones Halls said.
While her days are often filled with meetings or conference calls, Jones Halls prefers to be out of the office, interacting with the students.
“I want to know each one by name, their families and their situations,” she said. “Then when we’re creating programs, or I’m filling out grant applications, I picture their faces. They’re not really my kids, but I consider them my kids.”
Jones Halls’ mother, who passed away in 2013, often suggested that her daughter would one day lead a non-profit organization, an idea Jones Halls scoffed at and brushed aside.
“I never thought I would be in this position,” Jones Halls said. “But it’s one of those situations where you realize all of a sudden that you’re exactly where you’re supposed to be.”
Creditline: Alicia Taylor