Area students turn social deficits into assets

With the help of a Kellogg grant, the Great Lakes Center for Youth Development and young people throughout the U.P. have been combining imagination with innovation to meet the needs of youths in their communities.
What, exactly, do middle and high school students need in order to grow up to become healthy, responsible adults, ready and able to meet the challenges of the "real world"? The Great Lakes Center for Youth Development, with the help of a Kellogg Foundation grant a few years ago, used the Search Institute's 40 Developmental Assets Survey to ask those very questions of area youths. And after assessing the young people's needs, innovative initiatives were developed to address those needs. Now, the center is looking at what it's learned over the life of the grant about how to effect change in young people's lives.

Every two years, GLCYD distributes the asset survey to eighth-, 10th-, and 12th-graders in schools throughout the U.P. The anonymous survey measures 40 developmental assets that are key to the health, well-being and success of young people, along with measuring some deficits and risk-taking behaviors.

Students offer input on how valued, how safe, and how supported they feel at home and in the community. The survey measures internal assets (values, commitment to learning) and external assets (family and community support, safety, and boundaries).

Students were given the opportunity to review the results of the survey at Rise UP youth asset summits, which were offered in Marquette and Alger counties.

"Schools determine who they want to come to the summit," says Linda Remsburg, a GLCYD associate. "We were really looking for kids who had leadership potential, but maybe that potential had been untapped due to challenges in their lives. We hoped to tap into their leadership a little more, and to empower them to go back and take action in their community and with their peers."

The students reviewed the results of the asset survey specific to their communities. "We showed the kids results of the profiles of student life, attitudes and behaviors," says Remsburg. "The kids, based on the results and their own experience, came up with priority areas that they wanted to address in their schools and that they wanted the community to work on."

Marquette students determined the strongest assets in in their communities are Family Support, Achievement Motivation, and Positive View of Personal Future. They concluded that the assets of greatest concern were Positive Family Communication, Safety, and Creative Activities.

Alger County students determined their community's strongest assets are Achievement Motivation, Positive View of Personal Future and Integrity. Assets of greatest concern included Positive Family Communication, Safety and Self-Esteem.
Each school group was given a $100 grant from the Kellogg funds to take back to their schools to use to develop programs to address those priority needs.

In Alger County, Superior Central students, who have no guidance counselor, targeted the assets of Self-Esteem and School Engagement by creating a Futures Fair to educate incoming freshmen about possible careers and the steps they need to take in order to get there. Munising students planned a Self-Esteem Day, with the goal of making all students feel accepted for who they are, in and out of school. A second Munising team focused on the Safety asset by making changes in their school parking lot, including how students are dropped off and picked up at school.

Another initiative born at the youth summit is the Youth Connections Network, which consists of youth-serving organizations and young people in Marquette County joining forces to support the county's most vulnerable youth.

"One asset that youths reported needing help with was family communications. In response, the group came up with a really cool initiative," says Remsburg.

That initiative is Plate it Forward placemats, which was created in conjunction with a media campaign promoting positive family communication. The reusable placemats come with washable markers and feature activities, games and jokes on them designed to get families talking -- and laughing (What did the grape say when it got stepped on? Nothing. It just let out a little wine).

Remsburg notes one project that came out of the youth summit has had a long-term impact at a Marquette County school.

"With Kellogg funding, we were able to host a two-day training on Natural Helpers," she says. The program was initiated at Westwood High School last year, and was such a success that it will be continued through the coming school year. The program works by connecting kids in an organic fashion.

"Kids are chosen from each grade. They are the kids that other kids naturally go to when they need support. They learned how to be better listeners. It's not about giving advice; it's about listening and helping the kids with the problems to think about what they're doing and what their options are," Remsburg explains.

Larry Boburka, a counselor at Westwood High School, says that most of the Natural Helpers "are already great, helpful students. They are not all straight A or 'super hero' students.  Some Natural Helpers come from difficult situations. It was nice to see these students, who were already recognized by their peers as being good listeners, take a more active role in trying to improve the overall atmosphere in the school."

Boburka noted "subtle, but important, changes" in the atmosphere of the school with the inception of Natural Helpers. "Students seem to be more patient with each other in the hallways. There were less hallway disruptions than in past years and there seems to be more positive energy in the building. I certainly have less minor issues being brought into the guidance office," he says. "There seems to have been a reduction in the day-to-day drama that normally goes on in schools.  I can only assume that the Natural Helpers are noticing the students who have potential issues and speaking to them before the issue becomes a big deal."

Enthusiasm for the youth summits and the positive impact they make in communities is spreading. Remsburg says a young woman from Ironwood who attended a summit is helping to spearhead efforts to have the asset survey distributed in Ontonagon and Gogebic counties, as well as host a summit in the area.

While there is no way to measure the full impact these programs have had and continue to have on Upper Peninsula young people, one conclusion can be drawn: these efforts are producing positive, confident young adults -- a definite asset to their communities and the world.

This story is part of a series of solutions-focused stories and profiles about the programs and people that are positively impacting the lives of Michigan kids. The series is produced by Michigan Nightlight and is made possible with funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Read other stories in this series here.
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