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'These kids soar': How a new mentorship program helps vulnerable Forsyth County students
Orange Duffel Bag Initiative 1 031319
Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

A new partnership program between Forsyth County Schools, local community partners and national charity Orange Duffle Bag Initiative is tackling issues faced by the county’s most vulnerable students, giving them the chance to plan a life for themselves and envision a future with success and interests in mind.

Local school officials say that after an overwhelming success last year, the Orange Duffle Bag Initiative (ODBI), a public charity aimed at providing life coaching programs and advocacy for homeless and vulnerable students, started its second cohort in Forsyth County in February 2019.

According to ODBI President, Michael Daly, through a 12-week no-cost ODBI program, selected students have the opportunity to learn from professional life coaches and receive help in developing a plan for their future and education success.

“Many of the students start the program and don't really have a vision for their future,” Daly said. "Many of these students have gone through quite a bit of trauma in their young lives, so the curriculum is laid out to help them understand the trauma they've experienced or are experiencing, how to put meaning behind it."  

ODBI estimates that since their inception, the program has graduated more than 1,000 high school and college students, helping them to navigate obstacles on the road to bigger and better things.

Daly said that what they have seen is that students in their program just need a little push in the right direction and support from the community to flourish as students, find a voice and spark their excitement for education and life.

"What we see consistently is that these young people, they are struggling with so much in life, that if they had the opportunity to really sit down, focus on themselves and get connected to what’s important to them ... these kids soar," he said. "So we're losing talent, we're losing opportunities and we're certainly not helping our community if we're not helping these young people be successful."

Throughout the ODBI program, 15 Forsyth County students meet every Monday at Lanier Technical College in south Forsyth, working together, hearing from coaches and speakers, and work on themselves.

Daly said that partnerships with local organizations like Lanier Technical College and The Place of Forsyth County, who assist in transporting and feeding the students, are vital to the program, because they help connect the students to the community with other opportunities.

"We're excited to have this program here; last year the program was so successful, so we're excited to have it here again," said Naomi Byrnes, youth programs coordinator at The Place of Forsyth County. "I think it's been fantastic for these kids, just to be a part of it."

Several program leaders, including Byrnes and Kim Bolivar, the Homeless Education Liaison for Forsyth County Schools, said that during last year’s program, the cohort of students bonded into a family, working together and forming relationships that they would take into the future.

Byrnes said that the cohort of students that graduated from the program last year were visibly transformed from the students that entered 12 weeks prior.

"At the graduation last year, you could really tell that the students had changed a lot,” she said. “Just the group of kids together, every Monday night ... they form a bond and a friendship, which is just as important.”

At the end of the ODBI program, students can earn a laptop computer to take with them as they tackle their life goals, an opportunity which Daly said is vital, due to how important technology is in higher education and how alienating not having it can be.

"So many of these students and families don't have access to technology and in order to be successful in your career or for college, you really have to have technology easily accessible," he said.

Daly said that like with their community partners, the ODBI program relies on the community for support. Program literature states that donations to help pay for student’s meals, materials, coaching and laptops can be made to The Place of Forsyth County. Other ODBI literature states that 85 cents of every dollar donated go to student programs.

More information can be found at