Looking for a way to get involved in the community? A good way to start is to get involved in the life of a child.
In 2005, Jenna Imergoot saw a performance by the original BreakDown team from Tuscon, Ariz.—a group of real high school students, talking about heavy topics like sex, date rape, drugs and suicide. As a high school coach and parent, she knew this was something she would love to get involved in. “I went down a downward spiral of making many poor choices in high school and through college,” she says. “If one person would have encouraged me, or if I had seen a BreakDown presentation, maybe my life would have been different.”
Imergoot started the first-ever expansion team, BreakDown STL. The St. Louis team combines the talents of 26 crew members to perform drama, alongside video testimonials and dance. “We want every student to be able to relate to one of the cast members,” she says. “We have confident ones making good choices, and those who succumb to peer pressure, and others who have had bad things happen or made poor choices.” One main component is the reminder that regardless of their past choices, everyone can choose to live their life differently. “We get a flood after each presentation of those reaching us by Facebook,” she adds. The peer performers are trained to answer questions that students might have. Because of the overwhelming response, Imergoot is currently trying to organize a second team of performers.
“Many times, the students don’t know what to expect, and at first they’re laughing when they hear the statistics like one in four teens have an STD. As it goes on, the audience becomes quiet and by the end, you can hear a pin drop.”
Nine years ago, Diane Rankin signed up for a 20-week commitment to mentor a fourth grade student. Last year, she taught that student, Iking, how to do laundry via Skype, when he moved to Montreal to attend one of the world’s most prestigious circus schools.
Rankin, a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, is a mentor through Discovering Options, a nonprofit that partners with local public schools to provide programming and mentoring for at-risk youths. “The first time I met Iking, I knew if I did not get along with his guardian, I wouldn’t be able to work with him,” Rankin says. “He was one of eight children his grandmother was raising. I tried to get to know what she expected of me, and she said, Help him finish high school, get a job and be a good citizen. I thought, He’s a 10-year-old and I have 20 weeks!”
Rankin met with Iking at school, and later on outings. “We would go get something to eat and I would read to him, and then he would read to me.” He showed her how he could do back flips across the floor, and after about a year, she took him to interview with Jessica Hentoff of the Circus Day Foundation, a nonprofit that works to build character by teaching circus skills. Since joining the troupe, he has performed in far-flung locales including two trips to Israel.
Rankin met with Iking at least once a week through the years, and got to know all of his teachers. When he finally struggled his way to graduation, he worked for the Circus Day Foundation for a year before trying out for the École Nationale de Cirque of Montreal. “It’s incredible—2,000 young people applied to audition, and the school chose 120. He was one of only 16 chosen to come to the school.” She says his performing work transformed him from a shy young boy to a well-spoken man. “He turned out to be an incredible young man.”
Judy Hillyer, a licensed clinical social worker, founded Great Circle’s Changing Prisms program after she noticed that many young girls receiving residential services were falling through the cracks. “They were very underexposed to some experiences that would help them set goals, have a vision for the future and raise their expectations for their life,” she says. “Without that vision, I was not sure what impact any therapy or talking could have.”
The main component of the program is an overnight workshop that occurs every June, bringing together 40 girls with community volunteers from all walks of life, Hillyer says. “They are women from anywhere—judges and lawyers, and VPs of banks and librarians, secretaries— all sizes, all colors, all faiths and all personal temperaments.” The goal is that each girl will find at least one mentor to whom she can relate. “We hope that when they see someone like them, they will see a bridge to where they can be as functional, positive and productive.” Changing Prisms touches about 400 young girls each year, Hillyer adds.
“More than 90 percent of our girls have experienced a significant traumatic experience,” she says, adding that the June event focuses on three areas: understanding that trauma may have instilled fear and barriers, the symbolic destruction of those barriers, and finally developing a vision for the future.
Many of the girls keep in touch with Hillyer, she says. “They’ve told me This is the best thing I’ve ever gotten to do. Changing Prisms changed my life. I promise you from this day on, I will not do such and such. Then they write to me two months later and say I’ve kept my promise. I am a Changing Prism.”
HERBERT HOOVER BOYS & GIRLS CLUB
When the Cardinals moved from Sportsman’s Park to Busch Stadium, the demolishing of the old stadium paved the way for Herbert Hoover Boys Club. Founded by Richard Amberg, publisher of the Globe-Democrat newspaper, the club was built over the stadium. Today, it serves more than 9,000 boys and girls annually with numerous programs ranging from sports to arts, academics, health and mentoring.
“We want young people to be able to graduate high school on time with a plan for life, whether it’s going on to college, the military or work,” says president Flint Fowler. “We want them to be engaged in their community, exercise the right to vote, respect the property of others, and make good choices about health.” He adds that mentors provide structure, and can be there for the child to bounce ideas off of, share frustrations and provide encouragement. “It’s someone to call their own.”
The variety of programs offered is key to the Club’s success, Fowler says. He recalls an alum who became a dentist because he admired the dentist at his local Club site. “He wanted to look like him, act like him. Because of that, he wanted to become a dentist.” Fowler says that of the children who have at least four years of involvement with the Club, 100 percent graduate and 90 percent go on to college. “It’s like when you lift weights, and the more you lift the stronger you get. The more they hear about the importance of education, the more it becomes part of their psyche.”