Eleventh-grader Shaquille Sanders has a cure for boredom: Go play bingo at Heardmont Nursing Home.
“We go to the nursing home every other month and play bingo,” said Christa Campbell, University of Georgia Cooperative Extension agent in Elbert County. “The students are starting to establish bonds with the seniors, which the seniors especially enjoy because some don’t have family and visitors.”
Sanders says he and his classmates have grown to love the nursing home residents. It’s all because of their ultimate cure for boredom: the Teens as Planners, or TAP, program, which started in 2009.
Future graduates and Americans
Shaquille and 19 other students in Elbert County – and 16 students in Madison County – are part of TAP. The programs’ primary goals are to develop engaged citizens and improve the likelihood these teens will graduate from high school and become the kinds of employees any business would want to hire, said Sharon Gibson, UGA Children Youth and Families at Risk director.
Through TAP, the students develop strong workplace skills and improve skills such as budgeting money, cooking at home and caring for themselves. They learn how to participate in government and work to improve academically through tutoring in math and language arts.
“It didn’t matter what their school issues are,” Campbell said. “These are youth with the potential to graduate who just needed something or someone to keep them on track.”
Coming together as a group
Leigh Anne Aaron, UGA Extension agent in Madison County, has watched her students grow from being disconnected to participating in track, football, clubs and 4-H. “I think one of the biggest impacts has been their attitude toward school,” she said. “TAP really has given them more of a connection to the school and kept them connected so they don’t drop out early.”
TAP is funded by a five-year grant from the USDA-NIFA Children Youth and Families at Risk Sustainable Communities Program.
“Every decision that’s made for the TAP program is based on what the youth in the program identify as important,” Gibson said.
Travelling to Washington
Stepping into a nursing home is a big move for high school students. A trip to Washington, D.C., July 17-23 and a briefing at the White House was a giant leap outside of northeast Georgia for them.
At the briefing, the students talked to White House staff and discussed projects they’re doing in their communities. In Elbert County, they’re cleaning and repairing Bowman Park in Bowman, Ga. In Madison County, they’ve cleaned up along the Broad River and are searching for more projects where they can leave a permanent mark.
“One of my favorite parts of the briefing was at the end when Kalpen Modi (a former actor on the TV show “House” who is now the associate director of White House Office of Public Engagement) asked the youth what they wanted to do with their lives at end of high school,” Campbell said. “We had youth saying they wanted to be anything from a paleontologist to a diesel mechanic. It showed the diversity in the group and showed that they all have a path.”
Planning for a career and dressing for success
Johntavis Williams, an Elbert County junior, says TAP is helping him carve his path. At the briefing, he told White House blogger Isaiah Nelson: “I want to look back and be able to say that I made a difference, and I left my footprints on this earth in some way.”
During their time in D.C., the students visited the Smithsonian and learned about solving crimes from Kari Sandess Bruwelheide, a forensic anthropologist. They learned about art and different parts of government and made quite an impression on the locals.
“They wore khaki pants and oxfords with either a red tie or a red scarf,” Aaron said. “They don’t usually conform as a group, but they really loved that. People were saying ‘don’t they look good with their red and white,’ and you could see the teens stand a little taller.
“For them to be a part of something bigger than Madison or Elbert counties, bigger than Comer or Bowman, was pretty neat. In D.C., they learned about themselves, that they matter, and they are going to make a difference.”