Montgomery siblings get creative to mentor youngsters

JJ Express, started by siblings Jenny and Jack Chen, uses comics to promote social change among young people.
JJ Express, started by siblings Jenny and Jack Chen, uses comics to promote social change among young people. (Courtesy Of Jenny Chen)
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By Timothy Wilson
Thursday, November 18, 2010

As a student at Thomas S. Wootton High School in Rockville, Jenny Chen loved to write, but she was disappointed when publishing companies were unwilling to give her an opportunity. So she and her brother, Jack, decided to make their own.

"It's hard to get people to take you seriously when you're a student," Chen said.

But in 2007, the siblings received a $1,000 grant from Youth Venture, a nonprofit group that provides support to young people who start civic organizations, and established JJ Express magazine, a nonprofit publication that uses comics to promote social change among young people.

"We just had an inspiration to use comics," said Chen, 19, a junior at Colby College in Maine. "We wanted it to be fun. We want to reach kids in an accessible way and not preach to them."

It seems they're making their mark.

Last month, their "Connect Through Comics" mentor program was selected among 10 first-place winners of the second annual BE BIG in Your Community contest.

The contest, sponsored by Scholastic Media and the Hands On Network, invited participants to submit an idea that shares similar values as Clifford the Big Red Dog, a popular children's book and television series.

Eleven winners received a community grant to be used toward implementing their winning proposals. A grand prize of $25,000 was awarded. Ten first-place winners received $2,500.

About 1,000 entries were submitted to the contest. A panel of judges selected the winners based on feasibility, creativity, sustainability and impact.

Chen said her idea began as a senior project while she was in high school. Now, it has grown into a quarterly publication that relies on a network of artists from around the world and includes a six-week summer program for young people.

"I didn't believe this would be so big a deal," she said.

Because her project has grown so quickly, contest organizers have provided help by partnering Chen with DC Cares, a nonprofit volunteer coordination agency.

"We're serving as a mentor for her [and] allowing our expertise to guide her," said Madye Henson, executive director for DC Cares. "When you have a lot to do with a limited budget, you have to be smart about utilizing those funds."

In March, the Project for Peace Initiative awarded Chen $10,000 to work with about 20 middle school students from immigrant households in Montgomery County. The students discussed issues affecting their community, offered some solutions through community service and published their artwork in Chen's magazine.

"Every culture has some kind of comics or graphic novels," she said. "Humor is such a powerful medium to transmit messages."

Chen said she hopes young people will get the message to volunteer and serve their communities.

"Service is everything. They always say the future depends on kids. I think that's so true," she said. "You have to reach kids when they're young. We have a responsibility to inspire our peers if we want change to happen."

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