Student Profile: Lis Casanova, English Major and Community Hero

USFSP student Lis Casanova receiving a check from the Tampa Bay Lightning for her winning proposal to enhance an African American collection and create a multimedia innovation lab at the James Weldon Johnson Community Library in St. Petersburg.

USFSP student Lis Casanova receiving a check from the Tampa Bay Lightning for her winning proposal to enhance an African American collection and create a multimedia innovation lab at the James Weldon Johnson Community Library in St. Petersburg.

(Dec 6, 2017) – Lis Casanova, a USFSP senior and English-Writing Studies major, was honored this semester by the Tampa Bay Lightning as a Community Hero. She received this recognition and $50,000 for her winning proposal to enhance an African American collection and create a multimedia innovation lab at the James Weldon Johnson Community Library in St. Petersburg. It was her own life experiences that drove her to help others and work to improve her community.

Casanova was pushed into homelessness during her senior year of high school. As she struggled to make it through the year, she linked up with an organization called Starting Right Now, which offers homeless youth services including housing, tutoring, transportation and volunteer opportunities to assist them with getting into college. During her time there, Lis received tutoring that helped her graduate high school and get into USFSP. She also helped by tutoring other students, completing over 200 volunteer hours and giving back as much help as she received.

We sat down with Casanova to learn more about her project and being a Community Hero.

How did you become a Lightning Community Hero?
I was notified in an email from the Starting Right Now non-profit, which I have been involved with ever since my senior year of high school. Right before learning about the program, I was taking a class called Client and Civic Communications with Dr. Trey Conner. Our client for the class was the Neighborhood News Bureau, which is housed in a building right next to the James Weldon Library in south St. Petersburg. While working with the Bureau, I heard about the library’s needs and the African American collection that they wanted to update. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect.

I contacted the director of the library and set up a meeting to discuss the African American collection and see how we could address their needs through the Lightning program. At this time, I also heard about an idea by Mika Nelson, library director of the St. Petersburg Library System, for a “Create to Innovate Lab” to improve literacy and creativity in an engaging way. So I added this idea to the grant along with the African American collection. We had a week and a half to fill out the grant application. It was ridiculous, but I really wanted to help and it was great to collaborate on this grant with people at the library. The morning it was due, we were able to submit.

Can you tell me more about the Lightning Community Hero Program?
They give out several grants every year. Their requirements were to come up with a community project and link it with a non-profit that was willing to take on the project. So I had to not only see if the project was viable for them to consider, but also identify a non-profit that was willing to put in the work. Luckily the Pinellas Public Library Cooperative, which helps coordinate activities and funding for libraries in the county, stepped up to take on this responsibility.

What benefits will the grant provide the community and to yourself?
The total grant award is $50,000. Half will go to my own continuing education. About $7,800 is going to improve the African American Heritage and Culture collection, which will bring in more books targeted to children and young adults. It will also help the library restore a lot of the older books and rebrand them, so they are easily identifiable. The remaining funds will go to the Create to Innovate Lab, and be used to purchase music production equipment and software, two Mac computers, sewing machines, fabrics and button makers. It’s basically tools and equipment for residents to use to be creative, so you have an idea and you can go there and fulfill it. You can make a CD and walk out of there and it is your CD and no one can take that away from you. Libraries are such a commodity in neighborhoods that are not wealthy, so to be able to have this in your home library is very motivating. It will be the only library in Pinellas County to have such a lab.

What was it like receiving the news your grant was selected?
It was very rewarding and fun! I first got a call from Elizabeth Frazier with the Tampa Bay Lightning, saying they were very interested in our grant proposal and wanted to just confirm a few things. Then she called a couple days later to say that the Lightning Foundation chose us. We were given tickets to go to the Lightning game the night of the ceremony and we could invite friends, family, people from the Library, and they were going to put us in box seats and give us a behind the scenes tour. We even got to meet a Lightning player. Then they gave me the check and Elizabeth from the Lightning and I presented half of the grant to the James Weldon Library.

How did your experience at USFSP provide you with the opportunities to become a Community Hero and to give back?
I didn’t even realize I was going to get into college. I was struggling so much getting through high school and dealing with all the other obstacles in my life at the time. When college seemed like a possibility, I started to look around a bit and knew USF was right there. I didn’t realize there were several campuses and I really liked what USFSP offered. The photos hooked me at first. It was also far enough away to get the college experience but close enough to visit family. Then I learned it had a small student to teacher ratio, which was a key factor.

I wouldn’t have done a lot of what I accomplished over the years without my professors. I learned about many opportunities from my internship to working with community partners like the library through them. The English Department professors truly want to see their students succeed. They go out of their way and are willing to work with you individually to make sure your goals are being met. It’s just been a fantastic experience.

You graduate in December! What do you hope to pursue once you get your diploma?
I am looking into working in the non-profit sector and initiatives that are really community-based. I have been an editor for the Crow’s Nest, so I’m looking towards editor or copy editor positions at a publication or being a content writer. Those are the two paths I’m passionate about and pursuing.