YoJack program marches on for middle-schoolers


In a typical school year, local middle-schoolers chosen for the youth leadership program YoJack would meet for five sessions at different locations around Jackson County.

The first four would focus on small- and large-group activities to enhance team-building, leadership, diversity and communication skills. The students also would learn how to use their time, talents and treasures to give back to the community and help others.

During the fifth meeting, each student would make a presentation in front of their peers sharing how the YoJack experience helped them.

The past year, however, has been far from typical.

The COVID-19 pandemic closed schools in the spring of 2020, resulting in students involved in YoJack missing their final two classes.

Program leaders and the Leadership Jackson County board of directors, however, saw the importance of kids finishing what they started so they could go out and apply the leadership skills they gained in YoJack.

The last two meetings were at the beginning of the 2020-21 school year, and then came another hurdle: The new class wasn’t able to meet in the fall.

The program, however, recently restarted. Even if it was just two sessions and they looked different, an impact was still made.

“No. 1, it’s because these kids that we currently have and then the class from last time were already selected. They were already looking forward to being a part of it,” YoJack Director Karen Haas said of why they made adjustments to ensure the program continued.

“So for me, it was so important to give them something,” she said. “And on top of that, in talking to the school counselors and people at the schools, they would always say and reinforce how important it was to ‘Yes, let’s get them doing this because they need something to look forward to.'”

20210430st yojack logo.jpg Chris Smith
20210430st yojack logo.jpg Chris Smith

So much has been taken away from students because of the pandemic, and YoJack wasn’t going to be one of them.

“It makes them feel normal. Something normal is happening,” YoJack volunteer and former LJC Executive Director Terrye Davidson said. “I think that’s why schools supported sports and everything else. We’ve got to have some sense of normalcy.”

YoJack normally consists of seventh-graders and then has eighth-graders who graduated from the previous class serve as youth advisers.

This year, however, all of the students who participated in the classes were eighth-graders because they were chosen for YoJack when they were in seventh grade.

Since they could only do two sessions, Haas, Davidson and the other volunteers, Georgiann Coons and Emily Engelking, had the students take the Real Colors personality assessment in the first class and participate in the philanthropy lesson in the second one.

“Those are the two huge ones,” Davidson said. “There are three or four other great activities, but you couldn’t do them unless you had a big group.”

Sessions were conducted at Brownstown Central Middle School, Seymour Middle School and Immanuel Lutheran School. Only BCMS and SMS students were at those respective locations, while the one at Immanuel also included students from St. Ambrose Catholic School, Sandy Creek Christian Academy and Crothersville Junior-Senior High School.

The philanthropy lesson involves learning about the Community Foundation of Jackson County and hearing project proposals from three local organizations. Then the YoJack students make a recommendation to the foundation’s board in awarding a $1,000 grant.

Normally, the class would do that all together. This year, though, the session at BCMS was recorded so it could be played for students at the other two locations.

Still, they were able to learn about the importance of philanthropy.

“When I moved back to town, I knew I wanted to give back to my community, but I didn’t really understand what that meant,” Haas said. “Now for myself, being involved with YoJack, I completely understand, and for them to be getting this at 13 years old, it just blows me away.”

Davidson said the students were able to identify themselves as leaders and realize they can make a difference, even at their age.

“We hope they walk out of here with the self-confidence,” she said. “Now that they have the knowledge and the self-confidence, they go and use these two things to make a difference. You know you can. You’ve got the skills. Step out.”

At the end of the school year, the plan is to bring the 36 YoJack students together for an outdoor gathering one evening.

Seymour Middle School eighth-graders Alana Jacobi and Brady Harpe both said they have had a positive experience with YoJack this year.

“I like how it’s a leadership program and it just helps me understand the community better,” Harpe said.

Jacobi said she was encouraged to apply based on her older sister Samantha’s positive YoJack experience.

“I just heard good things about it, and I heard it was fun and it’s a cool experience, so I was like, ‘I’ll apply for it, and if I get in, that’s great,'” she said.

During each session, Harpe and Jacobi both said they liked conversing with their classmates.

“I just think the conversations helped with the leadership,” Harpe said.

“I feel like it helps you look at things from a different perspective, like take a step back and just look at things, and then you can talk to people about it. Here, it’s not like you’re alienated if you think differently,” Jacobi said. “Not only is it helping us be able to communicate, but it’s also teaching us more things about ourselves.”

YoJack started in 2000 as an LJC project. That was 18 years after the adult leadership program was established in Jackson County.

In 2017, the program was expanded to two sessions per year. Two members of the Community Foundation board saw value in YoJack and liked the concept of teaching kids about philanthropy. They were interested in expanding the program so the message could reach more students in the county.

The result was seed money for a second session of YoJack in 2017 and 2018. The LJC board has continued to secure funding to ensure it continues to thrive with two sessions per year.

Applications for the fall 2021 class recently were turned in by seventh-graders, and once the selection process is complete, 50 students will be notified by letter that they were chosen.

Davidson said they will be talking to the Jackson County Health Department soon in hopes of returning to the original format at the beginning of 2022.

“In November, we will put out applications for seventh-graders, and we’ll decide ‘Are we going to have two classes?’ We’ll just see how everything is going,” Davidson said.

“They will go back to the original format where there’s a class that starts in January and finishes in May of seventh-graders and then you have eighth grade youth advisers for that,” she said. “Then if we continue with our two-class format, then the second class would meet in the fall of their eighth grade year.”

While the changes to the program have resulted in a lot of extra work for Haas, she said she appreciates the assistance of her volunteers to make it happen for the students.

“It’s an honor to be here,” Haas said.

“It’s worth the extra time and energy,” Davidson said. “I think it models to the kids that leaders step out and figure out how to do it differently so we can do it. It’s kind of the silver lining.”

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For information about Leadership Jackson County and YoJack, visit facebook.com/leadershipjacksoncountyyojack.


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