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Purple Feet Foundation: English Majors Mentor At-Risk Youth

Posted on 4/21/2015 8:26:00 PM

Purple FeetAllie Monyak (’17) with children from Purple Feet Foundation during Cabrini’s Homecoming weekend

Of course English majors would be attracted to a nonprofit with the surrealist-alluding literary name of Purple Feet Foundation. Guillaume Apollinaire would applaud the moniker. 

Besides the belles-lettres quality of the name, the draw for Cabrini students is the middle school children the foundation serves. 

The Purple Feet Foundation is a Harrisburg-based nonprofit with a mission to inspire at-risk adolescents to explore the limitless possibilities that exist for their future. The foundation serves children in Harrisburg, Philadelphia and Prince George’s County, Md. 

“Cabrini’s English students use the skills unique to them to serve inner-city youth,” said Seth Frechie, Ph.D., professor of English. “Fundamentally it is a literacy program, though our students have stretched it beyond this boundary.” 

Established in 2010 by Lance and Martha Rougeux after their daughter Grace died while Martha was pregnant with her, the Purple Feet Foundation found its name when the program at Grace’s memorial service featured a purple-colored graphic of her footprints. 

Cabrini’s English students have been part of the foundation’s flagship “Thinc” Program since its inception in 2010 (the “c” is for “seeing” a future through actions like collaboration, connecting and career). 

The Thinc Program is a weeklong residential event that brings children to numerous college campuses to be exposed to a rich variety of learning opportunities and careers. 

“We let the Purple Feet Foundation kids experience a day in the life of a Cabrini College student,” said Michelle Filling-Brown, Ph.D., chair and associate professor of English. 

“We’re planting the seed for these middle school students who might not have imagined themselves attending college.” 

At Cabrini, Thinc Program children receive a “typical” college schedule, tour campus, take creative writing and reading classes, and work on writing projects alongside their Cabrini mentors in the College’s computer labs. 

“Many of these kids don’t have access to computers at home, so they are excited to have that time to complete their Thinc projects alongside a Cabrini student,” Filling-Brown said. 

This academic year, Frechie and Filling-Brown expanded the summer-only Thinc Program with a sequence of linked hybrid courses that allows Cabrini English students to continue working on literacy and empowerment with the children, both in person and online. 

In the fall semester, Cabrini students hosted an online, small-group book club with the children, exploring the young adult novel “Wonder” by R.J. Palacio. 

“Many of the Purple Feet kids came into this without much interest in English subjects like reading and writing,” said Filling-Brown, “but to watch them open up and embrace this book and these subjects is extraordinary.” 

Also, each month Cabrini students host online Thinc Career Chats with the children and professionals from fields as diverse as medicine and fashion. Cabrini students also helped “older” Purple Feet participants design a social media campaign for a book drive for younger students. 

Perhaps bringing the most smiles, the Purple Feet kids returned to Cabrini’s campus for Homecoming weekend, giving them another nudge toward considering college. 

The experiential work for Cabrini students is paired with rigorous academic study into the inequalities of educational systems and literacy disparities in America by examining texts like Jonathan Kozol’s “Savage Inequalities.” 

For this spring semester, English majors are working behind the scenes at Purple Feet Foundation where, as interns, they learn the pre-professional skills needed to run a nonprofit organization. Students are involved in grant writing, event planning, reinventing the Purple Feet Foundation website for increased functionality, and building integrated outreach and donor initiatives. 

What’s more, Cabrini students are scripting and producing video content that requires them to travel to see the Purple Feet children at their schools for on-camera interviews. 

Who is benefiting more from the program—the Purple Feet kids or the Cabrini students—is anyone’s guess. 

“Faculty in the department have to work hard to keep pace with the enthusiasm of our students,” Filling-Brown said. 

While the partnership with Purple Feet is specific for English majors and minors, Frechie knows it represents something bigger—something Cabrinian. 

“We’re presenting our students as role models to these kids,” Frechie said, “and our College as an exemplar of what opportunity looks like as we become an increasingly diverse community in the years ahead. That’s just what we do at Cabrini.” 


This article was featured in Cabrini Magazine.