Story by Mary Martin. Photos by Kirsten Chilstrom.
If your radio is tuned to K104 on a weekday morning, you’ll hear a bright voice and big laugh that are hard to miss. Jade Burrows, or Lady Jade as she’s known on air, is a seasoned co-host for the chart-topping Dallas hip hop station, but when she steps away from the microphone, her passion is mentoring high school students and preparing them for life after graduation.
Project 16 is an extension of that passion. Jade founded the nonprofit organization in 2015, launching programming the next year. With a focus on building confidence and life skills for young people who are at-risk, Jade has funneled her natural gift for connection into an organization that is proving that career education is anything but boring. “We are focused on education, exposure to opportunities, and application of those skills,” says Jade. “On the whole, minority kids are not prepared for real-life situations, so we are bringing in professionals from a wide range of careers and backgrounds to show them what success can look like.” One of those experiences included a Microsoft-backed trip to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, where ten students from Project 16 learned about coding and aeronautical engineering. Jade set up Project 16 to walk with students through high school and into their first college and career experiences, sticking with the team for four to five years.
“I always thought I’d be a teacher,” says Jade. She was raised in Oak Cliff until age 12, then moved to Duncanville where she attended high school, so the South Dallas community has stayed close to her heart. “I am doing my best to plant seeds in my community, taking the blessing that God has given to me and sow it back for His purpose,” she says.
The Project 16 team also focuses on self-esteem for students, bringing in workshop coaches to encourage both young men and young women, and in past years, has created an Extreme Prom Makeover for DFW students who were not financially able to attend their senior prom. Project16 brought in a crew of the city’s top hairstylists and barbers as well as full makeover by professional makeup artists, and also provided each student with a brand new dress or suit, shoes, and accessories.
But like the rest of us, Jade has been forced to look at her well-laid plans for 2020 and make some big shifts. At the beginning of the year, Jade had the opportunity to moderate a panel of ten teenagers during a Mental Health Symposium hosted by Children’s Health. As ten students spoke about their anxiety and the pressure of school, along with social expectations, Jade was listening. “There is a piece missing,” Jade says. “We have been teaching life skills and communication while they are dying inside. I knew I had to start a bigger conversation about mental health.”
At the beginning of the year Jade began by opening up about her own mental health journey. She shared publicly about her struggles with stress, anxiety, and Seasonal Affective Disorder, saying, “someone needs to know they are not alone.” Now as COVID-19 brings on additional stress, mental health experts are already pointing to a rise in mental illness. But with a strong stigma around asking for help with mental health issues, especially in minority communities, already under-resourced students are at another disadvantage. “I am hearing from parents of graduating seniors who are missing their graduation and prom, and these students aren’t sure how to process,” says Jade. “They feel like the forgotten class and that people don’t care and they will run out of coping mechanisms in a society where we act like everything is perfect.”
Jade is also on the listening end for people who call into the radio station to share about their COVID-19 circumstances—lost jobs, finding childcare, visiting the food pantry for the first time—all looking for someone who can understand what they are facing.
To start the conversation, Jade is leading by example. “A few weeks ago I started virtual therapy with a new therapist, recommended by a friend. She helped me understand why my brain is responding to things a certain way and explained to me the parts of my brain that are overworked and defensive,” Jade shares. She is also caring for herself by getting outside for a jog around her neighborhood and participating in online Bible studies through her church. And Jade is already thinking about the next steps to implement a mental health focus into her work with students, saying “I think this is a very important aspect to implement in our future plans. Is it seeking out counseling services for students? How can I promote people who are helping get access to this conversation for teens? The black and brown communities do not have equal access mental health resources.”
As Jade continues to consider how Project 16 can offer a safe place for teens to explore their own mental health, she will hold onto her role as friend, connector, and listening ear.
If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health crisis or suicidal thoughts, please dial 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. For help finding a mental health resource, call the Here for Texas Mental Health Navigation Line at 972-525-8181.