Students trickle in after school, one or two at a time, into a Wyoming High School classroom. They grab a slice of pizza and sit down to discuss issues that affect their lives and community: school, jobs and ways to give back.
Fresh off a service-learning project they chose to take on to promote the November school bond proposal, they discuss what they learned about school millages and voting, and what their school needs most: bigger classrooms, more space, more buses. And while it’s not something a bond would cover, someone mentions food.
The students in the Teen Outreach Program, discuss how most teenagers who stay after school are hungry, having eaten lunch well before noon.
“You know, 80 percent of kids here qualify for free or reduced lunch,” said Julian Goodson, who leads the group of ninth- through 12th-graders.
“That doesn’t mean the other 20 percent can always afford it,” a girl responds.
The seed of an idea is planted. “For our next service learning project, let’s come up with a plan to feed people who are here from 2:30 to 5 p.m. for the rest of the year,” Goodson suggests. The students agree.
Combining Leadership with Jobs, Giving Back
The 10-15 students who attend Teen Outreach every Tuesday are learning important connections between what they do now and where they are headed.
Goodson, a youth development specialist with Grand Rapids Center for Community Transformation, started the class in 2013, initially as a way to engage students at risk of truancy. Since then, it has been opened to all students who could use a boost toward school and work success, or who just want to step up as leaders.
The program has three components: leadership or life-skills development; job placement; and community service. It also extends into a Summer Youth Employment Program.
Each student has an individual goal plan with action steps, and Goodson holds them accountable to their plans by checking in with them each week.
Part of the picture, Goodson has found, is helping meet basic needs, which helps them get to school in the first place. That’s why he comes to each meeting with boxes of pizza in hand.
“It’s extremely rewarding. A good majority of them just really need a caring adult,” Goodson said. “That’s true for a lot of youth in general. They just want to know someone cares about them. I just happen to be that person. … I get to know them as individuals and really meet them where they are at.”
The class teaches networking, resume-building and public speaking skills. Students are placed in summer jobs at local businesses and organizations, including the Wyoming Branch of Kent District Library, Goodwill Industries, Family Fare, Applebee’s, Bethany Christian Services and Wyoming Public Schools.
Completion of the Teen Outreach Program, 10 hours of involvement in a service learning project, and a summer job make for a great head start. “That’s a pretty robust resume for a teenager,” Goodson said.
A Unique Ability to Relate
Goodson relates to his students. As detailed in his book, “Thoughts of a Foster Dad,” his own childhood was thrown into turmoil after his mother died and his father was arrested multiple times. With his wife, Stacey Goodson, he has fostered many children, including 2017 Wyoming High School graduate Donnie Alford.
Four years ago, feeling as if he missed his calling to be a teacher, Goodson left the corporate world of sales to work with at-risk youth and foster children. It led him to GRCCT, and to Wyoming Public Schools to teach Teen Outreach. He also teaches at Covenant House Academies, and at Innovation Central High School in Grand Rapids Public Schools.
He faced an immediate challenge at the outset, he said: “How do you get a truant kid to come to an after-school program?” The answer was to build up their self-esteem. Instead of making it sound like a punitive way of getting them to school, students were invited based on their untapped leadership potential.
It was potential senior Zayveon Hymon can now see in himself. He said the class has made a major difference in his life. He worked a summer job at Lighthouse Property Management.
“I wasn’t a great leader,” Zayveon said. “I wasn’t coming to school every day and I wasn’t doing good on my grades. Julian approached me and said ‘I think you can be a leader, you just haven’t shown it yet. If you want to you can join my class.’
“I’ve met lifelong friends and learned how to be a leader,” he added. “My leadership skills improved a lot and, on top of that I learned handiwork (through the summer job). I improved my grades and actually wanted to come to school.”
After the bond discussion, students interviewed Wyoming High School graduates and Teen Outreach Program alumni Mikayla Reynolds, a Grace Bible School freshman majoring in psychology, and John Napper, a business owner. Both credit Goodson and the class for helping them turn their lives around.
“I eat, I sleep, I breathe college. I make good grades,” said Reynolds, describing how the class helped her realize success was an option after rocky years in high school. “This class impacted me because it really fine-tuned my leadership skills. I was always an introvert, always quiet and never wanted to step up to the plate. This class pushed me out of my comfort zone.
“It takes a good leader to push you out of your comfort zone,” she added. “It takes a great leader to push you to a place you never thought you would go.”