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This Spotlight features an interview between Youth Council coordinator Josh Diamond and Youth Council member-leader Valentin Sanchez. Read on to learn more about Youth Council–what they do and how they work–from the perspective of a youth member.
JD: Valentin, tell me a little about your self. What school do you go to? What do you like the most about living in Rockingham County?
VS: I go to turner Ashby. For fun, I get on the internet and watch YouTube videos to laugh at. I like to play games on my pc. Recently I got a new game, Minecraft.
Let’s see, I’ve lived in Rockingham County in National Coach since the fifth grade, and before then I lived in Harrisonburg City and went to Keister Elementary. I was six when I came to Harrisonburg from Mexico. I remember when I first got here it was very dramatic, hearing people speak a different language and look different.
I have met a lot more people in the county than the city. I only played with like two kids when I was in the city and when I moved to the county more kids would come and play with me. It’s much funer here. I got to meet a lot more people.
JD: When did you start attending Youth Council?
VS: I think it was during the winter of my freshman year. I am a junior now.
JD: What first attracted you to Youth Council?
VS: I heard about a lot of the interesting and fun stuff you did. I heard that there were rewards, or that usually when you did something good for the community you would then get to do something fun at the end of the month. I also knew people, like Pedro and Danny. I figured I could also get some community service hours early as well if I needed to get them in class in high school
JD: You’ve stayed for 3 years, what’s kept you?
VS: I come because there are new people every year coming from new places in the city and county and because of the experience that I get out of it. I like to meet new people and get to know them. It’s important to meet new people. Last week I talked a lot with a new person Nina, who I found out was in the same year as me at TA. I like helping people and getting thanked by the people that we work with.
JD: What makes Youth Council different from other youth groups or after school programs?
VS: I’m not entirely sure, I haven’t gone to many but it seems like everybody works together and seem to connect as a group. When I first came to the group everyone was very friendly and kind and was interested in talking to me.
JD: How do you work with adults in YC? What is that relationship like?
VS: When I first started there where three adults; Michael, Kim and Becky, then Courtney and you came. I met Natalie as well. Adults seem to be equally connected, and seem to respect each other. The adults seem to be interested in the members of Youth Council. I think the relationship is great. Adults talk to me when I first go there. In Youth Council we get a choice of what to do where youth can choose what you want to do.
JD: Will you tell me a little about what Youth Council is and does? Where do you meet and how often?
VS: We are a volunteer group of teens from different high schools in the county and the city and we all come together to work on service projects in the community. Sometimes we lead, and sometimes we are lead by adults. During our regular meetings we talk about upcoming events we might do, we share what we have done so far, and what we might do in the future. We talk about problems in the community, and what needs there are, and what we can do to fix it.
JD: What are some examples of projects you have participated in the past?
VS: The first one I did was a fundraiser for Haiti where we set up tents and then stayed in them for the night and we got money for each tent set up. We also went to a place where elderly people live to talk to them. We played games with them and they told us about their lives. We also laughed at the jokes they made. This year we went to a homeless shelter and helped clean up after we ate and talked with the people there. We helped set up the meal and at the end we made crafts and cards with the homeless there. We also built a rain garden at Purcell Park to help keep Blacks Run filtered and from getting dirtier. For the rain garden we put in mulch and planted some plants. Some people came up while we were doing this and thanked us. Before this we helped to clean up trash in Blacks Run.
JD: What is your favorite part about Youth Council?
VS: The rewards I guess. The fun stuff we do and being thanked for what we do. We go snow tubing, we have been camping (my favorite one so far). We went river tubing as well and played different games when we went camping. We also played Laser tag which we had lots of fun. Our team won almost every game.
JD: Why is volunteering important to you?
VS: I am thankful that I am here and it’s great that I am in this community and it would be better if I do something for the community. This is where I grew up so I want to do something for the community to make it better
JD: What has Youth Council done for you? What do you think you get out of it?
VS: It gives me new perspectives from new points of view. When we went to the homeless shelter I saw how people live their lives. I listened to them and learned that some of them are actually helping and that they are working on building a house with other people where they can live. I get skills; like when we helped take down a building and learned how to do that properly. I also learn how to socialize with people and learn a lot more about people.
JD: What are some important things you have learned by being a member of YC?
VS: Leadership skills. Eventually I may need to be part of a team and if no one is in charge there will need to be someone who can lead them and make sure they work together and can get through a dispute.
JD: Tell me about the most memorable moment you have of Youth Council.
VS: I would like to say when we did the Shades of Youth event. The teens got to share what they felt to the community and what they see in the community because sometimes they don’t get their opinions shared and feel like no one is listening to them.
JD: Why was that so important?
VS: Usually teens don’t get to choose, or are just told what to do. They have to constantly keep their grades and do what people what them to do and not what they want to do. We are still young and need a lot more experience to decide on things. Sometimes we are not taken seriously. I feel like we need a chance to show adults that we have opinions as well. We have some experience just not as much as other people have had.
JD: What would you say is special or unique about Youth Council?VS: I mean, this is the first volunteer group I’ve been in. I’ve heard of others like Young Life, but I can’t really say why it’s different. It feels like we are our own community in the group. We each have our own opinions and different experiences, so do the adults. We are diverse, they’re may be more of some people but we are all different. I mean what makes us a community is that we are a small group; if we were big we wouldn’t be able to communicate. As a small group we understand each other and in large groups people only stay with who they know and don’t learn about each other.
