Leading By example
Cookeville’s Most Influential People – Class of 2022
Educating our youth may be one of the most important tasks today. For Shaquawana Wester, it’s more than a career.
Shaquawana’s inspiring story of growing up in public housing, eventually breaking the cycle and purchasing her own home, and now empowering others to do the same requires rare grit and determination.
Shaquawana started her path to working with inner-city youth through volunteering. “I was a volunteer as an Americorps member with Cookeville Housing Authority for three years, and it was a life-changer for me,” she explained of working with the organization whose mission is to strengthen communities.
Impressed by her clear drive, Cookeville Housing Authority, which is now Highlands Residential Services, brought Shaquawana on full time as the Youth Programs Coordinator. Among Shaquawana’s many duties in her 11 years in the role, she took the Teens Need Training program to a new level. The pivotal program enriches the lives of teenage kids who live or have lived around public housing by hosting extracurricular programs. “My goal was to break the cycle of generational poverty by providing kids with the tools they need to thrive,” Shaquawana said.
The program implemented a local law enforcement element where police officers do various activities with the kids like go on trips, play sports, and simply build camaraderie to break stigmas. “It’s about cultivating a relationship,” Shaquawana said of the partnership. “The kids get to see more than what they do on the news, and the officers see firsthand what is going on in the kids’ lives.” From teaching the kids how to cook a meal, to changing a tire, to finding a job, to buying a home, Shaquawana is aiming to create a better future for her teens. “I wish there would have been ‘a me’ when I was a kid growing up in public housing,” Shaquawana said. “All of the changes in a kid’s life, and I still remain constant.”
If her outside of “normal business hours” duties don’t prove how hard the mother of three works, maybe her other philanthropist hustle will solidify it. Quawana’s Coats is an annual coat drive that Shaquawana launched in 2012. She accepts coat donations in the fall and on the fourth Saturday in October, Shaquawana gives them away. “We don’t ask about anyone’s financial status,” said Shaquawana. “They can come and take a coat, no questions asked.” Over the years Shaquawana has seen individuals who initially came to get a free coat, eventually, give a monetary donation or volunteer at the event. “They have changed their circircumstances, and that is really cool.”
– by Chelsea Dartez