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Community Collaborations: Guiding Youth in the Right Direction
When you think of the North Shore, you think of spectacular scenery and unparalleled recreational destinations. What you might not know is that amid the rocky shores and majestic pines lurks one of the highest poverty rates in the state.
Children who grow up in poverty sometimes lack the basic assets many people take for granted; key among them is the presence of positive adult role models outside of the family. True North AmeriCorps offers a strong mentoring program along with enrichment opportunities that families might not otherwise be able to afford. “Mentoring, tutoring, academic success and volunteer development are at the heart of what we do,” says Blair Gagne, program director for True North. “We see every day how AmeriCorps can really make a difference in the lives of kids and communities.”
But they don’t go it alone... in fact, quite the opposite. The cornerstone of True North’s success is its ability to build strong collaborations with a large network of local nonprofits. “Collaborating has really enabled us to do things that we would never had been able to do if we had all been working in our silos,” says Blair. “We knew we wanted to create an AmeriCorps program for northeastern Minnesota, so we contacted at least 200 different organizations to get as much community input as we could.” That process led to partnerships with local schools, colleges and other youth agencies to create a strong program that delivers results in both rural and urban settings.
True North places members in more than 50 agencies in a 10-county region across northeastern Minnesota. One of those sites is located in the East Hillside neighborhood of Duluth, where 82 percent of the children qualify for free or reduced lunch.
In its fifth year there, True North offers programs for children from kindergarten through age 16. In addition to direct academic support, children are able to explore their skills and strengths through a wide variety of programs that enrich their educational experience. AmeriCorps Member Lacy Habdas plays a vital role: she recruits and trains 150 volunteers per semester to tutor students, help out in classrooms and coordinate after-school activities.
The program has attracted more than 6,000 volunteers across the region and Lacy sees her role as helping her volunteers grow and take initiative. “This is lifelong learning for our kids and anyone who comes into contact with the program,” she says. “Volunteers like coming here, because they can share things they are excited about and use their talents. It inspires the children to open up to new horizons.” Parents are seeing a difference, too. They note that their children are better behaved, more apt to help out at home and learning how to be participants rather than observers.
Like the Split Rock Lighthouse, the True North AmeriCorps program represents a safe harbor for families from Hinckley to Ely. Nearly 100 percent of participants said “yes” when asked if they have met an adult who cares about them. This combination of caring adults and a structured setting makes all the difference for these kids.