JD: Why is diversity important to you?
VS: If you are all the same then you all have the same opinion and do the same thing. If we are all the same opinion then we just take on things that are ourselves and can’t represent other cultures or other people if there is only one single type of culture.
JD: What does community mean to you?
VS: A community is a group of people that understand each other, that live in a place, and work together to meet each other’s needs. When they need something you are there to help them.
JD: Does this definition fit Youth Council?
VS: Yea. I mean sometimes we have trouble, but we figure it out. We may be apart, but we eventually get it back.
For more information on how to get involved in Youth Council contact Josh Diamond at firstname.lastname@example.org
This month’s spotlight features an interview between Outreach and Development Specialist Josh Diamond and Bria Bryant, an outstanding youth volunteer working with the Gus Bus. Bria is a senior at Stonewall Jackson High School who will be attending JMU next year. This motivated volunteer has an impressive drive to help her community (in fact Bria stopped in for her interview on her way to watch the basketball game of a student she works with on the Gus Bus) The two discussed her volunteer work with the Gus Bus, motivations, and our need for youth leadership. Enjoy this interview with such a dedicated young person!
JD: Bria, tell me a little bit about yourself.
BB: I’ve grown up in many different places but mainly I’ve lived in Edinburg and gone to school in Shenandoah County. I moved here in the second grade. I am a student at Stonewall Jackson High which my Mom attended, as well. I spend a lot of time volunteering and really enjoy it. I also work at Pet Purrfection and have another job as a catering assistant. I am currently a senior, graduating this year.
JD: What are your plans after you graduate?
BB: I am going to JMU. I plan on double Majoring in ISAT (Integrated Science and Technology) and Health Science with a minor in Spanish.
JD: What’s your favorite subject in school and why?
BB: My favorite subject is Spanish. I grew up in Miami where I went to an all-Spanish preschool. My mom speaks Spanish as well, so I’ve learned it growing up. Knowing Spanish helps me break down barriers of communication and is useful for where I live because Spanish is becoming so common.
JD: What do you like about living in Edinburg?
BB: Well, there is not much there. It’s a small town, but I like it because when I do outreach programs or volunteer in the community, I can see the impact and get to know the people on a personal level. If I lived in a city I wouldn’t see the effect as much.
JD: Tell me more about that impact you are making.
BB: I help at a local food pantry. I am the only one who speaks Spanish so I can see my use there. I also volunteer at the pregnancy center where the clientele there has begun to recognize me and know me for what I do.
JD: What do you like to do for fun?
BB: I don’t play sports. Volunteering is what I do. I just like making an impact on myself, other people or friends and family. Lots of people don’t think of what I do as fun so I don’t always know how to answer that question, but it is what I enjoy.
JD: Speaking of volunteering, I hear you are an awesome volunteer on the Gus Bus. Could you tell me a little bit about what you do with the Gus Bus?
BB: I got connected with the Gus Bus through a research project I am doing at the Massanutten Regional Governor’s School and decided to go on the bus to see what they actually do. Now I do research for my project on the Gus Bus as well as go on it two days a week doing reading activities with the kids. For my research, I am doing the intake surveys and volunteer surveys to help understand how the Gus Bus is helping the population that it is working with. I am being directed and working with Natalie (Reading Road Show coordinator) to develop a survey to see where kids are at with their economic levels and home life. Right now the end focus is on actually measuring the impact that the Gus Bus is having on the children to show that the Gus Bus is doing something good for the community.
JD: Tell me more about your Governor’s school research project and it’s connection to the Gus Bus.
BB: My research project is to help survey the impact the Gus Bus has on the lives of children. The survey we make will always be an ongoing thing for the Gus Bus. I will have evidence to show for my project, but the research for the Gus Bus will be a constant investigation and evaluation. I think getting research for Gus Bus is useful as they continue their work and use the information for the after school program.
JD: What do you like about volunteering with the Gus Bus?
BB: The most important thing is helping the children learn and improve their literacy. But there has been a bigger impact on myself through getting to know kids backgrounds, seeing how kids struggle, and their ability to overcome their obstacles. It has taught me the importance of not only literacy but also positive relationship building for children who may not have the best role models in their life.
During Christmas, at the stop where I have connected the most to the kids, we did Christmas for them and brought presents. I saw how much they enjoyed being on the Gus Bus and being rewarded and praised for their good behavior. It was such a rewarding experience. I am excited to watch the kids grow and to see the impact we have on them as well as the different lessons they have to teach me.
JD: What drew you to volunteer with the Gus Bus?
BB: When I got in touch with Dr. Zingraff she gave me different options of different programs I could work with. I was drawn to working with children one-on-one. I thought this could give me a better experience in general.
JD: What motivates you to volunteer? How did you come to have such an appreciation for volunteering?
BB: I don’t know really, it just feels normal, but seeing how my work is appreciated drives me. It just feels like something that I should do. I think it’s because I have seen where there is a need for help. I am aware of these things and I am a take action kind of person. I’ve gotten a lot from my Mom and Dad, too. When I was younger my parents worked at a maximum-security juvenile facility where they worked with youth from the roughest backgrounds. This allowed me to see first-hand the poverty of the kids and could understand why they did what they did because of the situation that they lived in. I think being around this gave me a sense of wanting to help. So helping others has just been a part of my life.
