By Nancy Winckler-Zuniga Originally published in The Florida Times-Union
When Tom Caron finished college in Michigan, he wasn’t quite sure what to do.
Family members had volunteered with the Peace Corps, but he knew he wanted to help in the United States.
When his wife got a job in New York City, he decided to sign up for the AmeriCorps program, volunteering to work with children in the New York City school system. Little did he know that this experience would soon lead him to Jacksonville and giving back through United Way of Northeast Florida.
“[AmeriCorps] changed my life,” Caron said. “There were days that were physically hard, emotionally hard days. You had to separate the impact of trauma on a student’s face from the effects of generational poverty and systemic racism.”
Caron found himself becoming tremendously aware of the disparities between his life — educated, comfortable — and the lives his students led.
One particular example that stood out was a moment during a field trip to the Holocaust Museum and the Statue of Liberty.
“Some of the students had never ridden the subway before,” Caron said. “They had never been out of their own neighborhood. They didn’t know the city, where they were. The impact of that stuff is hard to measure. What happens when you don’t know the unique parts of your own community?”
Caron spent three years in New York, eventually moving on to Baltimore and following a career path in the nonprofit sector. When a friend in Jacksonville called and asked him to think about coming on with City Year in Jacksonville, he agreed. By now, he was a father of two and impacting the education community was becoming more and more important.
Caron came on to oversee development within City Year of Jacksonville and, as if that weren’t enough, began volunteering in the community. He keeps in touch with the world of middle schoolers through mentoring an Achievers For Life student at Eugene Butler and, recently, started coaching a United Way Upstream team.
United Way’s annual Upstream competition allows college students the chance to develop ideas for social change with a young professional as their coach. These ideas are then presented to a panel of community leaders for the chance to win seed money to make their idea a reality.
Caron believes that connections are crucial for helping students become successful.
Maintaining that connection and engagement is something Caron sees as his role with his Upstream team. The project they are working on would embed a financial education curriculum in Sandalwood High School. With this project, Caron sees himself as a resource and guide to help push the idea into fruition.
With the school year about halfway through, Caron’s role as mentor and coach will increase having an impact that takes him back full circle to his own middle school years and experiences in New York City.
“If not for the support of others, if that support hadn’t happened,” Caron said, “I wouldn’t be me.”