AMES, Iowa – Middle school -- the time of rapid changes, awkward growth and numerous attempts to figure out where you fit in. For Ricochet trainers and leaders, however, it’s the perfect opportunity to help youth discover their potential and leadership abilities.
According to Iowa State University Extension's Web site, www.extension.iastate.edu/ricochet, Ricochet “means to move round -- with a lot of energy -- and be unpredictable. But you’re ready for whatever comes your way.” The tagline “An Extreme Leadership Adventure” pledges skill development and fun mixed into one. Launched four and a half years ago by a group of ISU Extension specialists in northwest Iowa, the program was designed to meet the leadership development needs of middle school youth in creative and engaging ways.
“Leadership development is a major outcome of 4-H, and we saw that a long-term program was missing,” said team member Cheri Hardison. “We needed a program to combine 4-H and non 4-H kids and help them appreciate community service and serving.”
Based on research by Josephine Van Linden and Carl Fertman in their book "Youth Leadership: A Guide to Understanding Leadership Development in Adolescents," the program has three levels -- Ricochet 1, 2 and 3 -- and five dimensions of leadership -- leadership information, leadership attitude, communication skills, decision making and stress management. Each level uses a variety of games and activities that address the five dimensions in different ways.
“Similar to a 4-H challenge or adventure education, we use games as metaphors for the things we teach,” said ISU Extension specialist Lisa Berkland, Ricochet’s program coordinator and author. For instance, Brenda Welch used a game with West Delaware middle schoolers to address communication issues.
“We had senders, receivers and 'interferers' -- where the interferers yelled, screamed and hollered to try and prevent a message from passing between the senders and receivers,” Welch said. “The kids loved the game, and after it we sat down and talked about communication interferences in real life. We use experiential learning -- do, reflect and apply -- to try and make meaning out of the games.”
Community service also is a large component of the program. With the help of a community-leaders panel and some brainstorming, the kids come up with a way to serve their communities and then put their plan into action. In Dickinson County alone, Karen Byers has seen the kids take on a variety of projects including putting together food packets for Kids Against Hunger, making fleece blankets for a teen pregnancy center, helping with shore clean up at Okoboji, washing store-front windows on a main avenue in town, cleaning up flower and butterfly gardens, helping younger children in classrooms and making tray favors for nursing home residents.
“It’s really neat to see the connections young people make with the community through the service project and by identifying leaders,” said Byers, a member of the northwest Iowa design team that put the curriculum together. “Kids get excited about making decisions with the project.” Those decisions, according to Annette Brown, are just as crucial as the actual service.
“Beyond the service part it’s also about the process of identifying needs, setting priorities, making decisions and planning,” she said. Brown has conducted training for adults in Boone County and helped initiate a Boone Middle School Ricochet program that plans to take off this school year through the physical education classes.
Likewise, West Delaware’s program was started through the West Delaware Middle School by Welch, and Byers began Dickinson’s Ricochet through Spirit Lake Middle School. However, Hardison implemented Ricochet in Monona County as a county-wide, weekend-based program. This flexibility of the program is what some of the leaders and trainers have appreciated the most.
“Ricochet is very versatile and can be used in many ways. I could apply it to things the school was already doing, and I liked that I could take it and spin it in new ways,” Welch said.
Training for Ricochet has been set for Sept. 29 and 30, and training information is available on the Ricochet Web site. As it continues to take off and spread to more counties and communities, the responses and impact have been extremely positive.
“The feedback has been great so far,” said Berkland. “I hear that the kids don’t want to quit meeting, and some even want to meet in the summer.”
Other leaders have received survey responses such as, “I learned how to be a great leader while also having fun,” or “This has been a great program! It’s given me a ‘leadership confidence boost.’”
“I’ve seen how many of the kids have grown through the program and become better leaders in their 4-H clubs and other organizations,” said Hardison. “The kids have also learned to appreciate differences in each other.”
Welch agreed and said, “At the beginning, they all looked at each other like ‘who are you and why are you here?’ Now they are voicing their opinions and are more confident with each other.” Additionally, Brown likes how applicable it is for the youth.
“In 4-H we want to teach skills that kids can use and apply now as well as when they become adults, and that’s what Ricochet does,” she said. “Young people really get a chance to discover themselves more and gain confidence.”
To learn more about the program itself or how to become involved, youth and adults can visit the Web site and contact the coordinators through it. Additionally, Byers encourages visiting with those who are already involved.
“If you’re wondering about Ricochet, talk to those who have delivered the program, and I’m sure they’d be willing to share their experiences,” she said.
Hannah McCulloh, Extension Communications and External Relations, (515) 294-9915, firstname.lastname@example.org
Laura Sternweis, Extension Communications and External Relations, (515) 294-0775, email@example.com