JD: What do you think keeps more youth from being involved in community service?
BB: I think it comes from lack of motivation. A lot of times teens don’t do things that they aren’t required to do because they are focused on other things; sports, school, and other things. I think it has a lot to do with a lack of role models. I guess they won’t be active if they are not aware of what they can do and are in a cycle of repeating what their parents have done.
JD: Are your friends supportive of your volunteer work?
BB: Most people don’t understand why I do what I do. This may be because their values aren’t as strong or don’t feel that the things I do are that important. Some are involved in working in what I do but some don’t understand why I do so much community work. Some have come on the Gus Bus with me, which is great.
JD: It seems that personal growth is very important to you. Could you say more about that?
BB: I think that working with people makes you a better person. Knowing people’s cultures, struggles and experience makes me a more rounded person.
JD: Do you ever work with your peers in a volunteer capacity?
BB: Sometimes the pregnancy center serves teenagers, some people I know personally. I try to be a leader or member in different clubs in my school and try to set an example for my peers.
JD: You are a leader. Are youth in need of youth leadership? How can we have more youth taking the lead?
BB: I think it’s important that other youth see someone their own age show the impact one can have when you are younger and that it’s important to have someone who is not an adult meeting a community need.
I think youth need to be given the opportunity to be leaders or encouragement to step up. I think there are opportunities for youth but you have to look for them and work for it. Therefore, people need to be willing to take the initiative. Youth leadership impacts their peers and is impressive to adults as well as setting an example for younger children.
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This month’s Program Spotlight features a conversation between OCY’s Outreach and Development Specialist Josh Diamond and OCY’s Director of Programs Michael Maurice. The following interview delves into Teen Pregnancy Prevention program efforts, the new Teen Outreach Program ® and some of the challenges in addressing teen pregnancy. Enjoy!
JD: Michael, what do you do here at the OCY?
MM: I am the Director of Programs at OCY and have my hand in all of our programs in one way or another. I also help create the Youth Data Survey report and am involved in grant seeking and grant writing efforts for all of our programs.
JD: Are there particular programs that you really enjoy working with?
MM: I enjoy seeing the fruits and results of all of our programs whether I am directly involved in them or not. I enjoy Teen Pregnancy Prevention (TPP) because it’s really important work and is an issue that is starting to be addressed on a community level. It’s an issue that requires everyone towork towards a solution in a creative and collaborative way. I also really like working with Youth Council (YC). My position has evolved and I’ve been doing more office work lately, but working with YC allows me to work directly with teenagers and witness their growth while being positive adult support.
JD: Do you see this positive support being connected to TPP?
MM: Yes, definitely, and it’s a big component of our new TPP work. Having programming that builds positive adult relationships and facilitates youth development activities can reduce pregnancy and builds on the assets that teens have.
JD: Could you tell me a little bit about the history of Teen Pregnancy Prevention here in Harrisonburg and Rockingham County?
MM: TPP started shortly after OCY was formed and has been a partner program at the Institute for the better part of ten years. There was a large federal grant that TPP received in partnership with the Waynesboro/Augusta/Staunton Office on Youth between 2003-2008. This grant set the tone for the work that we have continued with even after the grant ended. This effort has primarily taken place in schools providing STI and STD education
, while focusing on well-rounded development. In classes we address healthy relationships, goal setting and the things that get in the way of achieving those goals. We also teach to think critically about the messages they see and hear through the media or peers. Right now we are at a critical point in that there is a lot of movement locally around teen pregnancy and it’s become more on the community agenda. The community is thinking of new ways to address pregnancy; what has worked, what hasn’t, and addressing what we can do better to really tackle this issue.
JD: Why do you think people are starting to prioritize the issue now?
MM: I don’t know if it’s a cultural shift or people are just excepting and realizing that teen pregnancy is not only ok to talk about, but that it’s important to talk about. If we want our teens to reach their full potential they need to understand the risks and consequences of sex, and what they can do to prevent pregnancy from occurring in their own lives. It also reflects our society on a larger scale; there are more sexual messages that are being sent out and people have to engage them.
JD: What does teen pregnancy look like here in Harrisonburg/Rockingham County? How does it effect our youth, schools, and community?
MM: Teen pregnancy is very costly to our community on various levels: there was a study done in 2008 alone saying that teen-child bearing cost tax-payers in Harrisonburg/Rockingham 3.8 million dollars. The things that factored into their calculations where higher welfare costs, higher incarceration rates of children born toteen parents, andlost tax-revenue from unemployment. There are certainly success stories of teen mothers who have overcome their barriers but becoming a teen parent makes things a lot more challenging.
On an individual level it has an impact on the children of pregnant teens, pregnant teens themselves, and their parents. Teen moms are much less likely to finish high school or obtain a college degree. Children of teen parents are more likely to have health and developmental issues and are less likely to do well in school and are more likely to become teen parents themselves. Children of teens are more likely to be abused or neglected and are more likely to become incarcerated. These are all problems that affect the individual very drastically but also the community. So by focusing on prevention it’s not just about preventing a pregnancy; there is a lot of systemic change that can come from a focus on TPP as well.
