As a foster child from a troubled family, Cordelia Cranshaw had a lot working against her. But, at age 23 and against the odds, she earned a master's degree in social work. Now, she’s helping other at-risk children not just survive, but thrive.

Once a week after school, a group of middle schoolers meets with Cranshaw and mentors from Acts of Random Kindness, or ARK, the non-profit she founded. The students share experiences, write in their journals and read.

Today, they're reading Slug: A Boy's Life in the Age of Incarceration, by Tony Lewis Jr., one of ARK's board members.

"He grew up without his father," Cranshaw said. "A lot of our young boys experience the same type of thing growing up in single-family homes, growing up in poverty. It gives them a real-life perspective of someone they can relate to in a lot of ways."

Eighth-grader Mekhi Collins joined ARK's program five weeks ago.

"I had got suspended for fighting," Collins said. "And then one of the administrators at my school, he had recommended this program for me."

Mekhi lives with his younger sister and mother, who he says is his hero.

"She's the only one that really pays bills and stuff," he explained. "Even though she do get on my nerves sometimes and I get on hers, she still has treated me with kindness. She loves me and takes care of me and my sister. If I could get a really good job, I really want to help my mother out."

To do that, he knows he needs to work hard.

"I'm trying to, like, really do better and stop sleeping in the class and be more respectful," he said.

Looking for role models

Cranshaw understands how these kids feel. She was there, she says, and that's why she wants to help.

"Maybe in foster care was my way of finding my passion and being able to connect with these children in eighth grade," she said. "I can remember not having my mom, not having my dad. So it means a great deal to me to be able to connect with them on that level, and for them to also see that I've been able to overcome these life challenges and that they can, too."

Surrounding the kids with positive male adult role models and mentors is the basic idea behind her program.

"It's really important that we start to make this family and this village for these children so that they can reach out to any of [them] at any time," Cranshaw said.

Which is where the group's field trips come in.

Building knowledge, dreams

ARK’s field trips are opportunities to interact with successful role models in the community, Cranshaw says.

On one of the trips, the students visited a nearby construction site. They met Justin Thornton, owner of Thornton Development, who talked about his job. He also advised them to stay in school, study hard and make better choices in life.

"I get more excitement from giving the knowledge that I have to other people, especially younger kids," he said. "They may not take it right now and use this motivation, but I think there comes a time when maybe in high school, maybe in college that they'll remember this time and say, 'Hey I remember that guy. I remember what he was talking about.'"

Experiences like that can have a lasting impact on the kids, Cranshaw believes, and hopefully help them see that they, too, can follow their dreams to success.