Friday, September 6, 2013

Respect for Non-Profits

After the PASS program folded, we had a team meeting where we tried to focus on the good things we did rather than the disappointments we endured. We did build a program from the ground up, we help a lot of kids improve their academic performance and gave them the confidence they needed to succeed, and had it not ban for some uncontrollable circumstances, we would have seen it through to the end. Following this experience, I can definitely say that I have a lot of respect for the multitude of non-profits that exist in the area. However, I would also argue that there has to be a better way for all of them to work together so that everyone’s needs are met. To be honest I do not know what the solution is, but I do know that this will not be my last experience with community outreach. Hopefully I can take what I learned this summer to create and even more efficient and sustainable program in the future, one that can withstand external factors and truly deliver basic necessities and opportunities to those in need.

Our Mistakes

One of the starkest realities that came to my attention during this whole process was just how difficult it is to start a program to help people. On paper it seems easy. Our RHS summer school program had everything I would have thought we needed. We had funding, we had volunteers and interns, we had a space to meet, we had a whole curriculum planned out, and most importantly we were presenting the students of Roosevelt High School with something that would greatly benefit them and contribute to their future success. Yet, despite all of our efforts, contrary to standard Field of Dreams Logic, we built it and they did not come. Looking back on the experience I can kind of understand why so few kids signed up for the program. To be honest, from what I saw, Roosevelt High School seemed to be saturated with programs trying to help youth in need. Another program called Step-Up was extremely popular with students, as were many others in the neighborhood. However, to say that all Roosevelt kids in need were getting help is simply not true. There were an abundance of kids who needed attention, and while I submit that they are likely dealing with many difficult circumstances in their life, the fact remains that many are not seeking it. This is where I think our mistake was in starting this program. We thought if we built a great program and had some lunch meetings where we talked about it, kids would sign up, and that was not the case. In the future, I think we would need to either find an alternate way of marketing the program to get kids excited, or expand the program to include other public schools that maybe do not have the same saturation of programs that Roosevelt does. 

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Mentoring Through Basketball

In preparing for the mentoring aspect of the PASS program I wanted some ways to make instant connections with the kids. One of the easiest ways I know how to do this is through sports, not just playing them, but even more so in discussing or arguing about them as well. Before the program started, I assumed that since these kids were Somalian they would be into soccer because, well, that is the world's sport. I don't know much about international soccer, but I brushed up on some of the major topics, teams and players and prepared to try and make a connection with them through that route. I even wore my only soccer jersey, a Netherlands practice jersey I received as a gift, to the first day of class. It turned out I was wrong about their interest in soccer, but I could not have been more correct about the ability to make a connection through sport. These kids were obsessed with basketball, and I mean OBSESSED. I could not believe how much they new about the NBA. I consider myself a very knowledgable NBA fan, to the point where a lot of people think it is weird how much I know about obscure players, but these kids put my knowledge to shame. They knew every player by name and the days were filled with friendly arguments about which player was the best, which player was their favorite and which team was going to take the title this year. I had a lot of fun joining in on these conversations and I was really lucky that we shared this common interest that could get us talking right off the bat. These kids loved the NBA and it was this passion that made it easy for them to learn and retain a ridiculous amount of information on the subject. As a strategy to help them apply this passion in a school setting, I tried to put different subjects in basketball terms. Geography was about learning where all the teams and players were from, math was about calculating stats and averages and it was easy to get them to read any book that even had a vague connection to the game. It is my hope that through basketball, we were actually able to broaden the interests of these kids. At the beginning of the program, when we asked the kids to write a journal on what they wanted to be when they grew up, every kid would answer "a basketball player." However, by the end, we were getting much more thoughtful answers that didn't just have to do with physical talent and ability, answers like a coach, general manager, business owner and even CIA and FBI agents, all somehow grown out of and connected to their love of basketball. At the end of the program, it was really cool to see how we were able to broaden their interests by utilizing their passion for basketball as a sort of a driving force to peak their interest. I think this was one aspect of the mentoring process where we experienced a lot of success.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Marshmallow Challenge

As I think back on my summer, I have decided to write a post on what I felt was one of the most successful activities we did with the PASS students. The marshmallow challenge is an activity that is done to promote teamwork within many different types of groups from business executives to kindergarten students. I discovered this activity from a TED talk I watched on how to facilitate collaboration and cooperation in a group environment. At this point in time, we had been running the PASS program for a couple of weeks and the kids were often getting in arguments and having difficulty working together. I thought this activity would be a good way to bring everyone together to reach a common goal. The activity challenges a small team to create a tower that can support a large Jet-Puff marshmallow within nothing but a yard of tape, a yard of string and twenty sticks of raw spaghetti. The goal is to make the tower as tall and as sturdy as possible in just thirty minutes. For this activity we had three teams of three randomly chosen individuals. I have to admit, I wasn't sure if any of the teams would be successful in supporting the marshmallow, not because they weren't capable of building the tower, but I assumed lack of cooperation and communication would prevent them from achieving success. I was very impressed to see that when the challenge began and the clock started ticking the students did a great job of communicating and respecting each other's ideas. While two of the groups weren't quite able to support the marshmallow by the time the challenge was up, their designs were very good and more importantly the teamwork they demonstrated was fantastic. The third group did manage to get the marshmallow supported at a height of 22 inches, well above the national average according the This group was so proud of their tower they asked to display it on the windowsill for the rest of the summer. After the activity we discussed what worked and what didn't work in terms of teamwork and communication and the kids showed a lot of good insight and showed that they really did gain a lot from the challenge. With our main goal being to help these kids gain classroom skills, and with collaboration and teamwork being such an important classroom and life skill to have, I would say we made some major progress this day. It also showed me that I really underestimated these kids and just what they were capable of, something I wouldn't do again. For better or worse, they showed me that I needed to hold them to a higher standard and push them harder in the classroom so that they could really get the most out of the program.