JD: Where do young men fit into TPP efforts?
MM: I know that there are teen guys who are very committed to their children, but there are also many who shirk their responsibilty and arn’t involved. Even if there is a child that is born to two people in a relationship it doesn’t work as glue that keeps the high school couple together. If you look at the stats teen moms are morelikely to end up assingle parents.
One of the things that we and others in the community have focused on is changing the mentality around teen pregnancy as only a women’s or girls issue. Male responsibility should be a big part of the focus. Girls can get pregnant once in a calendar year where as young men can impregnate multiple girls in a calendar year.
JD: What are some of the challenges associated with preventing teen and unplanned pregnancy? How can we address those challenges?
MM: A big challenge is value and morality issues that surround teen sexual activity and relationships. It’s a sensitive subject for a lot of people. We are not approaching it from a values perspective, but a health perspective. We want to provide teens and students with accurate information so they can make the best decision for themselves. We encourage parents and families to make their value systems clear to their kids. We don’t’ suggest that there is one value system that’s more important than another, but that parents are talking with their kids and setting clear boundaries around sex and relationships.
Teen’s say the number one influence on their decision to have sex is their parents. I think some parents don’t realize they have as much influence as they do. This is why they should talk with their kids about it and set clear boundaries and expectations, whatever that means for their family.
There are so many different root causes for teen pregnancy that it takes a very comprehensive multi-faceted approach to dealing with it. Poverty is a factor that influences teen pregnancy, dating abuse, rape, pressure from partners, peer pressure to become sexually active, depression and mental health issues, self-esteem and confidence issues, boredom, lack of parental supervision, lack of information. Media. There are all kinds of things that play into teen pregnancy and it costs a lot of money to do large-scale prevention efforts.
We need to provide positive youth development opportunities for teens to learn the skills to succeed right now where they are at and help them envision a positive future that they can look forward to and work towards. This can help reduce teen pregnancy at an individual level.
JD: I know there is some recently received grant funding to broaden teen pregnancy initiatives here. Could you tell me a little bit about those new opportunities and how these new programs willwork?
MM: We received a large federal grant from The Administration on Children, Youth and Families through the Department of Health and Human Services to address theissue of teen pregnancy in Harrisonburg, Rockingham and PageCounties. The focus of the project is to provide education and programming that emphasize both abstinence and contraception while addressing adult preparation subjects (healthy relationships, parent/child communication, educational and career success). We are implementing three programs, the first one being an evidenced-based program called WYMAN’s Teen Outreach Program ® (TOP). The three main components of TOP ® are weekly meetings held by a positive caring adult that facilitates a curriculum that deals with various issues concerning teens while incorporating strong service learning components. TOP ® will be in high schools or after school as well as in community based organizations.
We will also implement the Draw The Line Respect The Line program in 6th, 7th, and 8th grade PE and health classes. The focus of this program is setting personal limits and boundaries regarding sexual activity and relationships while teaching the skills needed to help students maintain those boundaries and to respect the boundaries and limits of others.
We are targeting some specific populations that are at greater risk of teen pregnancy. This includes Latino youth, youth in foster care, adjudicated youth, and families that are already effected by teen pregnancy. For example, we’ll work with theHand in Hand Resource Mothers program to expand their support services to include programming for parents of pregnant teens as well as the younger siblings of parenting teens.
We will provide parent education encouraging parent/child communication about sex through a program called Staying Connected To Your Teen. We’ll also create a media campaign, which will target teens, parents, and the community as a whole.
JD: How do you see these new opportunities deepening teen pregnancy prevention practices?
MM: I think these opportunities will allow us to reach more teens and families with programming and education. We will serve about 5,000 students over the next few years and will provide evidenced-based, high quality programming not only about relationships and sexual activity but also about positive youth development.
I don’t think the issue of teen pregnancy is going to go away but I think we will be able to make great strides in reducing teen pregnancy locally. I am excited about fewer teens having to overcome the challenges of teen pregnancy.
On the whole, having the community really take on this issue is really exciting for me. Not just TPP, the schools and a few organizations that have been working around the issue, but our entire community claiming our children and teen pregnancy. It’s going to take all of us to really impact this problem. Having the community mobilize and engage in the discussion on the prevention strategies will be important. In the long run, I see all this leading to a community that is an even healthier and happier place for teens to grow up in than it is today.
JD: Talking about sex with youth, whether you are a parent, teacher or sex educator can be a little awkward. Do you have any suggestion for folks trying to start or facilitate that conversation with a young person?
MM: Start early and talk often. It shouldn’t be a one-time “birds and the bee’s conversation.” (It’s telling that people even use the language of “birds and the bees,” just shows our awkwardness around the word sex). You should start this conversation before your teen even starts dating. One thing you can do is to recognize that it is an awkward conversation. It’s helpful to affirm this with a teen and let them know that it might be uncomfortable for you as well. Show a little vulnerability. Using TV shows or music as a starting point is good. It’s good to ask questions about certain sexual messages from media to gauge where your teen stands on sex and relationships. It’s important to have your teen feel safe in talking to you. Don’t get angry or upset or send signals that would make them not want to talk or honest with you.
