It has been a long year for all of us, including the Northland Foundation's Youth Leadership Academy.

The academy is composed of Northland ninth-grade students who were nominated by teachers the previous year because of their leadership potential.

My daughter was one of the participants. We have her welcome letter dated May 28, 2019, long before we knew what this year would bring. Orientation was in September 2019, and the kids met every month with foundation staff members, volunteer mentors from the business community and guest speakers. They learned interpersonal skills, communication, leadership and community service. They identified the causes they care about and discussed how they could help with a year-end service project.

But 2020 has been different. The group had to stop meeting in the spring because of the pandemic. It eventually became clear that they couldn't get back on track before the end of the school year.

But they didn't give up.

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We have another letter, dated June 2, 2020, asking whether the kids would still like to participate. My daughter said yes, as did 30 others. Projects at senior homes or animal shelters have been done in the past, but this time, the kids had decided to help young families. After seeing presentations from local groups, they chose the Steve O'Neil Apartments. They didn't want to let that plan come to nothing.

Jan Amys, senior program officer for the Northland Foundation, was able to use the year's challenges as an opportunity to teach the academy's participants.

"They know what it feels like now to be socially isolated," Amys said, "because they're not going to school anymore. And they're not having that typical contact with their peers."

Amys said she saw their empathy expanding to better imagine what homelessness feels like.

"They kind of understand what it feels like to be a family of people that doesn't have any family surrounding them, a family that's been homeless that doesn't have that support to rally around them, that many of us just, quite frankly, take for granted," she said.

So for months, meetings were held remotely. Later, donations were collected in the back of a vehicle in a parking lot. Box lunches were delivered, holiday decorations put up.

Tables were laid out with gifts for children and parents, too. They included toys, books, games, hygiene kits, scarves, hats, grocery gift cards and slippers. They provided all 80 kids in the apartments with noise-canceling headphones to help them with distance learning. Bouncy chairs were donated to help kids who have trouble sitting still at a computer.

"We learned that kids who have any sort of trauma in their childhood have some sensory things going on," Amys said. "So giving them a soothing motion of sitting on a ball and rocking or bouncing actually really relieves a lot of that anxiety."

Amys said it was a challenge to teach communication and personal interaction skills via virtual meetings. But it turned out to be a learning experience for leaders, too.

"Even with us doing it virtually, this is probably one of the most impactful projects that we've done," she said.

For myself, I'm grateful the foundation didn't let the kids' plans fall off the map. It's another example of how so many people in our community keep working to help us all stay afloat.

As the year comes to a close, I'm wishing everyone a peaceful and happy new year. May your plans get back on track and your dreams stay alive.

Beverly Godfrey
Beverly Godfrey

Beverly Godfrey is features editor of the News Tribune. Write to her at bgodfrey@duluthnews.com.

Online

Learn more about the Steve O'Neil Apartments at chumduluth.org/steveoapts.htm.

Learn more about the Northland Foundation's Youth Leadership Academy at northlandfdn.org/kids-plus/youth-programs.php.