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Wyman Center helps at-risk teens beat the odds

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 5, 2012 - On a bright afternoon in late June hundreds of teenagers filled the dining hall on Wyman Center’s Eureka campus. As the teens finished eating, Austin Francis, 14, helped his friends clean their table and put away benches before heading outside for a free period.

The Wyman campus feels just like any other sleep-away camp with basketball courts, hiking trails and a health lodge, but Francis will tell you it's very different.

“I’ve been to summer camp before because I’m a Boy Scout and it was nothing like this,” Francis said.

Francis is a member of Wyman's Teen Leadership Program, one of hundreds of underserved youths who have benefitted in recent years. And it is becoming a national model.

Wyman Center, based in St. Louis, trains partners to run programs across the country that provide opportunities and support for teens from disadvantaged backgrounds. This will be Dave Hilliard’s 40th year in his position as chief executive officer of Wyman, making him the longest-serving nonprofit CEO in St. Louis.

Hilliard has dramatically changed the focus of the organization in his time at the helm. What started as a two-week summer camp for children living in poor housing is now multiple, long-term, evidence-based programs.

From summer fun to long-term results

Founded in 1898, Wyman’s initial goal was to "provide children living in sweltering tenements with fresh air, good food and healthy outdoor activities." Kids were sent to Camp Wyman by their parents or they were referred by civic organizations, agencies or residential children’s facilities. The programming changed through the years, the goals broadened, but Hilliard believed youths were not getting enough from the program.

One day in the mid-1990s, a former Wyman camper in trouble called Hilliard. The CEO helped the teen get placed in a rehabilitation facility and then decided to pay him a visit. When Hilliard arrived, the teen told him that others in the facility wanted to see Hilliard. They were also former Wyman campers.

“We were having an alumni reunion in a rehabilitation facility. That was a low point in my career,” Hilliard said. “They all said their two-week camp experience was wonderful … but it didn’t make any difference where they ended up.”

Afterward, Hilliard decided his organization needed to do more. He looked at research and found five factors that he said matter most in turning an at-risk youth into a teenager with promise. According to Hilliard, those five factors are: having a caring, competent adult in the teen's life; being held to “high standards for performance and participation”; being exposed to “a breadth of skill building, horizon-broadening experiences”; being expected to “give back while getting”; and maintaining the first four with continuity over time.

“The greatest risk factors in kids’ lives occur in middle school and high school years, when their choices can affect the rest of their lives. But that’s when the fewest services are offered,” Hilliard said.

Since Wyman's overhaul in 2000, the new programs have had overwhelmingly positive results.

Based on a 12-year study of Wyman’s Teen Outeach Program, participants are 60 percent less likely to drop out of school than their peers, and they are less likely by half to be suspended, fail a class, cause a pregnancy or become pregnant.

Although no official study has been done on leadership program participants, it seems to show similar success. According to Wyman's reckoning, 100 percent of the program's teens graduate high school on time, and 96 percent go to college or trade school in the semester after graduating high school. Moreover, 73 percent of those going on to college graduate in an average of four-and-a-half years, according to Hilliard.

Since its inception, 208 teens have completed the leadership program. The class sizes vary from year to year, but this year's incoming 8th-grade class has 82 students. Sixty-seven students graduated in 2012. Of that group, two students will join the military and the rest are headed for community or four-year colleges. 

Kyle Jackson, a former leadership program participant, now works as a counselor at Wyman's camp. He currently attends Southwest Baptist University and said Wyman supported him all the way through high school.

“If we did have a problem in school, they would try to help us right there. Wyman is very interactive throughout the school year, whether it’s a community project, or they visit you, or if they just call you to see how you’re doing,” he said.

Leadership training

This is Francis’ first year in Wyman Center’s Teen Leadership Program, so he will stay at camp for 24 days this summer. The program engages young people starting the summer before 8th grade and provides leadership training and support throughout high school and into the first two years of college.

Francis said he came to Wyman wanting to become a better leader and is now "looking forward to all my years here and hoping to get one of the scholarships."

"When I got here I didn’t know anybody, but I got used to it and now I’m proud to call this place my second home," he added.

Jackson remembers his own time in the program fondly.