I’d say the biggest thing is to be an approachable, non-judgmental, and safe person to talk to so teens feel comfortable asking questions. Be supportive and affirming. I’d also encourage people to equip themselves with accurate information (check out www.the nationalcampaign to start). Get to a place where you are ok talking about sex. Be real and genuine in the way you deal with teens. Ask questions that get teens to think about sex and relationships so they think critically about how sex is portrayed by media or things they hear.
If you are interested in learning more about TPP efforts in the area please contact Michael at email@example.com
Leading up to the holiday season Youth Council expressed a desire to work with the homeless. This desire is what lead to their last project: joining in service at Our Community Place’s weekly community meal.
OCP’s community meal is not just a meal “for” the homeless, but a meal where all are encouraged and welcome to participate and eat. Youth Council enjoyed a meal with members of the homeless community and others simply wanting to dine in company. After everyone finished their meal YC helped clear tables then washed and put away dishes. After cleanup, Youth Council learned wreath and craft making. The wreaths made are sold at the farmers market with profits being used to fund the work of OCP.
Before eating, everyone contributing to the meal joined hands and shared something for which they were thankful. Responses varied, but it was clear that warmth, togetherness, and heart were the glue that created the meal and that friendship and the goodness of young people working with others can nourish body and soul. The service project this holiday season was a special one that left all feeling a little more connected and a little more humble.
We are excited to announce that the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program is partnering with schools, agencies, and community-based organizations in Harrisonburg, Rockingham County, and Page County to bring a new youth development program to our area beginning February 2013. Wyman’s Teen Outreach Program® is an evidence-based, best practice youth development program proven to increase grades, reduce course failure and suspension rates, and lower the risks of dropout and teen pregnancy. Facilitators of the program will lead teens through process of self-reflection, goal setting, and personal development and help create dialogue with students around sexuality and relationships. The program has a strong foundation in community service learning aimed at deepening students’ relationship and connection to their community and peers. We can’t wait to begin the program this February!
To get more information on the program and the impacts it’s had in other communities please visit http://wymancenter.org/nationalnetwork/top/
Want more information about the Teen Outreach Program? Contact Michael Maurice at firstname.lastname@example.org
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This month we sat down to interview Alysia Cockrell Davis, coordinator of Smart Beginnings. The OCY has a collaborative relationship with Smart Beginnings to help meet the educational needs of all children 5 and younger. We are so thankful for their efforts and wanted to share a little more about their work in the community. Smart Beginnings is one of more than 20 coalitions around the Commonwealth of Virginia engaged in collaborative partnerships with childcare professionals, business leaders, schools, faith based organizations, and government officials to identify and implement long-term strategies for improving school readiness for our youngest citizens, birth to age five.
Alysia, how have you come to work with Smart Beginnings?
When my husband and I first moved here I worked as an adjunct professor at Bridgewater, JMU and Lord Fairfax teaching intro to sociology and Women and Gender studies. I was traveling a lot, feeling isolated and looking for a sense of community in my work. At Smart Beginnings there is some sense of community and there are people around me working towards a common goal. Before I began my Ph.D. studies I worked in infant and maternal health. I’ve worked in public health and with coalitions. Coalition work is its own thing really, and it comes with a different set of skills; the skill to get people together in the same space who may work on different issues but are ultimately working towards the same goal—making sure all children are healthy and receive a good education. I felt the position was a good fit and I have those skills.
The basis for your work is in the name, “Smart Beginnings” Why is it important for children to have a “smart beginning”?
Statistics show us that 85% of the brain is developed by the age of 5. If we view early learning as starting in kindergarten this is too late. Early childhood is a critically important time for kids to have intentional, high quality learning experiences. What is important is a mentally stimulating environment supported by parents. We know that parents are the best and most important teachers in a child’s life.
Can you tell me a little about the coalition of Smart Beginnings and what the coalition works towards?
Smart Beginnings is a mission driven coalition, that mission being school readiness. Early childhood is a critical time in a child’s development and is not regulated by any government agency. Our mission is what drives people’s participation in the coalition, not a particular project or issue per se. From this framework, a regional work plan is created that comes from our different participants in the coalition. Some of our projects may be regional in scope (i.e. assessment). We have relationships with school systems, early childhood non-profits, child-care centers, pediatricians, businesses, private institutions and occasionally parents (although we would like to see more parents participating in the coalition). We do whatever we can so children don’t fall between the cracks and miss out on pre-k learning opportunities or pre-school. We bring together organizations (whether through mission, geography or issue) and get them together to address this need. We help people see that when organizations collaborate it does not have to be threatening, and that working together leads to more creativity.
Where does Smart Beginnings do its work?
We are a regional organization but keep a local focus. We have locality teams in Harrisonburg/Rockingham County, Page and Shenandoah Counties, and Staunton-Augusta-Waynesboro. Our locality team meetings work locally but try to fit into a regional plan. I don’t dictate local needs and trust that each locality knows what their community needs.
How do you measure success for your students or work?
We primarily use PALS (Phonological Awareness Literacy Screening) data. PALS is a decent measurement, and since 2006 improvements in reading have saved our region $154,000. I personally feel successful when people know what we do and engage us to serve children in the community. I recently got a call from a librarian in a rural locality with suggestions on how to broaden our work in their area.
Tell us some ways your work brings you joy?
