A native of Canada, Melissa Sawyer first came to New Orleans as a teacher with Teach for America. After leaving for a few years to earn a master’s degree in education at Harvard University with a focus on urban education, she returned to the city where she spent three years working with Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana (JJPL), helping to reform the state’s juvenile justice system.

In 2004, Sawyer and two colleagues from JJPL broke off and started their own organization, Youth Empowerment Project (YEP), in order to meet the specific needs of young people involved in the juvenile justice system. Over the past 13 years, YEP’s mission has expanded greatly.

“Now less than one-third of the 1,200 young people we serve each year have a juvenile justice connection,” said Sawyer. YEP is currently the largest and most comprehensive organization in the New Orleans region that addresses the needs of underserved, court-involved and out-of-school youth.

Individualized mentoring and support services, a growing high school equivalency program, summer camps, a digital media training program and full-service bicycle repair shop and thrift store are just a few of the ways Youth Empowerment Project works to provide area young people with the skills and support they need.

After leading a young organization as it survived and thrived following Hurricane Katrina, Sawyer said she’s turned her focus again to remaining nimble and adaptive and getting back to basics.

“Right now, we’re really focusing in on our core values,” she said. “It’s going to be especially important in the months and years to come.”