After-school program builds character, teaches leadership
Posted: Sunday, October 12, 2014 12:00 am
By Andy Rieger
It’s still an hour before sunrise on the first day of Norman schools’ Fall Break and a gaggle of teenagers are hanging out around an old tire and automobile repair shop in downtown Norman.
They are friendly, well-groomed and well-dressed. Not one is checking texts as we speak. They are cheerfully wrangling members of the Norman Downtowners into the headquarters of Loveworks, a leadership program designed to help middle-school students discover their potential and live into their dreams.
About 150 kids in sixth through eighth grade participate in the program which was developed by Journey Church three years ago. There's a waiting list of kids wanting in.
Dozens of adult volunteers work with the students from 4 to 6 p.m. four afternoons a week. It's the precise time period some of the kids might be tempted into engaging in risky behavior.
Students team up on projects that teach character, leadership, experiential learning and giving back to their community.
Food is a big part of the experience. They have snacks upon arrival in Norman school buses. Dinner is served at the end of the evening before parents pick them up.
Rusty Loeffler, of Interurban Restaurants, is a regular cook on Thursday nights.
“I think if you want to strengthen our society, you start locally and take kids that may not have any leadership at home and give them some leadership,” Loeffler said. “Show them how to get better, gain confidence, self esteem, encourage them.”
Coordinator Michael Hirsch says students come two afternoons a week. Clark Mitchell, pastor at Journey Church, and others had the vision to reach middle school students who are most at-risk behaviorally and academically of all children. They started at Irving Middle School, then moved to a former bowling alley on East Lindsey.
Their home at 127 W. Main is cut up into classrooms, a kitchen, performing stage, offices and a winter wonderland next door. (The iceberg theme teaches about a person’s character. Hint: Much of it is below the surface).
Teenage years can be tough. (My late father once told me teenagers are why some species eat their young).
There’s peer pressure to try new things, challenge parents and find some independence. Loveworks taps into students’ creativity and lets them pursue their ideas and dreams in a safe, nurturing and non-judgmental environment. One class explained their plan for a video studio.
“We want at the end of the day to feel like the day was too short and they can’t wait to come back,” says Daniel Smith, one of the group’s leaders and a former volunteer there.
The transformation is often impressive.
Says Loeffler, “It’s amazing to see some of the results of some of those kids that come in as sixth graders, head down, no eye contact and when they leave they’re beaming with confidence.”