Measuring Our Greatness by Our Attention to Youth

Fiction author and educator Will Weaver writes novels for adult and young adult readers. The film Sweet Land is an adaptation of his story “A Gravestone Made of Wheat.”

Early Childhood Dental Network
West Central Initiative

Early Childhood Dental Network

Regional Collaboration

It’s dental outreach clinic day in New York Mills. Early that morning, staff from Apple Tree Dental, a nonprofit based in Hawley and Fergus Falls, set up their mobile dental clinic in the town’s community room to provide exams, cleanings, x-rays, and treatment to area children. New York Mills is one of eight cities around west central Minnesota that Apple Tree staff visit throughout the year to serve the children of families who are covered by Minnesota Health Care Programs or are uninsured. It’s often difficult for these families to find dentists, so Apple Tree comes to them. The outreach clinics came about through the efforts of the Early Childhood Dental Network (ECDN).

The ECDN is made up of area organizations, agencies, and Early Childhood Initiative coalitions that are passionate about providing oral health access and education, particularly for young children and their families. West Central Initiative convenes and facilitates the network. Along with the clinics, ECDN projects include fluoride varnishing for preschool children through Public Health and Head Start, and training sessions for parents, teachers, and caregivers, such as the popular “How to Talk ‘Tooth’ When You’re Not a Tooth Professional.” Recently, the ECDN produced a series of videos for expectant mothers and families with young children. One of the network’s newest goals is to teach parents the importance of modeling good oral care to their children. All this takes money, and the ECDN receives support from several organizations that believe in their mission. Thanks to the ECDN and its supporters, children in west central Minnesota have a lot to smile about.

photographer | Gregory Harp

“A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members,” wrote Mahatma Gandhi. According to the Foundation for Child Development, the nation’s child poverty rate rose to over 20 percent in 2009, making it the highest of any age group. The Great Recession of 2008 continues to expand our national crisis with families by shrinking the American middle class. This pushes more families below the poverty line, with dire effects on children and youth. Increasingly, foundations have assumed the mantle of human services that government is either unable or unwilling to perform. There is no better illustration of this than the six Minnesota Initiative Foundations, whose common interests focus on strengthening the social and economic health of communities across the state.

What do their successes look like? The AmeriCorps/LEAP outreach program at the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation (SMIF) is one good example. Begun in 1993 by former President Bill Clinton, the popular AmeriCorps program had a natural intersection with SMIF — community service and youth development. In a 17-year relationship, SMIF has refined its AmeriCorps focus to early childhood development. According to the program leaders, school readiness is the key to the eventual success of all children. And LEAP (Learning Early Achieves Potential) gives value-added resources to early childhood providers, and crucial help to overworked teachers.

The six foundations, independently and in partnership, try to reach all Greater Minnesota youth, but some continue to fall through the cracks. These children provide a clear image of the urgency behind the foundations’ work. As an author, I visit schools across the country. In preparation, I like to know the percentage of kids who qualify for free or reduced price (FRP) breakfast and lunch. I recently visited schools in southwestern Minnesota and rural Texas where the FRP numbers were about the same: from 50 to 70 percent. The effects on families under economic stress — as well as issues of mental and physical health (a child with a toothache will not do well in school) — are cumulative and real.

They can be seen firsthand at a place such as the Prairie Lakes Detention Center, serving juveniles in Willmar, Minnesota. But there is nothing juvenile about Prairie Lakes. Set on a hill east of town, the former state hospital has thick, gray stone walls. Wire mesh covers its windows. Tall, chain-link passageways connect buildings and enclose small exercise yards. This is a secure facility, and nowadays a school for ages 10–19. I have come to spend the day talking to the kids about books and reading. Prairie Lakes is full of ghosts and sadness. But the teacher is enthusiastic about the day and about her “kids” getting to talk to an author.

The incarcerated teenagers at Prairie Lakes look like adolescents anywhere — diverse in every way, except their manner. Under the keen eyes of the staff they walk single file into the classroom. No jostling, no loudness, no sudden movements. Girls sit on the left, boys on the right. Some have committed serious offenses against others or themselves. Some, after finishing their time, will quickly re-offend in order to get back here where there is order, routine, safety. In my first session I have about 20 students, a number that I know from my career of teaching to be the upper limit ideal. With any more than 20 in a class, students can slip through the hands of even the most hardworking educator.

After a brief introduction by the teacher, I begin by telling the students a bit more about myself — farm, small town, former teacher, now a full-time writer. That I hunt and fish and own a race car. That a writer doesn’t necessarily need to grow up in a family of writers, or a singer in a family of singers, or an engineer in a family of engineers. That we all find our own path.

