Rural youth lead change in their town

Mary Jane Akerman
Mary Jane Akerman

Mary Jane Akerman

THOMASVILLE, N.C. — Piling into a school bus, a group of high-school students wonder what a tour of the small town most of them grew up in will teach them.

But a scavenger hunt reveals areas of need, a brief town history and a tour of social-service agencies previously unknown to them.

Seeing their hometown with new eyes is a first step in the “community assessment.”

Over the course of a semester, the Youth Philanthropy Class at Thomasville High School learns how to use their “3T’s” – time, talent and treasure – to make a difference in their community.

Thomasville, with a population of 26,000, is located within a rural area that lies in the heart of North Carolina’s manufacturing region.

Textiles, tobacco and furniture were at one time the engines that drove the local economy.

Thomasville Furniture Industries, formerly the largest employer in town, recently closed its last remaining plant.

As a result of manufacturing jobs moving out of town, residents working in lower paying service jobs and the town’s double-digit unemployment, nearly 90 percent of families are living at or below the poverty line.

Communities In Schools of Thomasville is a dropout-prevention organization serving the young people of the town.

The mission of the organization is to surround students with a community of support, empowering them to stay in school and to achieve in life.

One of the five tenants of Communities In Schools is to provide children a chance to give back to their peers and their community.

The Youth Philanthropy class is a partnership between Communities In Schools and Thomasville High School that provides students with just that opportunity as a part of a course-for-credit during the school day.

It all began in 2007 with a call from Eric Rowles, founder of Leading To Change, about an opportunity to participate in the Youth Philanthropy Project.  Through a generous gift from NCGives, Communities In Schools of Thomasville was able to become a part of the N.C. Youth Giving Network, with seed money for youth grantmaking and a year of training and group facilitation for the fledgling youth philanthropy program.

Eventually, the extracurricular program transitioned to the alternative of a school-hours Youth Philanthropy Class, emphasizing a hands-on approach to community change.

The Youth Philanthropy class is a group of hand-picked students, focusing on kids who haven’t yet found their niche or place in the spotlight.

Donald Mock, the teacher, leads the young people over the course of a semester through a process of self-discovery and community awareness to the final product – a service-learning project created by the class to meet a need they identified as being the most important for the teens of Thomasville.

Teens use their time and talent, along with some fundraising of their own to earn any necessary treasure, to complete the projects they select.

Last semester, students identified a community park in dire need of a make-over.

“If a trunk pops, you’d better start running,” best describes the concern the young people had over the drug deals and other unsavory transactions taking place in the park.

Working with the local parks department and police, the teens developed a plan to turn around the area and create a haven for children to play.

Fresh paint and new backboards spruced up the play equipment, and the city is working on closing off the park to car traffic and clearing out the overgrown back hedge.

Smiles and paint-stained shirts were abundant on the Saturday workday in the park as the students completed their project.

It didn’t take a lot of money, but it did give the young people a sense of empowerment and pride as they were able to make a real difference in their community.

Youth Philanthropy has become an integral part of Thomasville High School and a key to keeping students in school and to growing the next generation of community activists.

Mary Jane Akerman is a training associate with Leading to Change, a Charlotte-based training organization that operates the North Carolina Youth Giving Network in partnership with NCGives.

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