Monday, August 19, 2013

End of Summer

With the summer coming to a close, I have some time to reflect of my IFJ experience and what we at the Roosevelt Writing Center were able to accomplish. While there were definitely some bumps along the way, I think what we were able to do for these kids was pretty amazing when all things are considered. Going into the first day of this program, we didn't have any curriculum written, we didn't have any specific roles or schedule outlined and we didn't even have a budget. All we had was a space in northeast Portland, five to seven volunteers and about a dozen middle schoolers who were shipped in from near Gresham everyday. The fact is that none of us were teachers and didn't really possess the skills to write curriculum or give tests and assess the ability of each kid. Instead, we took on more of a mentor role, where the goal was to build each student's confidence in the classroom by helping them write personal journals in response to open ended questions, share their thoughts and ideas and get used to reading out loud and talking in front of a group. I think that, in these respects, the improvement even in those students who only sporadically attended the program was very impressive. My hope for these kids, and for the effect that this program may have had on them, is that they were able to see that success in the classroom is much easier to achieve when they have confidence in their abilities and they enjoy what they are doing. Once we got into a routine after just a few days, I was able to see the attitudes of the students towards reading and studying change for the better, and as their attitudes changed their performance skyrocketed. I hope that these students can take what they learned and experienced in our classroom and apply it to their schoolwork once the year begins. If they can do this, I think they will be very impressed by and proud of the work they produce.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

PASS update

With the last few days of Ramadan taking place this week, Abdi, the program director, decided it would be best to take the week off. This extra time has given me a chance to reflect on what I have been exposed to working with PASS over the last few weeks. It certainly has been a great learning experience and I am very glad to have been a part of it. First off, having attended catholic school all my life, I have never spent a large amount of time with people of the Muslim faith and I have to say it is a very respectable religion. Both the kids as well as some of the adults I am working with have been observing the holy month of Ramadan by fasting from sun up to sundown, a task which requires great devotion and mental and physical fortitude, especially for children as young as eleven. In addition to fasting, a handful of the children strictly observe their daily prayers, another form of religious devotion I have been very impressed by. A lot of the students seem to translate this devotion to their studies, and while many of them are very far behind their grade level in reading and writing, I have seen marked improvement in almost all of the students, which has been directly due to their hard work and dedication to coming every day. This program is completely voluntary, so a lot of the time we get a different crew of kids everyday, but the few who have managed to stick with us the whole time are really improving a lot. Just like any other group of kids, especially young boys, they do tend to get a little rowdy and act up on occasion, but I think, overal,l they have been very respectful and cooperative. This is even more impressive to me when I think about the fact that they haven't eaten all day, they are with a bunch of their buddies in a hot room and it is, after all, summer school, a place most kids would rather not be. My goal everyday is just to help them get excited to be there and to get excited about learning, a task that has been pretty easy with this happy, hard working group of kids. To be honest, I am pretty bummed that there are only a couple weeks left in the program. Unfortunately, because most of the kids live so far from the Somali youth center, it doesn't seem feasible to continue running the program as a sort of after school program during the year. However, if I do have an opportunity to keep working with these kids and their community, I would certainly jump at it.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Somali Youth Program

After a week of working with the Somali Youth Program, I have already learned a lot about the students and the challenges we may face in making this program work. First off, the students are great. I wasn't really sure what to expect from a group of young Somalian refugees but to be honest they are just like any other group of kids, they love basketball, cartoons and horsing around. The design of the program kind of looks like a low intensity summer school/camp set up. The program takes place five days a week in northeast Portland near PCC, but most of the kids come from east Portland, near Gresham. The ages of the kids range from about 11 or 12 all the way to 18, so it would be difficult to design a curriculum that would cover all the material they would each individually be facing in the next school year. Instead, the goal of the program is more centered around getting them excited about learning, keeping their brains functioning during the summer months and helping them fine tune classroom skills and study habits unique to the American school system which they may be relatively new to. These kids are all very smart, clever and have great attitudes and there is no reason why they shouldn't be able to be successful in the classroom. In learning more about these kids, I also hope to gain some insight into how their refugee status affects their lives. I want to be careful not to place any prescribed stories on them by formulating my own ideas about what I think their lives are like. Instead, I just want to watch, listen and learn about them in an effort to form a completely accurate picture of their lives without any of my own assumptions.