The Power of Love

USF graduate student applies research to needs of Tampa’s Just Elementary School; earns We Deliver Award.




                                                                                                                                               photos: Aimee Blodgett | USF News

USF graduate student Lynette Henry selected lucky winners with All Pro Dads Team Captain
Nick Laliotis during a raffle for prizes during a Dad's Day Breakfast event at Just Elementary School, part of the Just Love program she started with volunteers from her church.



By Barbara Melendez

     USF News


TAMPA, Fla. (Oct. 8, 2013) – Famed scientist Ernest Everett Just’s name graces two schools in Tampa – Just Elementary and Middle Schools. His name also has provided more than one opportunity to make a play on words – in the best ways possible.


There’s Just Connect, a classroom adoption program. There’s Just Mentor, a school-based mentoring program and then Just Rewards, a student and parent involvement incentive rewards program. They are all part of Lynette Henry’s Just Love program – her response to seeing a need and the product of her decision to do something about it.


A school guidance counselor, the current USF graduate student initiated and established Just Love as a school/family/community partnership with Exciting Idlewild Baptist Church, in Lutz, where she is a member. Volunteers from the church offer both tangible items and the most precious of gifts to the students, teachers and families at Just Elementary – “their time, love, care and support,” Henry said.


It all began when she found herself working at the school, located in a high poverty area, “where children faced many challenges,” she said. “I knew without outside supports, as a school counselor, I could not meet all the relevant needs of these children. Through research (while earning her master’s degree at USF) I had learned that children have a better chance of succeeding and are more resilient when partnerships are in place.”


Her heartfelt concern inclined Henry to put that research to the test.


“I’m passionate about reaching out and helping. I knew that our children couldn’t make their way alone, so I asked Idlewild to adopt Just Elementary.”


Supportive adult relationships are at the core of Just Love. The volunteers provide services as well – and more.


“We placed back-to-school supplies on the children’s desks for when they returned to school the first day. We also provide food vouchers, haircuts, food for students on long weekends to combat weekend hunger. We organize field trips, teacher appreciation events, family nights, birthday and attendance celebrations and bring in books for classrooms and Christmas gifts.”


Just Love is also responsible for building a covered courtyard so that the children can have physical education classes away from the hot sun and even painted the school’s hallways.


Meanwhile, the recipients of Just Love’s good will aren’t limited to the children alone. Their families and teachers are taken into account as well.


“When schools, families and the communities form partnerships, it provides children with the protective factors and the developmental assets they need to foster resilience,” Henry said. “Partnerships empower families, increase teacher expectations for students and increase educational outcomes for students; self-efficacy as well decreases risky behaviors and discipline problems.”


A surprise award


For this and more, Henry was awarded the Hillsborough County Superintendent’s We Deliver Award that came with a check for $10,000 to use as she sees fit.


Thinking she was representing her boss at a meeting last spring, she found herself greeted by cheering students with Silly String and smiling district officials bearing the good news. Hillsborough Education Foundation Chief Financial Officer Debra Friedberg and Superintendent Mary Ellen Elia did the honors. The recognition may have come as a surprise to her, but those around Henry saw it as perfectly natural and well-deserved.


“I was very surprised,” she said. “When you are passionate about caring for the needs of these children – that feel like my very own – you don’t think of awards for yourself. You just think about what else do they need and who is available to help. I felt celebrated though and appreciated and I think that is how the children feel as well. It's a really good feeling that does not go away and makes you smile every time you think about it.”


What Henry set in motion has indeed delivered results. More than 300 school bags filled with school supplies, Christmas presents for every Just Elementary student and a week’s worth of food and household supplies for more than 400 families were the program’s first accomplishments in October 2010. The program has continued in a similar vein since then.


“This year we’ve provided uniforms for every child,” she said. “And we’ve created a system whereby families can get vouchers for things they need.”


There’s one catch.


“They get the vouchers when they attend events at the school. It’s a way of keeping family members involved in their children’s progress.”


One such event is Dad’s Day. A church-based chapter of All Pro Dads and the group I (for Idlewild) Moms bring parents and children together for breakfast at Just Elementary several times a year. Nick Laliotis as team captain worked with former Buccaneer player Rob Taylor, both church members, on the most recent breakfast on Sept. 30. Taylor spoke about the importance of good parenting. The meal is free, provided by Idlewild and McDonald’s and there was a free raffle for donated hats, tee shirts and toys.


“We do this to encourage parents to spend quality time with their children and address topics that would benefit families,” Henry said.


It’s this kind of strategic thinking and action that underlies all she does and this has impressed those who know her.


One of Henry’s nomination letters from Idlewild Baptist Church stated, “Lynette has instigated every-day miracles in this program, because children are excited about coming to school, mentors are investing in lives, home rooms have been adopted, and big dreams have come to little hearts. Even though Lynette’s career has moved her to Hillsborough High School, she still works fervently for the success of ‘her kids’ at Just Elementary.”


Working from the heart


Since arriving in the district in 1995, Henry has worked as a college and career counselor, guidance counselor, ESE aide, and substitute teacher. She is currently on leave from Hillsborough High School working on her doctorate in counselor education at USF’s College of Education where she has worked as a graduate research and teaching assistant.


This past summer, she “had the privilege of teaching in Johns Hopkins University’s master’s program” in school counseling and clinical mental health counseling.


Henry starts writing her dissertation this fall. She’s evaluating the Just Love program and the impact on the children and their parents. One unique aspect of her investigation is the use of an “innovative participatory research method” known as photo-voice.


“This is a way to give children a way to talk about what is meaningful to them,” she explained. “It incorporates the process of documentary photography with the practice of empowerment education. It puts cameras in the hands of children who are often excluded from decision-making processes in order to capture their voices and visions about their lives, their community and their concerns.”


What makes her do this work?


“It’s my heart,” she explained. “I once heard a quote by Garry Landreth and it has remained my philosophy: ‘I cannot make children's hurts and fears and frustrations and disappointments go away. Therefore, I will soften the blow.’ My goal is to soften the blow of the challenges our children face and I know that if I can find people who care enough to just love one child unconditionally, we could make a difference in more than just one child’s life.”


With a heart like hers, love was Henry’s inevitable response to Just Elementary’s needs.


Ernest Everett Just, an African-American biologist and science writer who lived from 1883 to 1941 was a magna cum laude graduate of Dartmouth College. He was a member of Phi Beta Kappa and helped with the founding of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity. An educator himself, Just would be proud of how Henry is using his name.


If interested in joining with her to help the children of Just Elementary or in training to help replicate her programs, please contact Lynette Henry at lhenry@mail.usf.edu.


Barbara Melendez can be reached at 813-974-4563