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A Rhode Island teen with a $1 million idea

Mariam Kaba, 16, submitted the winning idea for the first Transform Rhode Island Scholarship offered by the Papitto Opportunity Connection

Mariam Kaba reacts to winning the $1 million Transform Rhode Island Scholarship at Papitto Opportunity Connection’s event at Farm Fresh Rhode Island in Providence.Sophie Park

PROVIDENCE — Mariam Kaba, the 16-year-old daughter of West African immigrants, had a $1 million idea.

She just didn’t know it, until the sophomore at the Career and Technical Center at Woonsocket High School entered the new Transform Rhode Island Scholarship set up by the Papitto Opportunity Connection.

The premise: Ask Rhode Island teenagers of color what they’d do if they had a million dollars to improve the lives of their community. The finalists get scholarship money — and the Papitto Opportunity Connection will also invest $1 million into the winning idea.

At a ceremony on Thursday, Mariam found out her idea for a program that offers career exploration, financial literacy, and provides mental health wellness opportunities for young people of color was the winner.

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A team from the Papitto Opportunity Connection will not only develop the program with $1 million — Mariam will also be involved with the design and implementation. She’s also receiving a $25,000 scholarship.

“I just want to say thank you,” Mariam said, as her mother, Madjouma Diarrassouba, and Rhode Island Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green wiped away tears as they stood beside her. “I’m shaking. I’m in shock. I don’t know what to say.”

Mariam Kaba's first-place idea for the Transform Rhode Island Scholarship revolves around job creation and providing mental health resources for young people of color.Sophie Park

The award was a proud moment for her family — and for all of her fellow students in Woonsocket, where Mariam is also a mentor, trained in the high school’s teen mental health first aid, and active in working with teens to resolve conflicts, said assistant principal Karen Barbosa.

“She’s thoughtful, humble, fun, a beautiful person,” Barbosa said. “I have chills for our students there. This represents the possibilities that exist for them.”

Mariam was joined by four other teen finalists who were selected out of nearly 100 applicants from 37 schools in Rhode Island. The finalists were selected by a panel of judges that include Ford Foundation President Darren Walker, Infante Green and Papitto managing trustee John Tarantino.

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“We knew there were young people who wanted to improve their communities,” Tarantino said. “All they needed was a chance to prove themselves.”

Walker told the audience about growing up in a shotgun shack in Texas when a new program called Head Start changed the trajectory of his life. Now, as president of the $16 billion philanthropic foundation, Walker sees opportunities to transform the lives of others, and told the students how they will be able to do the same.

“The ideas were so profound, and the notion that this [Papitto Opportunity Connection] foundation said, ‘Tell us your dream for your community of color, this is about Black and brown excellence,” Walker said. “The work you are doing is going to change America.”

The other four finalists received scholarships for their ideas:

$15,000 scholarship: Jalisa Ramos of Providence — Grade 11, Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center; Big Idea: Urban Agriculture Project — to create a sustainable urban agriculture project to combat food insecurity and create access to healthy foods.

$15,000 scholarship: Daisha Jackson of Providence — Grade 11, Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center; Big Idea: Create yoga mats with a QR code that would provide constantly changing information on health and mental wellness.

$10,000 scholarship: Isabelle Mitchell of Franklin, Mass. — Grade 10, Wheeler School; Big Idea: Create an annual BIPOC festival to celebrate the job and strength of the BIPOC communities.

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$2,500 scholarship: Ziondre Ogiba of Providence — Grade 12, Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center; Big Idea: A program that combines athletics and education to combat summer learning loss.

Papitto Opportunity Connection founder Barbara Papitto, from left to right, Papitto Opportunity Connection trustee John Tarantino, finalist Isabelle Mitchell, 15, first place recipient Mariam Kaba, 16, finalist Ziondre Ogiba, 17, finalist Jalisa Ramos, 17, finalist Daisha Jackson, 16, and Ford Foundation President Darren Walker pose for a photo on stage at Farm Fresh Rhode Island in Providence on Thursday evening. Sophie Park

The Papitto Opportunity Connection is a private nonprofit founded by Barbara Papitto that funds scholarships and initiatives in housing, education, business, and entrepreneurial ventures benefiting people of color. Its board of directors is composed of BIPOC entrepreneurs and leaders in Rhode Island.

Walker said later the nonprofit’s mission is unique and important.

“This is innovative. It’s bold. It’s exactly what excellent, local, community-focused philanthropy is about,” Walker said.

“Foundations like Papitto and initiatives like this challenge are really critical to building a strong community. Philanthropy is the business of hope,” he added. “These young people who are the finalists, yes, they are going to get scholarship money, which is essential to their development, but they are also getting a big boost of hope. And, there is nothing more essential than hope for young people, especially now, when it is so easy to be hopeless and dejected. Occasions like this remind us that hope is the oxygen of democracy.”


Amanda Milkovits can be reached at amanda.milkovits@globe.com. Follow her @AmandaMilkovits.