What’s not to love about working with middle schoolers? They’re enthusiastic about learning and eager to figure things out on their own.
For Tulsa Fellows Paul Abbey and Meredith Wyatt, it was deeply satisfying to see what a group of tweens could accomplish with a little guidance and structure—coupled with a little veto power. The two University of Oklahoma occupational therapy grad students are teaching student leadership workshops and facilitating student-directed civic projects to local middle-schoolers in the Union Public Schools. Their goal is to reduce the students’ truancy behaviors, increase their conflict avoidance and resolution skills, and enhance their general well-being.
“I’ve been surprised time and again by how capable and motivated a group of sixth- and seventh- graders can be when given support, encouragement, and autonomy,” says Wyatt.
Take, for example, the group of students that, having identified theft and vandalism as a problem in their neighborhood after talking with people in the community, decided to start a Neighborhood Watch Program. Though Wyatt doubted the group’s ability to organize such a large scale program in just eight weeks, the students partnered with Tulsa Crime Stoppers, a local nonprofit, and hosted an informational community meeting that drew more than 100 attendees—including 15 people who volunteered to participate in a follow-up meeting and become Neighborhood Watch block captains.
“The assistant director of Tulsa Crime Stoppers said it was the largest community meeting to date,” Wyatt says.
Another group of students found that community leaders were concerned about gun safety. In response, they organized a community day at a Tulsa apartment complex that featured a presentation by a retired police officer on general gun safety topics, including responding to an active shooter. More than 60 people turned out for the event, and the student organizers grilled hot dogs and served them to participants.
“The community really came together during the event,” says Abbey. “Some people in the crowd even donated more food to share with everyone.”
Abbey and Wyatt implemented the Youth Leadership and Community Engagement Program in partnership with Carrera Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention Program at Union Public Schools. They did so partly in response to learning about the toll Oklahoma’s billion-dollar budget deficit was taking on the school system—which in turn puts more burden on local nonprofits to address critical youth issues like teen pregnancy, childhood obesity, and mental health conditions. Over the course of eight weeks, students participate in classroom workshops geared toward developing the skills needed to assess community needs and develop a community improvement project in collaboration with local leaders, nonprofits, and businesses. In surveys of program participants, students reported feeling more confident in their leadership abilities and having an increased awareness of the issues affecting their neighborhood. Students also enjoyed the discussion-oriented classes, where they learned to respect differences and collaborate with community leader to implement a “big idea,” says Abbey.
“The next generation should be equipped to be leaders in their communities,” he says. “What better way is there than to have students go out and practice those skills now?”
Abbey is thrilled that the program has been adopted by Global Gardens, a Tulsa nonprofit that works with low-income youth.
“They’re currently hosting their first cohort of student leaders and are using the curriculum Meredith and I developed as a guide,” Abbey says. “I never would have thought of another institution adapting our curriculum as a sustainability option.”
Abbey is also hopeful that the program could be sustained by the Carrera program, either as part of its summer internship program or its job training curriculum.
Abbey says his Fellowship experience boosted his confidence in his ability to develop and implement a public health project from the ground up.
“I have perspective on what it takes to lead a high impact project on a large scale,” Abbey says. “Keeping stakeholders informed, organizing groups of people, and asking experts for help are just a few of the strategies I’ve learned and will put to use in implementing other public health projects in the future.”
Wyatt found the Fellowship to be transformative experience. She recalled feeling overwhelmed during her first Fellowship retreat, where her cohort met with local leaders to discuss the health disparities and inequities facing many Tulsans. Wyatt wondered whether they could really make a difference.
But as she continued to engage with those leaders during her Fellowship year, watching them tackle complex issues like food insecurity, access to quality health care, criminal justice reform, and implicit bias to name a few, she found herself feeling more and more hopeful about the future of her community.
“The work of so many leaders, a community of individuals coming together to chip away at our health disparities, has given me hope and has moved me to take action,” says Wyatt. “As I transition from a student to an occupational therapist, advocacy has become a part of my identity as a healthcare professional. I have the ability, knowledge, and resources to advocate for the needs of my clients on an individual level as well as to advocate for a more equitable healthcare system.”