Ask The Expert: How can we help youth thrive now and into the future?
By Elana Warsen
Chad Evans is the Unit Director and Out of School Time Coordinator at Deer River’s Boys and Girls Club of Leech Lake Area, a United Way-supported agency that provides students with a safe and engaging place that fosters academic success, good character, and healthy lifestyles. Chad has 20 years of experience working with kids in different roles. He is the recipient of Blandin Foundation’s Legacy and Leadership Award and Boys and Girls Club’s National Native Spirit Award. United Way of 1000 Lakes spoke with Chad for our ‘Ask The Expert’ series to learn about what children and teens need in order to reach their full potential.
1. What do children and teens need in order to succeed academically, physically, and emotionally?
It’s important that kids have meaningful relationships with adults—somebody asking them about their weekend and trying to understand their individual needs outside of school. Kids depend on adults to teach them socially appropriate ways to handle their emotions. Some kids don’t have adults at home who consistently model constructive coping strategies, so social-emotional learning needs to take place at school or in out-of-school-time programs.
There are great anecdotal stories of adults in the community modeling healthy ways to deal with difficult emotions. For example, a Deer River high school coach helped students cope with grief when one of their peers died. In the past the kids may have coped by getting a case of beer to share, but the coach talked to them and said, “There are healthy ways to handle this.” He brought in counselors and encouraged the kids to talk about their feelings. The students responded really well because they had a relationship with the coach.
At Boys and Girls Club, a United Way-supported agency, all of our programming revolves around academic, physical, and emotional wellbeing. We work hard to make sure that every single kid has at least one staff member they feel like they can talk to about anything. On our National Youth Outcomes Initiative survey students report that they feel connected to multiple adults and you can see it when you look around the room: every staff member has like ten kids lined up waiting to sit and chat with them. We are one of the only rural areas in Minnesota implementing a social-emotional learning curriculum. We teach kids skills like how to not give up in frustrating situations and how to handle anger in socially appropriate ways.
2. How do cultural norms influence young people’s choices?
We can have a huge impact on kids’ behavior by focusing on the positive things they are doing instead of the negative. In Deer River we conducted many student surveys and 100 one-on-one conversations with community members to find out how people’s perception of underage drinking compared with the reality. We discovered that most people thought 80-90% of teens were drinking in a given month. But the reality was much lower—in fact, 73% of students were not drinking in a typical month.
It’s very difficult to work with perception gaps in our current era of “alternative facts.” We had to be very deliberate about letting the community know that most kids don’t drink. We wanted kids to know that if you don’t drink, you are already with the majority. We messaged it everywhere we could—on billboards, on the radio, and on posters in the school gym.
After four years of positive messaging, we are doing better. Parents are taking a more active role in partnering with the school to hold kids accountable for healthy behavior. The percentage of teens that don’t drink increased to 86%, and adults have a more positive, accurate perception of teenage behavior.
3. Across Minnesota, Native American students graduate high school at lower rates than their non-Native peers. What factors do you see contributing to inequities in education, employment, and health for youth in Deer River, where Native American students make up about 40% of the student body?
The achievement gap comes down to poverty and access to opportunity. In communities where the graduation rate is close to 100%, it’s because students have all of their basic needs met, and they have opportunities to develop skills. In a rural school district where a majority of students qualify for free or reduced lunch, some of them don’t have a real stable life. Many kids come from one-parent or no-parent households, and transportation is a challenge for kids who live in remote villages without family vehicles.
We have a lot of challenges in our community, but our students are very resilient; they have perseverance like you wouldn’t believe. When you provide them with opportunities, they flourish. We work hard to make sure kids have opportunities to participate in student groups—like Student Council and National Honor Society—where healthy behavior is the expectation. Recent data shows that in the Deer River School District we have closed the achievement gap between Native and non-Native youth on some state math and reading assessments. We are always working toward closing the achievement gap.
4. What collaborative efforts are underway in Itasca County to support student success?
Collaboration is huge. School districts and organizations across the county are discovering that we are better off when we share our resources.
A community-wide, multi-sector effort called SPARK includes students and adults from across the Itasca region in a conversation about creating pathways for success for young people. As a result of SPARK, after-school and out-of-school-time programs across the county get together in a group called Itasca Networks for Youth (INY). The Boys and Girls Club is part of INY. We meet for networking and training about ways to improve our programming.
In Deer River a diverse group of adult volunteers have come together to support substance abuse prevention. The group is called S.T.E.P. (Standing Together Embracing Prevention) Coalition. They partnered with the school administration to provide students with training on making healthy choices and leading by example. Adults on S.T.E.P. Coalition serve as the board for the student-led alcohol and drug prevention program called The Movement. The Movement is for 6th-12th graders.
Several school districts synchronized their schedules so that they can share resources. With teleconferencing, students in all of the schools can receive foreign language instruction at the same time.
The silos are coming down, we are building and maintaining collaborations that improve outcomes for children and youth.
5. How can investing in children and teens make an important, lasting impact on the social, economic, and physical wellbeing of our community?
We know that when a “village” raises the children, the children are better-rounded, have more connections, and are more prepared for the world. Kids that have meaningful relationships with caring adults are much more likely to be successful in life. We have numerous protective factors connected with real world data that tell us that when parents and adults connect with kids in meaningful ways, young people are less likely to make poor choices. Adults can make a difference by being involved as volunteers, coaches, and mentors.
Recently in Deer River we passed a referendum by 68% to create an environment that allows our kids to thrive in education. We find that a huge majority of our adults support kids’ education and helping them make healthy choices. In Deer River we know that it takes a village to raise our kids. The village has stepped up and will continue to step up for our kids.
United Way is proud to be part of the village working together to create opportunities for a better future for Itasca area youth. As a six-year partner in SPARK work, we unite our efforts with others who share our vision of a brighter future for young people in our region. We provide funding to four different Itasca Networks for Youth member organizations, representing nine youth-centered programs in three school districts across the Bigfork, Grand Rapids, Deer River, and Coleraine communities. Your contribution to United Way of 1000 Lakes is an investment in student success here in our Itasca County service area.