Stories from intrepid reporters attending the Illinois Press Foundation Journalism Workshop at Eastern Illinois University
By Kaylee Georgeoff
As thoughts of summer come to mind, many kids focus on lounging poolside, getting sand between their toes and eating delicious ice cream. But for some Crawford County children, summer doesn’t mean it’s time to break from education.
The Teen REACH “Summer Success” program in Robinson was designed to educate children from Hudsonville, Palestine, Robinson, and Oblong on the importance of remaining knowledgeable on social and academic issues occurring within their communities.
“Some are desperately behind in math and they choose to work on basic skills,” Program Director Jolie Finkbiner said. “Then we have a couple who are super into writing, that blow us away with their creativity.”
Providing equal opportunities to expand students envision of their life is one of the main goals of the “Summer Success” program. The program finds ways to avoid negative risk taking behaviors, expanding their range of opportunities/life options and creating a sense of belonging with each participant.
“We are a holistic prevention program for children in youth,” Finkbiner said.
The Teen REACH “Summer Success” program was originally created for kids under the age of 18. Due to relocation, space issues and funding issues the program age groups have been narrowed to those most at risk for experimentation with drugs, alcohol and sexual activities. The program is now open for children ages 8-17 but is specifically targeted for ages 11-17.
“Summer Success” focuses on basic concepts such as living a healthy lifestyle, having good nutrition, saying no to peer pressure while keeping your friends, bullying problems, coping with anger and dealing with preconceptions of turf and territorial issues.
The program also covers more in depth subjects such as substance abuse, cultural diversity, poverty, incarceration issues and gender conflicts.
The Teen REACH “Summer Success” program deals with many children who are behind academically in comparison with school standards. They use the Summer Bridge to Success curriculum program, which bridges learning gaps between two grades.
“We might have a sixth grader that needs third to fourth grade level [courses] and we can assess their needs easily,” said Finkbiner.
This curriculum focuses on the basics of English, mathematics, science, technology, engineering, history, and reading. Every class has an instructor and assistant that specializes in the student’s individual needs.
“We view every staff person as a teacher and every student is a teacher as well. A lot of peer teaching goes on and the students teach us a lot too. Everybody teaches one another and it’s all about life,” Finkbiner said.
To conduct a program such as the Teen Reach “Summer Success” they must have full support from their donors, community, volunteers and state legislators, Finkbiner said.
The Teen Reach organization is the prime source of their funding; however, they are supported by a network of Illinois after school organizations, United Way and their community.
“The community has been fantastic as far as jumping in [to help]. There are people in this community that have supported us since the moment we opened our doors, 20 years ago, and they haven’t stopped,” Finkbiner said. “It’s from one little old lady who sends me $10 each year to much more than that. We are just really, super grateful to those people. They have no idea what one little old lady’s $10 really does.”
Their limitation of funds can affect the number of kids they can serve, staff members, individual tutors and teachers that can assist with special needs students.
While funding is important, Finkbiner said, “Volunteers that give their time, is the same as money, if you ask me.”
This year the program averaged its staff members at about 12 and they are continuing to encourage participants that will be turning 18 to come back as helpers.
Finkbiner believes graduation rates and teen employment rates have increased because of the efforts of their program. In addition, she also believes teen pregnancy rates, general justice system use, child abuse and child neglect rates have decreased due to their efforts.
Finkbiner and her colleagues are starting to believe legislators are beginning to understand the impact they are having on these children.
Finkbiner also said this is approximately the first year in 10 that the program has not been at risk for budget cuts or threatened for closure. Finkbiner is unaware if the governor has officially approved the budget, but said, “There is talk of brighter days ahead.”