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Learning Center Experience
By Holli Vah Seliskar, Assistant Academic Chair, Criminal Justice Program
In working with at-risk youth through the United Way and the
Mandel Foundation, I experienced several moments that affirmed and contributed
to the person I am today. The non-profit program I worked in focused on teaching leadership
skills, budgeting skills, planning skills, goal setting, and overall life
skills to those students who are labeled as at-risk youth, whatever that reason
may be for the label itself. For the young people I worked with, ages 14 to 18
years old, these students were often labeled as such because of their
socioeconomic status and “disadvantaged” position within society. However, many
if not all of these students never believed they were “disadvantaged” nor
believed they had limited opportunities
in life because of where they came from, or the city they currently lived in. Rather,
these young persons were inspired, intelligent, caring, courteous, and among
the most socially conscious young persons I had ever met. Their “position”
within society only reaffirmed to each of the students what needed to be done
in their communities,
as well as what roles and responsibilities they had within their respective communities.
There was one such moment in which I could almost see the ”light
bulb” go off in my students’ heads during a class exercise. Each week, we had a
different theme, which always centered on leadership,
civic responsibility, goal setting, life skills, decision-making processes, and
social responsibility. During one such week I wanted to illustrate to the
students how important they are within their respective communities, and I had
brought with me to class the following items: (1) several balloons and (2) a
large ball of yarn. I asked the students (there were about 15 students this
day) to come to the front of the class and form a circle. I then asked the
students to pass around the ball of yarn by throwing the yarn to the person
standing across from them, ultimately forming what looked like a gigantic
The students seemed confused and were all laughing and
smiling, asking me, “What are we doing Mrs. V?” After the “web” of yarn was
complete I took out all of the balloons, and threw them on top of the web the
students had created. I explained to the students how each of them plays a part
in their communities, the civic and social responsibility each one of them has,
and how each person creates their own perspective of that community. The
balloons could represent people, places, or things within their communities. There
were a lot of balloons on top of the students’ “web.” One by one, I asked a
student to step away, with many of the students yelling things at their
classmate who had stepped away, such as: “Hey, you are wrecking our web!” or “We
need you, where are you going?” I would
also pull on the corner of a remaining web, making it weaker, where the string
nearly touched the ground. I was the “outside force” making their “web” weak. I
discussed with the students how an outside force can be anything—for example, crime,
gangs, lack of resources, lack of community activities, high school dropout
As each corner of the web became weaker and weaker, the
students begin to realize how much they needed each other to support the web
and keep it strong. The students then realized the metaphor behind what I had
asked them to do, and many of them began nodding their heads in an affirming
motion, or looking at each other understanding that a community rests upon the
hands, shoulders, and support of its community members, as all the people,
places, and things within that community have a civic and social
responsibility to that community.
The light bulb had shone brightly for all of the students in
my class that day, and I hope each of them are out there in the world today making a difference of
their own. I know that day, through their understanding and reaffirmation of
what we did each week, made a difference for me and shaped who I am today as a
mother, an educator, and as a community member.
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