Building young civic leaders means teaching them to take action to improve their communities. For seven years, our outside-of-school club known as Street Team has exposed Omaha middle-schoolers to betterment projects that support critical learning, civil discourse and civic leadership skills.
Street Team meets at four different Omaha middle schools. Kent Day, Civic Nebraska’s director of Youth Civic Leadership Programs, says service and community engagement are at the core of the project.
“I believe that students take away the assurance that there is at least one caring adult in their lives,” Kent says.
One of those adults is Akeyla Dowden, Street Team’s program specialist at Morton Magnet Middle School. There, Street Team works on service projects for eight weeks at a time. When picking issues to tackle, Akeyla says she is careful to work with students, letting them choose something about which they are passionate.
“When you’re giving, it has to come from the heart,” she says. “I really want the students to be into it.”
The leadership, critical thinking, and teamwork skills students gain are crucial to building and keeping a healthy democracy.
“My ultimate goal is that (students) can create friendships that they can take outside of Street Team,” Akeyla says. “It’s a very diverse environment in the class so I really, really push for the students to form bonds. That way when they leave here they can say, ‘OK, I can be this person’s friend, even though they’re different from me.’ ”
It’s important for students to learn the importance of serving their community and to give without expecting anything in return. Street Team encourages a desire to help and expects students to continue volunteering and serving their communities long after their time in the after-school club.
In the past, Morton’s Street Team has made no-tie blankets and donated them to the Humane Society. Currently, they’re making birdhouses for the Lauritzen Gardens in Omaha. A potential next project will be designing puzzles and taking them to nursing homes at Christmastime.
“It teaches the students (to) help elders, being patient and kind when while doing a puzzle with them,” Akeyla says.
Last year, Street Team started a school-wide campaign at Morton to collect feminine products and general hygiene products. The club donated the items to the school and created a hygiene closet for students who might not be able to afford them.
Street Team not only benefits the students involved and the surrounding community, it also benefits its own employees. Akeyla says she loves coming to her job and her students can always boost her mood.
“This is the highlight of my day,” she says. “It’s my second job, but it’s my favorite job.”