The Yes Network

Report date
February 2017

What has been most instrumental to your progress?

Building trust was the key to partnerships with parents. Our sites where the most families participated were those where we had done a significant amount of work during the winter months to build trust. Some parents participated in monthly planning gatherings -- discussing ideas for menus and activities, distributing flyers, and registering children. While we were unsuccessful in getting high numbers of parents involved in monthly meetings, those who did attend became spokespersons within their neighborhoods, helping to spread the news about summer plans. Strategies we used included employing part-time staff -- with diverse cultural backgrounds that shared parents' traditions and could speak their language -- that went door-to-door, extending personal invitations and helping lead the meetings. These same staff led the fall and spring afterschool programs in several sites which gave them many opportunities to have brief conversations with parents -- helping parents to see that program staff were qualified, dependable, and had their children's best interests at heart. As a result, we documented 2,380 parent volunteers hours during the summer program.
In-depth training and daily coaching sessions during the summer program was essential to staff success. While there are many important child development concepts that can be taught through lectures, we chose to use our neighborhood sites as classrooms for an introductory week of experiential learning. It increased the positive energy of our activity leaders (college students) when they could experience the fun and excitement of engaging children in the games and activities. Like swimming, these skills are best learned through doing. In addition, we provided daily team planning/evaluation sessions each morning as well as frequent one-on-one coaching sessions at the sites throughout the summer -- including social/emotional learning strategies. As a result, all children, regardless of their behavior, are included. Some of our most disruptive youth in the previous summer became amazing youth assistants in 2016 -- taking on responsibilities to help serve meals and lead activities for younger children. It is amazing to see the transformation when our activity leaders -- with sustained support and guidance -- focus on inclusion and empowerment vs. control and discipline.
Providing summer internships to high/junior high students, who live within the sites, has been tremendously successful -- and may be our best chance of developing sustainable neighborhood programs. Their role is to assist in serving meals, organizing activities, and being positive role models for the younger children. These "youth assistants" are included in the week-long introductory training and receive daily mentoring and feedback from the activity leaders (college students). Our most outstanding youth assistant this summer was a teenager so filled with anger last summer that he could barely get through a day without some aggressive acting out. Our goals in offering an internship to this and other teens was to increase the positive relationships in their lives, provide meaningful ways to participate that also gave that teen recognition, and to help them focus on helping rather than disrupting other children. In written feedback, they describe their college student mentors as people "who care about me" and "who listen to me". At our mobile home park site, our five youth assistants have become close friends and are beginning to ask questions about college. Exciting!

Key lessons learned

Organizing people with few resources has its own set of unique challenges. I (Ruth) have been a professional organizer for over ten years, worked with a partnership of 22 faith communities, and organized bi-annual public meetings of 600-800 people on multiple issues. That was with people who drove late-model cars, had full refrigerators and good jobs with benefits. In this organization, we have board members who have been evicted from their apartments because they lost their jobs, families without cars who live a mile from the nearest bus stop and people who have been in survival mode so long that they can't imagine a better life. In their struggles to survive, it is difficult for many of them to trust or build meaningful relationships with their neighbors -- especially if their culture or heritage is different. While parent participation has been a significant factor in the success of the summer programs, it will take some time to build their capacity to the level of sustainability. The struggles of daily life consume a great deal of their energy and focus.
Learning how to engage faith communities in meaningful ways has been an ongoing process. Our initial thoughts were to bring people together in planning meetings through April and May to develop relationships before the summer session began. But we were also using these gatherings to build relationships between residents in the neighborhood -- and didn't want to disrupt that fragile process. Our second choice was to have faith community members help with the picnics, but picnics were just occasional events. Finally, in our conversations with pastors and faith community members, we just invited them to come over whenever they could to help serve the meals. Our most successful partnership was between Timberland Apartments and Sts. Peter and Paul Catholic Churches. Volunteers provided much needed help in setting up and serving meals, welcoming children and families, and keeping things organized. It gave our activity leaders more time to focus on working with the children. Relationships blossomed organically. Rose, an invaluable volunteer, told us that she knew her help was needed and it kept her coming back every day. She was right!!

Reflections on the community innovation process

Testing / beginning to implement solutions -- this made it real to people who could not quite imagine how it would work. The first summer's experience helped parents generate many new ideas, articulate what was not working and imagine their role in making it a success. In addition, by working together on the meals, they built new friendships with each other and began to feel ownership over the summer meal and activity program. This was evidenced in the second summer by parents who were upset when "their" college student activity leader from the previous summer was assigned to another neighborhood. They exclaimed that they had spent all last summer training him and now they would have to start all over. In reality, activity leaders participated in a week-long training program with Yes Network staff before coming into the neighborhoods. But these parents felt like they had done really important work-- and, of course, they had! The point is that the testing and implementation phase had many other important results in addition to testing/implementing a solution -- including the pride of ownership, feelings of responsibility and commitment, and an increased sense of community.

Progress toward an innovation

We have been very successful, in partnership with the neighborhood residents, in developing an innovative breakthrough in addressing a community need. Our on-site summer meal and enrichment programs are 1) more effective at engaging large numbers of children and parents/caregivers than off-site programs in community parks, schools, or other buildings. Our evaluator reported a significant increase in social/emotional learning -- building friendship skills, problem solving, learning the rules of the games, and managing their emotions. Even after the activity leaders left the site, property managers told us that kids continued to play together, which did not happen in previous years. 2) more equitable -- all the children, regardless of their age, could participate in breakfast, two hours of organized games and activities, and lunch. 3) more sustainable -- This model has many advantages over a city-owned park or facility. There is no facility overhead, no lawn mowing costs, and requires only minimal staff. Parents handle many of the responsibilities and the middle- and high-school students are fantastic helpers and leaders! With coaching, they can do much more.

What's next?

The Yes Network has just begun a public relations campaign to build more support within the community so that we can open more serving and activity sites. It includes 1) having some community leaders speak publicly about the importance of summer meals/activities for kids and the benefits of good nutrition, physically-active games, and learning activities. It may include public radio announcements, letters to the editor, a kick-off event with a news article, etc. with the voices of our mayors, a pediatrician, family counselor, fire fighter, business ceo, and others. Their messages will help 2) multi-housing property owners see the value for their residents and be willing to host the meal/activity program at their buildings. Property managers at our current sites are very positive and we will be using their testimonials to encourage others. Our PR campaign is also being used to 3) build support in area faith communities. We need more volunteers in the initial stages of opening new activity sites. Through this campaign, we are working to open four to eight new sites this summer that will provide food, begin to engage parents, and lay the foundation for more activity sites.

If you could do it all over again...

There were times when we were tempted to give up on residents because it took so much time, energy, and resources to build trust and get people working together. We can see now that the process was naturally slower than what we might have expected in groups of people who had more resources and more control over their lives. Our sense of progress would have been much more realistic. Setting smaller, more achievable goals -- and celebrating them -- might have helped us build a stronger team of parents.

One last thought

We are very grateful for the generous investment from the Bush Foundation. The Foundation took a chance on us before we had a program with any real evidence that it would be beneficial for children and families. In addition, our activities leaders -- college students from teacher development, social work, human relations -- have said that their summer experience was tremendously rewarding. They said they began to understand families experiencing poverty in a new way and their insights would help them in their careers.