In her early 20s, Ashlee Chesny was working in what many people would consider a dream job at Kraft Foods in the distribution department. Yet, something was missing. “I thought it was the coolest thing at the time because I was pretty young running these huge programs for a Fortune 500 company, but I was absolutely miserable.” Ashlee worked 12-hour days at the office before coming home and continuing to log hours.
After developing depression and anxiety, she quit her corporate America job and moved home, with no plan. “I didn’t know what I was going to do or how I was going to pay my rent, but it was the best time in my life.” She learned to listen to her voice and follow her passions. She loved to write, so she started working on a novel, but the universe had other plans for her. On a whim, she wrote a children’s book for her Godson titled, “Niko and the Trouble Bubble”. This led to her reading the book aloud at a Detroit elementary school where Ashlee found her calling in life: educating children through literature. “From that moment, I knew I was meant to write children’s stories and encourage them to learn and love themselves and find the joy in life through my stories.”
Ashlee had a chance meeting with a local church youth minister who, after finding out that she wrote children’s books, hired her to develop a curriculum for the church’s summer camp program. In less than two months, Ashlee hired volunteers and created a full curriculum for students in K-6th grade. “I knew I was really making a difference when my 3rd-6th graders took one of my books and turned it into a play.” The kids found costumes and memorized their lines in under two weeks. “I had students who had a talent but never had a chance to be on stage or who had never read but were suddenly narrating. I knew [this whole thing] was bigger than me.” This experience kicked off the creation of Literacy Come to Life, which is a nonprofit social education program.
For the past few years, Ashlee has been living in Detroit and funding many of the projects herself. She is especially interested in helping children become interested in STEM careers. She created the book “Brooke and Bre the Engineering Team,” which she wrote based on experiences with her friend’s daughters and girls in her program. “I thought, what is my vision for them? What would I want them to know?” The book touches on bullying, which Ashlee says she’s seen first-hand when boys tell girls that they can’t do something because of their gender. “When they get older, [some of these girls] never apply to the engineering competition, because they’re worried that they can’t do it.”
Ashlee wants to encourage all children to have positive learning experiences and opportunities, so they can find themselves. “The reason I love STEM or the reason I focus so much on having those type of workshops is that children are born to explore and they’re born by learning to have their hands on things, and I think that is so important in today’s world where everything is on a screen. We need to get them in that real-world experience and that’s the whole reason why I create these stories.”
In November of 2017, Ashlee founded Genius Patch, a nonprofit that will encompass all of her programs. Its mission is “to provide historically underserved, underprivileged and under-resourced children with educational enrichment focused in the areas of literacy, community involvement, self-esteem, social/emotional development and career entrepreneurship exposure.”
“Growing up in Detroit, I was always in an extracurricular activity, but with the downturn of the economy, those extracurricular activities don’t exist free of cost or even at a subsidized cost.” She says that 90% of education occurs outside of the classroom, so she works to empower parents and individuals in the community to provide real-world learning experiences. An example of this would be to have a child read a book about animals and then take a trip to the local zoo, so they can see those animals in real life. She says that parents should take advantage of resources in the community to provide their children with as many opportunities as possible. “It can even be something simple like going to the local science center or checking out different free activities at the library.”
“[Many people] are so focused on a finishing a book rather than creating a conversation around it and using real-world examples.” She also encourages parents and educators to not be so concerned with children having the right answer but instead to place an emphasis on the process children take to formulate a thought…even if it’s wrong.
Ashlee herself is married with a 1-year-old, Cameron, and loves hanging out with her family as much as she can. She is also passionate about helping other moms take time to pursue their own hobbies.
Ashlee’s hard work has been paying off with some highlights over the past couple years. In 2016, the longstanding B.A.L.L Foundation in Detroit honored her with the Excellence Under 40 Award. Politicians have joined her as she read to kids or conducted a workshop. But her proudest accomplishment is a partnership she has developed with Michigan State University, which sends students to Detroit every semester to carry out Ashlee’s programming and learn about what she does on a daily basis. Ashlee also goes up to the University to speak with students about civic engagement and how they can give back to their community.
She encourages young people to pursue their passions and not worry about the expectations surrounding success “You don’t have to do one thing to be successful.”
What’s her advice for high school students interested in STEM careers? “Get as much experience and exposure as you can, because for me, when I was in college, I had no idea that I could create this form of nontraditional education.” She encourages students to find mentors and learn about as many different careers as they can. Most importantly, she says to keep an open mind.
These next two years are going to be big for Ashlee. She is ramping up Genius Patch and developing a long-term strategy. Her goal this year is to have a workshop at least once a month where she is interacting with children in some capacity. Kids all over Detroit know her as Mrs. Ashlee, and she wants to take this teacher persona on the road to educate other communities on her mission and methodologies, so they can implement them in their own education systems. Ashlee has big plans to go national in the coming years and nothing is stopping her.
This piece comes to us from one of our talented content contributors, Allyson Byers. Her bio is below and if you would like to work with us you can email us here!
Allyson Byers is a Los Angeles based freelance writer/editor who formerly worked in the entertainment industry. She graduated from Northwestern University with a degree in journalism and started her career as a casting assistant at Jimmy Kimmel Live. When she’s not working, she can be found at a comedy show or checking out the newest LA restaurants.