"Yup, all activities are free!"
That creed is splashed across the SEEDS web site
And Bill Watson wants families to know about it.
From his Traverse City office, Watson oversees various SEEDS youth initiatives, including the unique after-school programs offered at middle schools and high schools in seven Northwest Michigan districts.
While the after-school programs aren't the only thing SEEDS does--it was started in 1999 as a collective creating local solutions to global problems including energy sustainability, education, community-building and ecological issues--they certainly mean a lot to many area youth and their families.
"We have so many opportunities for kids--there are 10 after-school programs for sixth through twelfth-graders right now, and we have between three and four hundred middle school and high school students participating each day," Watson says.
Strong academic support and tutoring, along with homework help, are curriculum staples, and coordinators at the school sites have a long list of cultural and social enrichment options to choose from at any given time--activities that, according to Watson, are designed to boost youth self-esteem, encourage personal strength, foster growth and help to solidify future goals.
"This is a safe, welcoming environment where kids have a voice. We try to help them see the pathways to their own personal successes," Watson says. "We really want to nurture kids and help them become strong community members."
Young people can learn to cook and sculpt through SEEDS after-school programs; play music; practice yoga, or hone skills in martial arts or dance. They develop nature skills, and even take skiing and skating outings. They explore ecology, biology, robotics and, among many other areas of study, have the chance to study film, audio and web development.
"They develop service learning skills and absorb the importance of physical activities in their own after-school settings," he says.
After-school programming participants meet once or twice a week during the school year, for ongoing involvement, or for shorter sessions. Some of the briefer courses are held for four to six weeks, depending on subject matter and instructor preference.
Through SEEDS, children prosper. And when they flourish, their parents sit straight up and take notice.
"Since we live in a rural area, there is not much for children to do around here except get into trouble," says Tabitha Nelson, of Kalkaska. "SEEDS provides a positive place for children to hang out and learn in the process."
After nearly two years of parental observation, she offers nothing but praise for the after-school programs, programs, reporting her two young daughters love the structured, student-friendly environment where they spend many after-school hours. It is a secure setting Nelson considers fun, socially enriching and academically beneficial.
"My daughters are both getting better grades since they began working through the program, she says. "I appreciate it--they are able to do their homework in a place where kids help each other and they have adults nearby to help with problems."
"It's also a place where children can be together and be active, and I believe that children should be active instead of sitting around on the computer and the cell phone, or playing video games."
The Michigan Department of Education 21st Century Community Learning Centers grants partially fund SEEDS after-school programs; each school has its own site coordinator who charges initiatives and contracts professionals to administer some of the programs. Among them are masters in the fields of culinary arts, martial arts, and music, along with scientists, biologists, ecologists, and certified instructors specializing in different areas of study.
Nelson is thankful for the myriad opportunities her daughters now have the chance to partake in--some that she could not provide without SEEDS programming.
"One of my daughters is able to go figure-skating every week. I am unable to afford skating very often, and it's very important to her," Nelson says. "She also loves the SEEDS cooking activities and asks to make dinners at home all the time now. And last year, she was Red Cross-certified in babysitting; now she has paying weekly jobs."
It is a pleasantly common result, according to Watson, and one that can empower kids to earn their own money and be proud to do it. The carefully selected SEEDS learning institutions, he says, are located in communities with significant needs.
"Most of them have a free and reduced school lunch rate of 65 to 70 percent," he says. "We give high priority to districts stricken with high poverty rates."
Both the Michigan Department of Education and the Federal Department of Education regularly monitor success rates by evaluating MEAP scores, monitoring attendance and examining academic records, according to Watson, who points out this programming is far from a blind study.
Rather, it relies heavily on positive, proven statistics to keep going and to keep grant funds flowing.
"Some students have moved up a grade directly due to what they get from our programs," Watson says. "One summer ago, 30 kids in one of our districts went on to the ninth grade. When the school year began, not one of them was expected to move into high school. But all 30 of them did."
Watson has learned some powerful things about kids through his work, and the ones that strike his heart with the biggest jolts are the accomplishments that he gets to witness after kids leave the program. Some are hired into the SEEDS fold, having proved themselves as responsible adults who have earned the right to be respected. Others triumph seemingly insurmountable life situations and move on to tackle the world as happy, productive adults.
Some do both.
"I have to tell this story," Watson says. "We were working with a young guy who had never met his father; his mother had recently died in prison from a drug overdose."
"Only a few months shy of his high school graduation, this boy simply had no one. He had nothing--he was bouncing around sleeping on friends' couches, inches from homelessness."
But SEEDS team leaders and site coordinators supported him, listened to him and encouraged him to stick it out until he proudly snagged that high school diploma; then they hired him to work in staff support at SEEDS.
"I don't know what would have happened to him. I don't know if he would have died, gone to prison or ended up on the streets, but I guarantee you that he would have dropped out of school if he had not had such strong support here." Watson says.
It gets even better.
"That young man is probably the only person in his family who has ever held a job, let alone reached for higher education," Watson says. "Today, he attends Northwestern Michigan College. I am so proud of him."
Then there are the letters.
The most recent one came courtesy of a young lady who began working with SEEDS at age 15, and reaped its rewards with open arms. She wrote:
I want you to know that you made a difference in my life.
You made me see bigger, better things. You believed in me to do good. I want to thank you for everything. I could talk to you when I needed to, and if I needed help, you were always there. That means a whole lot to me.
Being in the program helped me! I just want to thank you again.
Love, Kendra S.
"That kind of reward," Watson says, "makes every aspect of my job worthwhile."
Kelle Barr has freelanced for over 20 years, writing business and corporate news for many national publications and trade magazines as well as regional publications. Contact her at email@example.com.
All photos by Elizabeth Price. Information about the photos:
The cooking images are Suttons Bay middle and high schoolers. They research meals they'd like to learn how to make and then prepare, cook and eat them together. SEEDS site coordinator working with them is Greta Bell.
The pther images are from a SEEDS movie discussion after watching the movie Bully
together. The first image in the left hand column shows Bob Fernandez leading the discussion while the second-to-last photo is of Bill Watson recalling a bullying instance from when he was in high school and sharing it with the students.