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See how Red Nose Day helped a 12-year-old defy odds: Now 'I want to do more'

by Chris Serico / / Source: TODAY

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 Through the Columbia, South Carolina, branch of the National Urban League, 12-year-old LaVona Austin has improved her self-esteem and become more involved with school activities. Wanda Austin

When LaVona Austin, 12, and her brother, Malik, 14, got involved in weekend programs offered by the Columbia, South Carolina, branch of the National Urban League, their grandmother noticed some changes.

"They started getting interested in things other than just being home, like doing sports and hanging out with other kids and wanting to do things," said Wanda Austin, who's raising both children. "Before, it was all about being home on the video games and the TV. And now it’s like, 'What are we doing this weekend? What are we doing next?'"

The siblings haven't had it easy: Their father is incarcerated, and their mother is out of the picture. But with help from funds raised through Red Nose Day, their lives and their potential are improving.

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When The Pew Charitable Trusts released a study five years ago, 2.7 million American children — one in 28 — had a parent behind bars. Among children served by the National Urban League's Columbia branch, the percentage with an incarcerated parent is more than four times the national rate, according to Juanita Dean-Bates, program manager.

"Of the 72 students I have in my program, currently 15 percent of my kids have at least one parent in the penal system." she told

 LaVona Austin also has joined the track team at W.A. Perry Middle School. Wanda Austin

At W.A. Perry Middle School in Columbia, South Carolina, LaVona struggled with her self-esteem. But under the influence of Urban League programs that offer weekend activities such as book reports and public speaking, she has become more confident and active. Not only is she now running for her middle-school track team; she recently walked the runway in a school fashion show that raised money for a heart-disease charity.

"Before I started at the Columbia Urban League, I used to not like doing work, but [Juanita] telling me to do it — and the fear she puts in me — makes me want to do it more," LaVona said, laughing.

 LaVona Austin recently participated in a fashion show to raise money for charity. Wanda Austin

Malik has thrived too. These days his leisure time focuses less on video games and more on swimming laps at the local pool. And in the process of playing with younger children at the local community center, he's become an unofficial mentor to them.

"I'm a little bit playful, myself, so I play with the little kids who want to play, because they have a lot of energy," Malik explained.

DONATE NOW: Give to Red Nose Day

Both siblings have improved their interpersonal skills, according to Dean-Bates. "LaVona is a free spirit, constantly smiling, constantly happy," she said. "Malik is at times a little quiet, and a little shy, but that's not who he is all the time; once he gets to know you, he's really a fun-loving young man. Once they came into the program and had an understanding of what the program was, and what we were doing, they took to it."

 LaVona Austin's older brother, Malik Austin, also has benefited from Urban League programs. Rose Fuller

Their grandmother agreed, and said the programs have a ripple effect on the community. "I think the biggest change I've seen is in their willingness to help others, to reach out," Wanda Austin said. "They tend to notice need outside of themselves." They're also refining their goals: LaVona now plans to become a travel writer, while Malik wants to pursue military engineering.

Red Nose Day, whose mission is to raise funds for "young people living in poverty by simply having fun and making people laugh," partnered with the National Urban League in March, explained Zuhirah Khaldun-Diarra, senior marketing director for the league.

"A lot of our programs deal with at-risk youth," Khaldun-Diarra said. "That may include getting them on the path to a GED, or back into school; job training and mentor programs, violence-prevention programs in their neighborhoods, and counseling."

Red Nose Day, she added, helps children like LaVona and Malik become just two of the organization's myriad success stories. "We're happy to share their story as they blossom in our program and begin to live more empowered lives."

Follow writer Chris Serico on Twitter.

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