Anyone can talk about making a difference in teens’ lives, but at Wyman Center it’s the numbers that do the talking. Take, for example, Brittany Woods Middle School in University City, where Wyman’s Teen Outreach Program is being offered to all seventh grade students. At the end of the first semester this year, school principal Jamie Jordan looked at the students’ comportment data, explains Wyman president/CEO Dave Hilliard. “Among the 200 sixth-graders, she had 40 referrals to the office for disruptive behavior,” he says. Among the seventh-graders, who had gone through half of the Wyman program, there were half as many referrals. “Among the eighth-graders, who had gone through the entire program, she had only four referrals to the office in the entire semester. There was a 95-percent difference among kids who had the program and learned how to use skills to be successful and avoid conflict.”
While that success can’t be entirely attributed to the Wyman program, a lot of it is, Hilliard notes. “Academic performance is going up, as well. The school climate is so much more positive, and the community is engaging with the school in new and exciting ways,” he says. “Dr. Jordan is a remarkable leader, and she and the school board had the insight to take innovative approaches to improve readiness and learning for kids.”
Similarly impressive numbers can be seen in the entire population of students that Wyman serves: 100 percent of teens in the Wyman Teen Leadership and Teen Outreach programs are graduating from high school on time; 95 percent of those in the Teen Leadership Program enroll in post-secondary education; and 78 percent complete that post-secondary education within six years, which is better than national rates for their higher-income peers.
So what is Wyman doing with all this success? They’re taking it and running. The organization, established in 1898, has undergone a huge expansion in the past 20 years. Years ago, the main focus was Camp Wyman, where students got an intensive program that helped improve their ‘social/emotional skills.’ “That’s a lot of jargon, but it’s things like self-discipline, time management, communications, teamwork, persistence, problem solving, conflict resolution, decision-making strategies—things that we use every day,” Hilliard says. “When we have those skills, they’re so necessary to our success in life that we forget we have them and that we learned them somehow. But you have to be taught these skills and practice them to master them. When you do, you have them for life.”
Today, Camp Wyman is still part of the nonprofit’s efforts, but it has expanded to include the Teen Leadership Program, which guides students all the way from eighth grade through sophomore year of college, as well as the one-year Teen Outreach Program. And the programs are no longer making a difference just for St. Louis teens. Since 2009, Wyman has replicated its programs around the country, and along with certified partners, is now serving 50,000 students in 115 cities and 33 states. “In 2008, we had programs here and in four or five other cities, so we have been riding a rocket,” Hilliard says.
All the while, Wyman is recording its successes and tracking what works to improve programs for the teens it serves. “We believe and the data show that even the poorest of our young people—when they get the support and opportunities that they need and have relationships that can guide them—can achieve spectacular results,” Hilliard says. “In short, our mission is to change the odds—so that we won’t have to talk about kids beating the odds, we’ll change the odds in their favor.”
Volunteer Spotlight: Amy Gill
Amy Gill went to Camp Wyman as a child, and when she was asked to be on the board several years ago, she was surprised by how much the nonprofit had grown and changed. “It’s so different from when I was growing up, when it was a weeklong camp to learn about leadership and diversity,” she says. “Now it’s year-round and it’s having this major impact on a group of kids below the poverty line. I think it’s been a huge change for the better, and they’re getting recognized nationally because it’s such an effective way to work with kids.”
Wyman’s dedication to each child it helps is a major reason for Gill’s support, she says, relating the story of a teen who applied to college but came back and said, “I can’t go.” He couldn’t fill out his FAFSA paperwork, since his mother had never filed a tax return. “One of the guys on the board did five years of tax returns for the woman,” Gill says. “When you’re from a well-to-do family, you never think about that, but there are families who don’t file a tax return because they never made enough for it to matter.” She adds, “Wyman is so great because there’s no problem they can’t conquer.”
Among other projects, Gill has served as a gala chair and helped with the annual golf tournament. For others who might be interested in volunteering, her advice is to find your strengths and go from there. “Some people figure you would have to be a mentor and they don’t think they would know how to do that. You have no idea what you can do: You can decorate for the gala. They have a Derby Day where my son gets involved with the horses and he loves it. There are so many ways to get involved and it all adds up to the ultimate goal.”