AMES, Iowa – Communities and youth across the state have benefitted from Reach Out Iowa, a program that empowers youth to make a difference in their communities. This year, the Prudential Spirit of Community Awards, a nationwide program honoring young people for outstanding acts of volunteerism, named Kayla De Weerd, 14, of Hull, and Hannah Jorgensen, 13, of Adair, Iowa’s top two youth volunteers for 2012. Both De Weerd and Jorgensen were part of their local 4-H clubs, and are completing their projects with Reach Out Iowa.
The Reach Out Iowa initiative uses service learning as a tool to help youth become involved in solving community problems. The goal of the program is to strengthen communities by empowering youth to step up and make a difference. Service learning involves more than traditional community service and has six components: conducting a community investigation, preparing for service, taking action, reflecting on experiences, demonstrating what was accomplished and celebrating success. Youth, including De Weerd and Jorgensen, have followed these steps as they complete their projects.
“This project confirms what we see in 4-H: When you give young people the opportunity to lead, they’ll step up and lead,” said Judy Levings, assistant director for Iowa State University Extension and Outreach 4-H Youth Development. “These youth are showing their communities that they are valuable citizens with voices to be heard.”
De Weerd, a freshman at Boyden-Hull High School, obtained a $1,500 grant to pilot a nutrition and physical activity program at her junior high school and gave presentations to educate others about how they could implement similar programs in their schools. She became interested in health issues after her older brother spoke in front of her fifth grade class about childhood obesity.
“It is a very pressing health issue facing youth in our nation today,” she said. “By making healthy lifestyle choices now, youth can help eliminate the consequences of unhealthy life choices that can follow into adulthood.”
After she won the $1,500 grant from the Iowa Department of Education and ISU Extension and Outreach, she implemented a series of activities to encourage a healthy lifestyle among students. De Weerd now gives presentations about her program to professional and business people across the community, as well as to middle school students and teachers throughout the state. She applied for a $500 mini-grant last year, which enabled her to create a game that communicates her message about childhood obesity to elementary school students.
“Volunteering is so important because it creates a better community, which creates a better state, which creates a better world,” said De Weerd.
Jorgensen, a seventh-grader at Adair-Casey Junior-Senior High School, organized a campaign to make personal care kits and sew pillowcases for families in transition from a local homeless shelter to more permanent quarters. Her older brothers had volunteered at Micah House, a homeless shelter for families, and told her about the children they encountered there.
“I thought it would be cool to do something for the kids and families who live there,” she said.
She began her project by interviewing officials at the shelter to learn more about the needs of the people it serves. She applied for and received a $700 grant to purchase kit items and material for the pillowcases. She placed boxes at her church, school and a local grocery store to collect donations from the public. After recruiting dozens of student and adult volunteers, she went to work. Just in time for Christmas, in 2011, she delivered 90 personal kits and 90 pillowcases to the shelter.
Currently she is collecting books and clothes for the kids at the shelter.
As state honorees, De Weerd and Jorgensen will each receive $1,000, an engraved silver medallion and a trip in early May to Washington, D.C., where they will join the top two honorees from each state and the District of Columbia for several days of national recognition events.
Youth and adults who want to become involved in the Reach Out Iowa program complete a service learning orientation and learn about the key components: how to conduct a community investigation, prepare for service, take action, reflect on experiences, demonstrate what was accomplished and celebrate success. ISU Extension and Outreach 4-H Youth Development directs Reach Out Iowa, through a grant from the Iowa Commission on Volunteer Service. The funding helps offset the direct costs of the service learning projects including supplies, transportation costs, journals, reflection tools and staffing costs.
Levings explained that Reach Out Iowa’s long-term goal is to positively change community perceptions of youth.
“We want community groups to involve young people in decision making,” she said. “We want young people to have a say in what happens in their communities.”
The Reach Out Iowa program will continue until August 2012. For more information on how to get involved, contact Levings at firstname.lastname@example.org.