I like when I do get to interact with kids and see them grow. We give out pre-school scholarships, and recently I had a great conversation with a parent of one of the recipients about how the scholarship really helped to change their situation. But with this joy there is also sadness, knowing that not all children have access to this resource or have the opportunity to receive pre-school education.
Is there a favorite story you can share with us regarding a certain child or family or relationship that has come through your work?
We help to implement the Virginia Star Quality Initiative (VSQI) which helps assess the quality of and mentor pre-school and early childcare institutions. Locally there was a preschool challenged to create an inclusive learning environment for children with disabilities. The VSQI program was able to provide mentorship to this preschool. Teachers learned more inclusive teaching strategies and worked with our local TTAC (Training and Technical Assistance Center) and saw very positive results. Through our networking and connections they saw real sustainable results at their school. This was a good moment for Smart Beginnings and for me personally.
What are some of the challenges of your work?
Resource stigma is a big issue when working with parents. I think when it comes to parenting education it’s needed for all parents. Research shows that parenting education is needed for both wealthier communities and low-income families. In parenting, love is instinctual, but skills are not. You are not a bad parent if you choose to get resources and education for your kids. It’s hard to get parents to see past this, or to not feel like they are lacking or bad parents because they were invited to participate in parenting classes. This makes it hard to get people to prioritize their own education so they can educate their children.
Is there anything going on Smart Beginnings that you are excited about right now?
Yes, we are starting local Parent Readiness Councils especially for parents. I want more parents to participate in our coalition and we would like to move forward in this way. We are excited about possibly implementing a regional nutrition assessment for children and about an upcoming gala fundraiser. We will also be launching a new website in the next few months.
We will be hosting a number of events to celebrate the Week of the Young Child in April. We need volunteers to help with the events. We are always looking for active parents to participate in our coalition.
Alysia Davis, Coordinator
The United Way of Harrisonburg and Rockingham County serves as the fiscal agent for Smart Beginnings Shenandoah Valley. The coalition is housed at the Institute for Innovation in Health and Human Services at JMU.
Last Saturday on November 17th, Youth Council members came together to volunteer at the New Community Project House. The New Community Project is an organization that works to enhance the Harrisonburg community and environment by building peaceful community relations while working with the earth to establish a non-violent relationship with our food, communities, and environment.
The Youth Council helped further along the New Community Project’s efforts by cutting wood, cleaning out shrubs and old trees from around the property, and helping prepare the house for the next phase of construction. The New Community Project house, once completed will house individuals learning from NCP’s methods as well as community members trying to get back on their feet or are recovering from addiction. Those living in the large house located on South Main St. will learn skills of self-reliance and sustainable urban food production
While there, YC members learned techniques for living in harmony with the earth and for building a more connected community. Thank you Youth Council for your hard work at NCP and for this great collaboration. For info on Youth Council contact Josh Diamond and email@example.com
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Last month Outreach and Development specialist Josh Diamond sat down with Migrant Student Advocate Elisa Torres-González to talk a little bit about her and the work of the program. The Migrant Education Program is a federally funded program that works with migrant farm and poultry workers in the Shenandoah Valley. They work closely with schools to ensure students graduate. The program qualifies highly mobile workers and gives supplemental educational and social support for migrant students so they meet high academic standards. The below interview will give you a little snap shot into the work and life of Elisa and her students. Enjoy!
JD: Elisa, you are from Puerto Rico and had a long journey to get here. Tell me a little about that Journey.
ET: Before I graduated college in Puerto Rico I went to Austin, TX for a competition with my husband Edgar where we were presenting on some projects. While there, he was encouraged to apply for his Ph.D. from the University of Delaware. At the time I had a cousin in Delaware as well. When I arrived I knew little English. My first job was as a recreational leader at an afterschool recreation program. At that time we were really just living day by day, trying to figure out how to live in a new place. I remember when I got my first check, it was for $250.00 and we had to spend all of it on jackets. Coming from Puerto Rico we did not own a single Jacket!
JD: What did you study in Puerto Rico and how does it influence your education work?
ET: I studied geology at the University of Puerto Rico. During my college years I worked at the Seismic Network of Puerto Rico, analyzing earthquake data from the Caribbean region. While at the Seismic Network, I had the opportunity to create an educational program that taught people about earthquakes, their risks and the science behind it. It was then that I discovered I really like to share my knowledge with others and enjoy teaching. When I moved to Delaware I sought an opportunity as an educator. I became a teacher assistant and later a bi-lingual science teacher. It made sense to me to teach science, and to teach science to students whose first language is Spanish.
JD: How have you come to work with the Office on Children and Youth?
ET: My husband was offered a position at Merck in Elkton and we needed to take this opportunity. I was not excited about leaving because I felt very appreciated at my school in Delaware. But when we got to Harrisonburg I was really surprised by the diversity, which I liked. I really love to learn from other cultures and that’s important for my family and me. I first worked as a teacher assistant in the Newcomer Program at Skyline Middle School and really enjoyed that. I got to meet and become close with students from all over the world, many of them having come to this country in a traumatic way. I enjoyed the position but was looking for something with a little more responsibility. I heard of a position opening up at OCY with the Migrant Education Program and was interested so I applied and got the Migrant Student Advocate position.
JD: What do you do at Migrant Ed?
