UF grad spurs empowerment, confidence in girls

Shareen Baptiste
UF graduate Shareen Baptiste leads an organization devoted to helping young women and girls succeed in life. (Courtesy of Dream on Purpose)
Courtesy of Dream on Purpose

Shareen Baptiste has a vision that extends throughout Gainesville and across state lines: She wants to see junior high and high school girls dream beyond the four walls of their classroom or bedroom.

Through Dream on Purpose, Baptiste and others are assisting high schoolers in Gainesville find confidence to dream.

The nonprofit started after a conversation between Baptiste and a mentor in Orlando spotlighted the problem—kids without hope in the future.

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“I’m oriented around solving problems, so immediately I was just like ‘Well, that’s a problem. Let’s do something about it,’” Baptiste said in a phone interview.

While her mentor saw the need in Orlando, Baptiste has lived in Gainesville since attending UF, where she earned a bachelor’s in public relations and a master’s in entrepreneurship.

After she began to “rally her troops,” including her sister JoAnne Karagnara, who serves as vice president and co-founder, the group started tackling the problem where they all lived.

The nonprofit started in 2015 and kicked off its first event, Cupcakes & Conversations, in February 2016. Baptiste serves as president and co-founder, and the organization is volunteer-driven, with everyone working full time jobs outside the nonprofit.

Since that first event, Cupcakes & Conversations has become the organization’s signature event. It’s an open forum for 11- to 18-year-olds to discuss trending issues or problems they don’t have another place to discuss them. Instead of these junior highers and high schoolers turning to each other for advice, Cupcakes & Conversations creates a forum for more mature advice and input from experts.

The events have been so successful that Dream on Purpose has quadrupled their frequency—from once a year to every three months.

“What we initially thought was going to be an annual event actually blossomed into an entire organization,” Baptiste said.

Empowerment lies at the core of Dream on Purpose, Baptiste said. Whether through education, information resources or opportunities, the nonprofit wants to build up youth to tackle the future.

The organization website explains why the effort is needed, especially among girls. Between elementary and high school, self-esteem in girls drops more than 3.5 times that of boys, according to the American Association of University Women.

Shareen Baptiste and Patrice Fletcher participate in holiday giveaway

During a two-part career launch intensive program, the organization discusses career options and difficulties with the girls. Dream on Purpose also assists with shopping to ensure each of the participants has interview-ready clothes.

Dream on Purpose also teams up with other community organizations, such as LYFEhouse, to connect the right resources with the people who need them.

Recently, Dream on Purpose has seen expansion—though it came from a forced pivot due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Baptiste said online programming has allowed a further reach, with girls from Georgia and Jamaica joining the Zoom meetings.

The organization is now switching back to in-person. The first post-pandemic Cupcakes & Conversations will be at the Harn Museum of Art on Feb. 26 and will include a tour of the museum’s new exhibit titled Shadows to Substance: Photography Examining Black Lives.

Baptiste said the results of Dream on Purpose aren’t always tangible, but sometimes she can see the impact.

She said after a Zoom event on college preparedness, a parent reached out and spoke of the effect of the event. Her daughter had resisted the idea of college because of the challenges she faced in high school with ADHD. But after the Dream on Purpose event, she decided college was achievable, toured UF, and decided to enroll.

“In that moment, we were able to revitalize someone’s dream and belief in themselves,” Baptiste said. “Those are the stories that we live for.”

Eventually, Baptiste said she wants a movement of Cupcakes & Conversations to pop up around the nation, all holding independent events.

Part of what pushes her work with the nonprofit is a quote by Robert F. Kennedy that she uses in her online bio:

“Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”

Baptiste said that motivates her to look beyond just her lifetime.

“It’s what drives the work that I do with Dream on Purpose,” Baptiste said. “At the end of the day, I want to build something that’s going to outlast me. Obviously, my days are numbered, but the vision and the legacy that I leave behind does not have to be.”

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of stories featuring Black-owned businesses and organizations during Black History Month. 

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