“I already knew I was going to be a leader, I just didn’t know how to direct that potential, and Wyman really taught me how to do that. They see potential in kids. They want to see them succeed in life,” Jackson said.

To participate in the program, teens must be nominated by teachers or staff at school districts and agencies with a partnership with Wyman. Students then go through an application and interview process before earning their spots.

"When I found out that I had this spot at Wyman, I felt this great sense of accomplishment. I felt like I’d done something and Wyman was just like 'Yeah you did, and here’s what you can do to do even better,'" Jackson said.

In addition to summers at camp, the program includes weekend conferences throughout the school year, community service and an expectation that participants maintain good grades.

Wyman also helps the teens and their parents prepare for college with seminars and a two-week tour of Midwest colleges.

“As the kids move on to college we stay in touch," Hilliard said. "For young people who are the first in their family going to college, having consistent support for the first two years is very important,” Hilliard said.

The leadership program currently has about 450 teens enrolled from around the St. Louis area. On average, about 75-80 percent will stay in the program for all seven years.

Lifelong skills

Wyman’s other key initiative is the Teen Outreach Program, which is now replicated around the country. By partnering with community organizations and schools, Wyman has trained people in 30 states to implement its program and curriculum.

Hilliard describes the outreach program as building soft skills. They are skills that employers often value in the business world — and which Hilliard says are essential for broader success. These include characteristics such as motivation, responsibility, teamwork and communication skills.

“If a family has those skills, they pass them on to their kids … but when you have families where parents, sometimes multiple generations of parents, never acquired those skills, they don’t pass them on to their kids,” Hilliard said.

Hilliard said the program has three components: community service learning; lesson plans that facilitate conversations about topics that are interesting and relevant to teens; and adults delivering the material in a caring, competent manner.

“Some things kids talk about with their peers but not their parents,” Hilliard said. “This is an adult-guided conversation that helps kids talk about stuff that’s important to them.”

With a total of 144 lesson plans, discussions cover everything from how to make sense of what's going on in a teen's social life to how to apply for a job to broader questions about values and the teens' futures.

Students participating in the program must complete 20 hours of community service each school year, during which they carry out two projects to help their communities.

"Kids go into their community, assess unfulfilled needs, and then plan and carry out a project," Hilliard said. "Then they analyze what they did and what needs improvement."

In May, a group of freshmen at Lift for Life Academy planned a college fair for their school. Each student researched a college and created a tri-fold to present the institution to their peers. According to a statement on Wyman's website, the fair aimed to help students "set realistic goals and make healthy and attainable decisions" about their futures.

The outreach program includes weekly gatherings throughout the school year, usually in groups of about 20 to 25 students. Four years of material exist, but Hilliard said the program can be adjusted to fit different situations.

Wyman began by implementing the program in an after school setting with the St. Louis Federation of Settlement Houses. Now it is also offered at the St. Louis city public schools' after-school program and integrated into school curriculums at Lift for Life Academy as well as the Normandy and University City school districts.

In other cities, organizations such as Boys and Girls Clubs or religious youth groups often offer the program. Wyman has 45 partner organizations.

Bright days ahead

As Hilliard looks back on 40 years leading the organization, he feels proud of the strides Wyman has made. Still, he says, there’s a long way to go.

“Wyman has always been a high performing organization of limited scale and ability. Our kids were struggling to get to success 40 years ago. We weren’t solving the problem,” he said.

He compared taking care of children and teens to the public health system. Hilliard believes that preventative measures, like his programs, are necessary to help individuals break the cycle of poverty.

“With young people at risk, we tend to wait ’til they get in trouble to do something. The question is how to help all kids have advantages from the get go,” Hilliard said.

Now, he believes the situation may be changing. Wyman currently serves 1,500 teens in St. Louis alone, 20,000 teens across the country, and in two years, Hilliard says, he expects to serve more than 65,000.

“I’m very encouraged and excited because in this town we have people coming together to figure out how we can build that system. Bright days are ahead,” he said.

The evidence is in the program’s participants. If others are like Jackson, Hilliard may be right.

Wyman “changed my life a lot. It’s changed for the better. I’m very impressed with what Wyman’s future is all about,” Jackson said.

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