ET:I advocate for migrant students who qualify for the program. I make sure they are in school and have the resources they need to be successful. Another goal is to teach parents how to advocate for their own resources and children. I help teachers work with students when there are behavioral issues. When this is the case, I meet with teachers and principles to explain the situation of the student so they better understand the root of their behavior. This way we come up with creative ways to help students change their behavior instead of punishing without having an understanding of the life and struggle of a child. I think an unofficial part of my job is to really admire families and students. I am realizing that it’s really important to admire people. Everyone needs that and many of our families get very little of it. I think it’s important just to look at someone and tell them they are amazing and that I really admire them for what they do.
JD: You yourself have had to learn English as your second language, how does this Influence your work with others learning English?
ET: It gives me the ability to connect with other ELL students and know what they are struggling with. All immigrant students arrive here differently but there are a few commonalities in what it means to immigrate somewhere. Sometimes it’s assumed that because we have an accent we don’t understand certain things, which isn’t always true. I have found that I can be a role model for students who have experienced immigration. I know what it’s like for people to make assumptions about your ability to achieve or understand. I think language and culture are an advantage and something to share, not something to overcome.
JD: What are some of the benefits families get from being in the program?
ET: Parents and students have an ally in getting needed social and educational services for their children. Having an ally helps in building confidence; with some help things can happen for them. Some of our families don’t always feel welcome where they go so I try to make sure they feel welcome and give them the support they need. I also challenge students and families when needed and I really push them to be better. Another benefit of Migrant Education is our Parent Advisory Council, a group of migrant parents that meets regularly. Here families and parents have a space to tell me how I am doing and can talk about their issues and struggles as parents and get advice or support. They learn skills to better help their children with schoolwork.
JD: Tell us some ways your work brings you joy?
ET: I really get a lot of joy from tutoring and mentoring individual students. It makes me happy to work with students over time, develop a relationship with the students and slowly see them change and step into more responsibility and maturity. I would say the other thing that I love is to see parents step up in ways they have not in the past, or begin to read more and get more involve with school work and activities with their children.
JD: How do you measure success for your students or work?
ET: I know things are going well when students request to see me. It can be hard to work with young people who have been through a lot, there are trust issues. So being in relationship and having someone care about your opinion of him or her is a success for me. When I see a child grow into confidence I know I am doing a good job. I also work with a lot of single moms who feel they are not capable of educating their children. I have seen mothers come from this place to a place where they take control of there lives and decide to take a part in their child’s education. Our families go through a lot and it amazes me how resilient they are, especially when they make positive choices for themselves and their families. These changes lead to higher grades and participation in school, which is our goal.
JD: Is there a favorite story you can share with us regarding a certain child or family?
ET: I worked with a middle school aged girl for about two years, tutoring and mentoring her twice a week. When I began with her she was very resistant and very shy. I worked with her and persisted and showed her I cared about her and eventually she began to flower into this confident young girl. Her grades improved and she became more outgoing and confident. After working with her for some time her mother turned to me and thanked me saying, “I never thought my kid could change in this way.” This moment reminded me of why I have this job.
JD: Is there anything going on at Migrant Ed now that you are excited about?
ET: Right now I am really excited about a new class we have started for preschoolers and their parents. Parents are their children’s first teachers so we are doing this class to teach parents how to get their children ready for kindergarten. I’ve been really enjoying this new initiative. People seem to be getting a lot from it, parents and children.
If you are interested in volunteering with the program or tutoring a student please contact Elisa at firstname.lastname@example.org
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A Note From the Director
Hi! Thanks so much for visiting our website! My name is Kim Hartzler-Weakley, director at the Office on Children and Youth. I am so proud of our work and the difference OCY makes in the lives of children and young people. For this reason we would like to share with you more about our programs through a series called Program Spotlight. Over the next few months we will give you an inside look into our programs; who runs them, what they do, and what their work looks like in the community. Each month we will “spotlight” a program to give you a deeper sense of what goes on at OCY. I am so excited to introduce to you the first Program Spotlight featuring the work of the Gus Bus. Take a look and thanks so much for all you do! Enjoy!
Our first Program Spotlight takes the form of an interview between Outreach and Development Specialist Josh Diamond, and program coordinator of the Gus Bus, Natalie Duda. Beginning in 2002, the Reading Road show is a mobile literacy program that visits neighborhoods in Rockingham county, Harrisonburg City, and Page county. The Gus Bus provides literacy programming and allows children to check out books each week. For more information on the Gus Bus and its schedule go to The Reading Road Show tab on this website.
JD: Do you enjoy reading? What sorts of books do you enjoy reading?
ND: My mom is a librarian and has always loved books. She taught me that reading is very important and instilled in me a love for reading. I enjoy most books but tend towards fiction. My favorite book in the world is Child of My Heart by Alice McDermott. I’ve come back to it off and on since I was twelve or thirteen. Falling in love with this story at an early age showed me that reading could be enjoyable. I think reading at an early age helps create a sense of imagination, which is important. Knowing how to read and write at an early age helps children imagine, and imagination is key to visioning possibilities of something different from what you know. No matter where you come from, if you can read and write, then you can imagine and make anything of yourself.
JD: I know you went to JMU, What did you study and how do you use this on the Gus Bus?
