Outside Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena, Amy Donofrio searched the crowd of newly minted Lee High School graduates. She was looking for 10 particular faces, young men who were once considered at-risk, took her leadership class at Lee and turned it into a movement that won national recognition.
She wore a T-shirt with its name, Evac. As she found her students, they shared extended hugs.
Donofrio had to stifle tears to express what they meant to her.
“I’m just so proud of them. It’s been a very hard road, for them and for me,” she said. “We were a family.”
The 10 graduates led the core group who founded Evac Movement, a grassroots, Lee-based movement of predominantly African-American young men. For four years they channeled personal tragedies, such as losing siblings to murder, having family members incarcerated and witnessing shootings, into positive change. They called themselves Evac because of their collective efforts to escape hopeless situations.
They came together in Donofrio’s leadership class and were later joined by three female students, who formed an after-school “Shevac” group of their own and also graduated Wednesday. With the help of mentors, the students worked on juvenile-justice advocacy. They hosted guests who came to talk about youth issues. They met regularly with local officials to tell them what it’s like to be an African-American youth in Jacksonville and to discuss solutions to youth issues. They conveyed their personal stories as well as hard data and knowledge they gained from partnerships with local and national juvenile-justice leaders.
When they began as ninth-graders, they had no idea that they would go to Washington to speak at Senate committee hearings and a White House roundtable and meet with members of Congress. They did not anticipate meeting former President Barack Obama when he made a stop in Jacksonville or winning a national Harvard contest for promoting kindness on campus at Lee.
But Evac graduate Chris Wright, who plans to attend Florida State College in Jacksonville and study business, said the accomplishment that meant the most to him was setting a positive example for other young people.
“We made a difference,” he said.
Wright wants the movement — and its graduates — to continue the mission of turning tragedy into hope.
“We can help the whole world,” he said.
Fellow Evac graduate Jaborie Lewis agreed.
“It showed us we can do a lot to help people. It gave us hope,” said Lewis, who is college-bound and wants to be an engineer.
His advice for future Evac students: “Tell them to have faith.” It’s all about sharing their stories, he said, and working together to make things better. “Tell people what you’re going through.”
The movement had its bumps along the way. Some of the students didn’t get along at first, then realized their stories, their personal challenges, bonded them. Some of them realized they had shared experiences, such as being stopped by police for no particular reason. Graduate Billy Luper, the only white in the group, helped found Evac because he was with some of his friends on such a “profiled” police stop, said his mother, Elizabeth Howe.
After graduation Wednesday, she held up an Evac sign, rushed to each Evac grad as they left the arena and enveloped them in hugs, just like Donofrio did. Son Billy, who she said wants to be a doctor, got the biggest hug.
“They’re such great kids ... They’re his brothers, his best friends,” she said. “They’ve helped a lot of kids in the community.”
Last year, the students and community leaders came together to challenge a school administration plan to change the structure of the leadership class, possibly without Donofrio at the helm. Supporters, including the mayor and a federal judge, publicly protested and the class continued as is for the 2017-18 school year.
Donofrio said Wednesday that she hopes the leadership class continues in the upcoming school year with a new crop of students who can help build the movement. She already knows of some Lee students who are excited about joining the movement. But the future Evac will be different. It will have the foundation built by the Class of 2018 members.
The founders, most of whom graduated Wednesday, were the ones who jumped without a net, she said.
“There was never a program ... no guidepost,” she said. “They were excited by what was happening. But there was no promise it was going to work.”
“That’s irreplaceable,” Donofrio said.