When Katherine Powell was in high school, she was a straight-A student. She was well-traveled for her age, having spent time in Belize every year since birth, soaking in the culture and helping her father with his nonprofit work with manatees. Still, her parents were sure to establish roots in Sarasota so their daughter could go to Sarasota High School and be raised in a community dedicated to arts and philanthropy. Now, Powell was a senior with a bright future and only one sticking point in her plans—a math class she hated. But, even there, she made friends.


One friend Powell remembers in particular, not only because this person was intelligent, kind and “always had a wonderful smile on her face,” but because one day she trusted Powell enough to tell her where she lived—under the John Ringling Bridge. “That was shocking for me to hear,” says Powell. “That someone my age was going through this in a community that I had always felt supported by.” They both graduated, but her friend’s story never left Powell’s mind.

Today, 21 years old and a studying psychology and political science, Powell is also cofounder and president of Freedom Fellows Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to helping homeless and underprivileged teenagers plot a successful path through their high school years and plan for their future after, whether that means scholarships and college, or building professional experience for a career that speaks to them. “The universal question is, ‘I need a way out of this circumstance,’” says Breanna Choat, Powell’s cofounder in Freedom Fellows, “and a lot of people don’t know how to create that for themselves.”

Established in March of this year, the enterprise has already taken on its first fellows, beginning with a trip to the YMCA group home, next door to Powell’s old high school and operated through the Safe Children’s Coalition. “I asked them if I could go in and just talk to the kids,” says Powell, “just take consensus and get their firsthand perspectives.” She met with a group of five or six, and one thing stuck out immediately. “There was no one ethnicity,” she says. “There was no one age group. There was no one gender.” She asked them who they wanted to be when they grew up, what they wanted to do. Doctor. Lawyer. Police officer. Writer. “It was wonderful to see their faces light up,” says Powell. “They had a lot of great ideas, but there was no experience to back it up, which makes perfect sense.” And that’s where Freedom Fellows comes in.

“We brainstorm,” says Powell. “We have an end in mind, but how do we make a map to get to that profession?” A key impediment can often simply be lack of information, and Freedom Fellows works with students to be sure that they not only know about opportunities available to them, but also the benchmarks and milestones they need to hit in order to take advantage. And because different career paths have different requirements, and different students face different challenges, each student will have a map tailor-made for them. In the future, a set curriculum may be established for popular careers, but for now the nonprofit works on a case-by-case basis. 15 students applied for this semester’s inaugural class; five were accepted for the pilot run.

One student—“A superstar,” says Powell—wants to be a neurologist. She’s currently enrolled at Booker High School. Freedom Fellows works with her to keep an eye on her GPA, and know what score she needs to maintain in order to apply for a college that will set her on her path. They track her community service hours, not just those required for graduation, but also to apply for a Bright Future Scholarship, like Powell did. “And depending on these community service hours,” she says, “you can get a higher amount given to you by the state.” Freedom Fellows also helps its charges find community service opportunities that correspond to their interests. This particular “superstar” is currently in the process of getting an internship with Sarasota Memorial Hospital. The youngest student working with Freedom Fellows, a 13-year-old in the eighth grade, is too young to amass service hours for scholarships, but will start her cadet program with the Sarasota Police Department soon.

Importantly, the fellows do the work—Choat and Powell simply help them find the path and encourage them to walk it. “They need motivation,” says Choat. Motivation is a muscle that you build, so we get excited with them, we cheer them on.” One of her charges once held a GPA too low to legally hold a job, and had no family support to help her improve. After working with Choat and Freedom Fellows, she has one job and is looking at a position in animal care. “She actually gets excited when we meet with her because she has someone to support her in that way,” says Choat. “And she told us that if she didn’t create this plan with us, she would probably never try.”

But not every story is a success. One young woman broke her probation and was sent to juvenile detention just a day after meeting with Powell and making plans. Another wanted to participate, but couldn’t. Already the breadwinner for her family as a high school senior, she had no time to dedicate to her own self-improvement. Another, an artist who wanted to be a writer, was on her way to landing an internship at SRQ magazine, but when Powell returned to deliver the good news, she received the bad instead. The aspiring writer had run away from the YMCA home, and no one has heard from her since. “It can be disheartening,” says Powell, “but it also solidifies the reason why I wanted to do this.”

It can be scary, Powell admits, putting herself out there and trying to bring about change in the public eye, but that fear is nothing next to the challenges she’s helping others to overcome. Besides, she had a good example in her father, who started his own nonprofit to help endangered marine life. “I watched my dad leave his job and really take a chance on himself and trust himself,” Powell says. “I saw him from the beginning, trying to fundraise and being so happy when he finally got his first grant, because that meant we could eat.” And she found exactly what she’s trying to pass on through Freedom Fellows—a supportive environment. “I don’t think this would be able to succeed if I didn’t do it in Sarasota,” she says. “This is the perfect place to start.”