Connecting Change Makers: Community Engagement During a Pandemic

By: Madalyne Heiken, Undergraduate Student, Department of Theater

As the summer heat wore off and students were being welcomed back to campus in the early fall, Pioneer Leadership Program (PLP) students were racking their brains about what issues they wanted to focus on for their year-long Community Change Initiatives. Hannah Hinds, Mikeala Bassil, and I were in that bunch of brainstormers. The three of us hadn’t found a group yet and we were trying to come up with something we could all get behind.

Mental health was one common interest between the three of us and that’s when we decided to focus our research on the mental health of middle and high school students. We completed nearly 20 interviews with stakeholders including current students, teachers, administrators, and health professionals. While all of these conversations were useful for understanding the issue, none of these interviews led to a partnership. Then, one of our fellow PLPers reached out to us to let us know of an organization they have previously spoken with but didn’t fit with their project idea. That organization was Challenge Denver. Challenge Denver is a non-profit organization dedicated to helping create more supportive school spaces through their “Be the Change” year-long, team programming and their one-off “Challenge Day”. Immediately, we contacted DU Scholar Shop to help set up a meeting with the representatives of Challenge Denver and that was the start of our partnership.

I met with Tracey Brummett, the Executive Director and Co-Founder of Challenge Denver, and Kristin Landes, a teacher at Grant Beacon Middle School, on an unusually warm December day. We discussed our team’s vision for this partnership and the needs of the community we would be working with. After attending “Challenge Day,” I relayed information to Hannah and Mikaela and we came up with a plan to get students engaged with the “Be The Change” Team. We decided to commit to visiting Grant Beacon every other week to work with students on engaging with their community to make their school environment more inclusive and to support the mental health of others. We would take some activities already provided by Challenge Denver and incorporate other social-emotional learning and theater games to create a strong team foundation. After our foundation was set, we started working with youth to create an event that would help bring students together from across the school.

It was in the middle of this planning process when COVID-19 reshaped our entire project vision. We thought that it might be an additional stress for students to participate in our meetings online so we decided to shift our focus toward supporting youth. We created five weekly challenges for them to do in their last weeks at school, shared a recorded Q&A with current high school students, and prepared a “high school advice” video to share with current 8th graders. We know that the end of 8th grade can be draining for students and not having that time to prepare for the transition from middle to high school can be intimidating. We thought that our weekly challenges could help students take a break from schoolwork to do something fun while also relaying the messages of Challenge Denver which are related to leadership, respect, and kindness. Moreover, we thought that the Q&A with current high school students and the advice video could offer 8th graders more support during their transition into high school.

We faced some major challenges, but the support of Tracey and Kristin was unmatched. They offered the idea of a Q&A, helped communicate with the students, and Tracey even decided to share our challenges with other “Be the Change” teams. We are grateful for this partnership and the chance to work with amazing young people just a few blocks away from DU.

To learn more about Scholar Shop or explore partners and projects you can connect to, visit the DU Scholar Shop website.

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