I go around the room and get their first names and where they are from: Minnesota’s Indian reservations, the Twin Cities suburbs, Saint Paul’s Hispanic East Side, south Minneapolis. I ask them to tell me one thing they are “really good at.” At most schools this is a successful conversation opener. Here, it falls flat. Finally one girl says, “We’re not good at anything. That’s why we’re here.” She pops her gum as an exclamation point. “She’s good at drawing,” a boy pipes up. “She can draw anybody’s face.” The girl shrugs, and tries hard not to smile. “I hear you all read a lot,” I say slyly to the class. I know that there is limited television, and Internet access only in classrooms. “Yeah, like what else is there to do?” a boy says immediately.  This gets a laugh, the mood lightens, and I transition to my books, which they have indeed read. I talk about writing — that it is a process and not a miracle. I explain about writing realistic fiction, as opposed to sci-fi or fantasy, which means writing out of my own experiences. Examining my own life. Taking it seriously. Trying to make sense of the life and times I landed in through no choice of my own.

That idea gets an uptick in interest — that some things are out of our control, but by implication, other things are not; that we make choices that affect our lives. “But hey, I didn’t come here to preach,” I say. “Let’s look at my fictional family in the novel. How it works. How it doesn’t work.” But it’s a tough sell. At one point a boy holds up my novel and blurts, “That’s nothing. Worse s*** has happened to a lot of people here — in their real life families.” When he’s done, the eyes of the entire class are upon me. It’s my turn to be silent. I have nothing. “Here’s an idea,” I say. “Why don’t you all kick back and let me read to you. No quiz, no test, no pressure.” A couple of the students glance toward their teacher as if this is too good to be true. The teacher only smiles.

As I read, a phenomenon takes place: The students slowly but visibly begin to relax. Some lean back, and uncross their arms or legs. Others close their eyes to better see the words. It occurs to me that being read to is just one of the things that these students have missed in their family lives. At day’s end, a couple of older boys appear in the doorway. They each hold one of my books. They are graduates, in transition to the community on work internships, and I quickly go to meet them and sign their books. They have strong handshakes — a built confidence from their time here. Their grip on my hand and their eyes directly on mine suddenly fill me with hope. Hope for all the kids — and a deep appreciation for the adults who help them and their families.

My trip to Prairie Lakes is a cautionary tale — a reminder of what is at stake. Of what can happen if young people do not have the friends, family, or community that they need to succeed.

If not for the regional child and youth programs and services supported by the Minnesota Initiative Foundations and their partners, this would be an almost unbearably dark picture. But through efforts such as their Minnesota Early Childhood Initiative, sponsored mentorships, the statewide THRIVE Initiative and more, these six foundations are greatly brightening the chances of success for Minnesota’s youth.

Boys & Girls Club
Northwest Minnesota Foundation

Boys & Girls Clubs of America

Grant Recipient

The Boys & Girls Clubs bring spirit and energy to three northwest Minnesota communities: the Bemidji area, the White Earth Reservation, and the Red Lake Nation. With a mission to prepare our next generation for success, the Boys & Girls Clubs are a safe place to learn and grow every day — all while having fun. In communities everywhere these days, boys and girls are left to find recreation and companionship on their own; more and more children are left at home with no adult care or supervision. With a philosophy that young people need to know that someone cares about them, the Boys & Girls Clubs offer that and more.

Club programs and services promote and enhance the development of boys and girls by instilling a sense of competence, usefulness, belonging, and influence. The clubs deliver programs for education and career exploration, health and life skills, the arts, sports, fitness and recreation, and other specialized initiatives. Specific to northwest Minnesota, the clubs were established in an effort to reach and assist youth in and near the area’s struggling American Indian reservations, where families with Minnesota’s highest poverty rate face multiple barriers to success. Northwest Minnesota Foundation has provided grants to support the clubs’ start-up, expansion, volunteer partnership programs, teen services, and staff training.

photographer | Joe Rossi

Northland Foundation

Tom and Kateisha

AGE to Age Program Participants

Tom and Kateisha are quite a pair: high energy, full of fun, and equally invested in their small northeastern Minnesota town. They could be twins separated at birth were it not for the six decades between them. This friendship between a high school student and an 80-year-old retiree is just one of many similar bonds formed through the Northland Foundation’s AGE to age: bringing
generations together. With support from Community Experience Partnership, an initiative for U.S. Community Foundations from The Atlantic Philanthropies, the Northland Foundation recruited 10 regional sites to join in a grassroots effort to bridge the age gap between generations, overcome fears and stereotypes, and work together to improve their communities.

The response has been incredible. Over 3,500 people ranging from ages 10 to 92 have participated. Multigenerational site teams have crafted intergenerational community visions and developed ambitious projects. From volunteering for Habitat for Humanity to teaching Native culture and traditions like ricing, each program site has taken on a life of its own, rooted in local sensibilities. Rural residents are transforming their towns with farmers markets, community gatherings, and public park improvement projects. In the tiny enclave of Floodwood, the Senior Center has been renamed the AGEs Center, welcoming the young and young-at-heart alike. Relationships such as Kateisha and Tom’s prove that, with the right opportunity and encouragement, the years that separate us can also strengthen us.

photographer | Joe Rossi