University of the Ozarks teamed up with Community Service Inc., (CSI) of Clarksville recently to present a Johnson County Youth Leadership Course for local at-risk youth.
CSI is a nonprofit organization that provides services to youth and their families that empower them to attain success in their homes, schools and careers.
Working with CSI, several U of O staff members organized and directed the on-campus leadership course, including Steve Weaver, dean of students; Bendex Stevenson, director of Ozarks Outdoors, Ruth Walton, director of career services; and Kayla Jackson, student life area coordinator.
The course ran for four consecutive Saturdays throughout April and the six students in the program ranged from ages 15 to 19.
Weaver said talks began last fall with Clarksville CSI outreach manager Kaethe Hoehling about how the university could assist the agency in helping with at-risk youth in their program.
“It was our view that we could provide an opportunity for connection and to provide additional space for the young men and women to learn more about themselves and their potential as leaders,” Weaver said. “Kaethe met with our director group and we agreed that we would meet monthly with her group and that we would develop a class to teach in the later part of the Spring semester. Ruth, Bendex, and Kayla facilitated the leadership class with the young men and women.”
Hoehling said that before taking the leadership class many of the youth in the CSI program didn’t believe college was an option for them.
“We began this leadership program in the hopes of opening as many doors for the youth we serve as possible and so we are so blessed at the positive response of many local and state leaders,” she said. “This program is meant to serve a special group of youth each year who want to strive for something more. Many of the youth I personally have the opportunity to work with every day see the whole idea of college as a confusing and possibly unattainable or unrealistic dream. Most have faced academic and personal struggles that have been overwhelming and destructive to their confidence and self-concept. Resources, kindness, welcoming gestures, and honest and accurate information can be the keys to unlock their potential and one of the places that provided these and so much more was found in the staff and students of the U of O.”
The leadership course touched on such topics as self-evaluation, college readiness, applying for college, community service, how to secure financial aid for college and career values.
Jackson said she was pleasantly surprised with the impact that the first-year program had on the local students.
“One thing that stuck out to me as we were wrapping up our last class with the students was how grateful they were for this opportunity,” Jackson said. “A few of them said they felt prepared to take the next step in their lives, whether that’s finishing up high school, finding a job, or applying for colleges. I hoped that our class would impact them in that way, so finally hearing those words from the students meant a lot. I think that schools, especially smaller ones like Ozarks that are right in the middle of a small community, have an amazing opportunity to connect with the local youth and show them what it’s like to be on a college campus and what they will have to do to succeed as a college student. I’m hoping that next year, and in the years to come, that Ozarks will continue this program and expand upon it so that more local youths will be able to get the tools to be successful.”
The group had the opportunity to hear from current U of O students and staff members, including Dean of Admission and Financial Aid Jana Hart. They also toured local businesses and corporations.
“Through self-introspection projects, including a career interest survey, students learned what their top strengths were and what types of career paths are available based on their interests,” Walton said. “When asked, it was pretty much unanimous that the students were most surprised by the fact that students as early as freshman year can look and apply for scholarships to attend college. The highlight of the course was an employer site visit to the Clarksville Light & Water company corporate office and water treatment facility, where General Manager John Lester taught the class ‘CL&W 101.’ He provided the class with an overview of the industry as well as specific career paths within the industry.”
Stevenson said one of the primary goals of the leadership program was to convey to the students the benefits and rewards of pursuing higher education.
“We wanted to let them know that college is attainable and to help motivate them to take that next step of preparing themselves for college,” Stevenson said. “I hope the university and the local community can partner like this in the future and make this a traditional program for at-risk youth. We can help these students understand what it takes to become a strong member of the society we live in today. I believe that the leadership class can help give them the tools and motivation to succeed.”
Weaver said both the students in the program and the U of O staff benefitted from the program.
“I observed the youth actively engaging with our staff and with the content,” Weaver said. “I saw staff engaging and giving of themselves and coming away energized and thankful. It was evident to me that these young men and women appreciated the opportunity to connect with us and to learn more about leadership. What I really wanted from our time with them was that they walked away more confident, better equipped to take on what comes next in their lives, and to do so knowing that they are worthy of success, however they define it. They are cared about and worth people taking the time to invest in them. Our work is one example of how I believe University of the Ozarks lives out its mission in the community. Our community is made stronger when we reach past our typical boundaries and make meaningful connections.”
Hoehling said CSI and U of O share the same vision of helping area youth.
“We are a small staff and office of a nonprofit agency with big hopes and dreams for the youth of our community and the partnership with the U of O helped to make these dreams a reality for six local young people,” she said. “We do a local fundraiser each year and offer 10 youth the chance to dream big with us. Our agency offers many excellent programs already and then also allows us to step outside the box to do something additional and different. We found that same spirit and vision at the U of O. The generosity and the hard work of the U of O staff, particularly Bendex, Kayla, Emma [Curry], Steve, and Ruth, allowed these youth to experience state of the art facilities and college level concepts and opportunities that potentially will turn the dreams of these young minds into realities beyond the boundaries of their challenges. They gave just to give; because they saw these youth as ‘worth it’ and believe me that does not come easily and doesn’t happen every day.”