John Robinson

More than 40 Sasha Bruce Youthwork (SBY) staff and youth, many of whom have or are currently experiencing homelessness, had the opportunity to discuss job skills, getting through tough times and motivation with a panel of four professionals on June 27.

The panel included Jacques Panis, president of luxury goods retailer Shinola; Fred Smoot, a former Washington Redskins player; Vildana “Sunni” Puric, a WPGC 95.5 FM radio host;  and Charmia Carolina, a formerly homeless single mother of three and SBY alumna.

The panelists discussed their backgrounds and turned the discussion into a talk about overcoming adversity and achieving dreams.

Panis, the president of Shinola, a Detroit-based designer retail company which recently held a hiring event for its new D.C. store, discussed his life struggles and how he found the drive to succeed.

“Life isn’t fair. I wasn’t afforded the same opportunities some of my buddies were,” he said. “Once I learned that, I wanted to make life more fair for the people around me and make a positive change in the world.”

Sasha Bruce Youthwork’s Charmia Carolina, left, Shinola President Jacques Panis, and Sasha Bruce Youthwork founder and executive director Debby Shore.  | Photo courtesy of MoKi Media

Sasha Bruce Youthwork’s Charmia Carolina, left, Shinola President Jacques Panis, and Sasha Bruce Youthwork founder and executive director Debby Shore. | Photo courtesy of John Robinson/MoKi Media

Carolina discussed the obstacles of drugs, being a single mother and being homeless for 6 years. She now has an apartment, a GED, and is working toward entering the field of social psychology.

“By the age of 20, I had 3 kids. That wasn’t fair, but that was my choice, and now I want to change myself to be a better role model for my kid,” she said. “So life isn’t fair, but it’s what you do with it that matters.”

Smoot’s mother had him at 15, and she had to drop out of high school. He was raised by his grandmother for the most part, he said.

“What kept me motivated was fear,” Smoot said. “I was afraid of becoming my ‘cool uncle,’ ya know? The one who still slept on my grandma’s couch.”

Sunni Puric grew up in Bosnia during wartime and spent most of her childhood moving in and out of different refugee camps. She moved to America and was placed in 7th grade, speaking no English. She overcame countless setbacks, including getting rid of her accent and scrubbing bathrooms on the midnight shift at Walgreens. She kept fighting until she achieved her dream job as a radio host.

“It’s going to be okay. As long as you’re 100 percent passionate, then nothing can really get in your way,” Puric said. “I’ll put anyone’s degree up against my hustle.”

More than ten SBY youth raised their hands when asked if they had a dream job. When one of them asked the panel how they were to achieve their dream job, Smoot had a quick answer.

Sasha Bruce Youthwork’s Eric Powell-Jackson asks the panelists a question during the Q&A portion of the discussion. | Photo courtesy of MoKi Media

Sasha Bruce Youthwork’s Eric Powell-Jackson asks the panelists a question during the Q&A portion of the discussion. | Photo courtesy of John Robinson/MoKi Media

“Ask yourself one question: Would I do it for free? I would play football for free!” Smoot said.

Sunni had additional advice, “You have to want it. If you want something to happen, you’re going to do everything you can to get it done,” she said, adding, “It’s not about failure. It’s about how you get back up.”

Panis emphasized that experiencing adversity does not equal failure. When emphasizing what skills Shinola looks for while hiring, he said, “It’s not about what’s on paper, it’s about what’s in your heart and soul.”

Moderator Brian T. Kenner, D.C. Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, agreed. “Sometimes it’s not about having the perfect background, it’s about your attitude, drive and passion,” he said.

In his final word of advice to the SBY youth, Panis said, “Keep your head up. The world is not fair, but you can each make a change in your own lives and the lives around you.”