ND: I studied Social Work. My degree taught me to look at children, especially children who are survivors of poverty or abuse, from a Biopsychosocial-cultural perspective. In other words, looking at a child’s environment and culture for cues on how to understand behavior. This got me to look at things beyond “bad behavior” and to analyze the environment of the child and how that might be effecting or creating the behavior at hand. On the Gus Bus many of our children come to us with tough behavioral issues, and this perspective helps me see behavioral issues connected to something bigger and gives me patience and understanding.
JD: How have you come to work with the Office on Children and Youth?
ND: I started out as a social work intern here and I loved working at OCY. I was treated with respect, was taught and mentored a lot by staff—I felt like an equal. I have always been passionate about early-childhood literacy and the importance of reading and writing at an early age and feel I’m good with kids. When I was done with the internship I saw a position open to work with the Gus Bus and decided to apply and luckily got the job. Given my passion for children, literacy, and love for the staff, working with the Gus Bus seemed like a great fit for me. And it is!
JD: Tell us some ways the Gus Bus and your work bring you joy?
ND: I love working with kids. My name is actually hard to say for most children, so when a child learns to pronounce my name and remembers it, it makes me happy. That’s small but important for me. It really brings me joy when kids come to the bus consistently and understand the process. They get on the bus, sit down to learn and read and are really excited to be there, excited to read and learn.
JD: Who is the Gus Bus for? Who comes to the Gus Bus?
ND: The Gus Bus is for anyone really, but mainly we are a reading road show for children ages 2-12, with most participants being ages 5-12. We invite parents on the bus to participate in what we do as well. The Gus Bus is usually in low-income neighborhoods where transportation is an issue. The Bus goes to these neighborhoods, stops in a central location and any child or parent in that neighborhood is welcome to participate on the bus and in the activities.
JD: Why mobile literacy?
ND: The Gus Bus is a unique program that eliminates the transportation barrier in receiving literacy services. (This is especially true in rural areas where things are very far apart and harder to access) Lots of the kids in the neighborhoods we visit don’t have the opportunity to go to the library, stay after school, or receive supplemental services due to lack of transportation. The Gus Bus is a safe space for kids, some of who don’t have a learning-centered environment where they can study or read. The Gus Bus makes kids feel special and prioritizes their growth and learning where kids live, in their own neighborhoods. We also give every kid who comes to the bus a food bag and a snack while on the bus, which is important for kids who come to the bus hungry.
JD: When the Gus Bus stops in your neighborhood, why would you want to jump on the Bus?
ND: The Gus Bus is a fun place to be. There are activities, snacks, and you always leave with a book. We have Spanish, English, and bi-lingual books. We have little celebrations and arts and crafts. Like I said earlier, it’s a safe place where kids can come and feel special for an hour, meet new friends, have a snack and participate in fun activities. The Gus Bus gives kids more access to reading, to free books and prepares them for kindergarten. Another benefit the bus provides that’s not directly tied to academics is the healthy relationships that are created with adults and other kids. Parents and kids feel it is a safe space so we have positive relationships with neighborhoods, which helps grow and nourish communities of literacy.
JD: How do you measure success for the Gus Bus?
ND: By the number of kids excited to be on the bus every week who understand the structure of how the bus works, who ask questions and are ready to learn. When this happens I feel we are doing our job.
JD: Is there a favorite story you can share with us regarding a certain child?
ND: Yes. Very recently actually. There was a young girl on the bus who, when leaving, asked if we had any books that she could bring to her cousin whom she was visiting soon in el Salvador. I didn’t want to give her books to check out to bring to El Salvador fearing they might not make it back, but I told her I would take some to her house at a later date that she could have. So I packed up two bags of books and brought them over to her house. When I got to her house she looked at me with such surprise, excitement, and joy. It was almost like she didn’t expect me to come through for her. She was so happy that she had some English books to bring to her family in El Salvador to help them learn what she has been learning on the Gus Bus. Her family invited me in and fed me. This little moment touched my heart; she wanted to take what she learned on the Bus and share that with others.
You can email Natalie directly at email@example.com or call her at 540-568-5814 to inquire about volunteer opportunities.
check out the Gus Bus on Facebook!
We have been receiving a number of phone calls, emails, and inquiries about the teen pregnancy data for Harrisonburg that was included in the 2011 Youth Data Survey Report released on Monday. Mostly, this has stemmed from an error in the story that the Daily News Record ran on Tuesday, June 19th. Below is the editor’s note identifying the mistake:
“Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story inaccurately stated that for every 1,000 girls age 15-17 in Virginia, 18.8 percent were pregnant in 2011. It should have said that for every 1,000 Virginia girls in that age range, 18.8 were pregnant last year. The corrected version appears below. Also, in today’s print edition, a chart that accompanies the story makes the same error. The chart also says that 54.4 percent of Harrisonburg and Rockingham County girls age 15-17 were pregnant in 2011. It should read that for every 1,000 girls in that age range, 54.4 were pregnant last year.”
While it ISN’T the case that half of all 15-17 year-old girls in Harrisonburg are pregnant, the high rates of teen pregnancy in our community are cause for concern and it is important for the community to work together to reduce the instance of teen pregnancy. The full Youth Data Survey Report can be accessed here: http://www.theocy.org/youth-data-surveys/2011-youth-data-survey/