Ottumwa High School

OTTUMWA — The Ottumwa school district’s GEAR UP grant ends this year. But Barb Hanson, GEAR UP coordinator at OHS, wants to ensure some of the program’s benefits continue to impact the community.

Enter the Future Leaders Initiative, a group Hanson started with a few other locals interested in community engagement.

“I was concerned about sustainability of programming and opportunities for seniors,” Hanson said. “So I wanted to bring in community partners, as well as people who are interested in providing these resources on an ongoing basis.”

GEAR UP, which is a grant program funded by the US Department of Education, provides resources for low-income students who intend to pursue post-secondary education. Each grant is issued on a six-year basis.

At OHS, GEAR UP has helped families complete the FAFSA, connected students with college recruiters, and hosted a voter registration drive.

“When the group was first named, we thought about ‘future leaders’ in a couple of ways,” said Emma Kain, another founding member. “We thought about how the work we’re doing is ensuring our students have the resources and access they need to be leaders and to succeed.”

But the “future leaders” in the group’s name are also the members of the group themselves — those who wish to be a source of leadership in the community. The group’s 16 members are mostly young, working professionals.

“[People] looking for opportunities to use their gifts and their strengths in the community, who want to give back to the community and gain those leadership skills that are sometimes harder to foster in a professional setting,” Kain said.

Members of the group started out by helping at the high school’s FAFSA nights. Members of FLI were given training so they could answer questions about the notoriously-confusing application.

They provided other services as well, such as translation for parents who don’t speak English. Kain said it’s all part of making others in the community more comfortable.

“For a lot of parents, that’s their first time they’ve been in the high school, and it’s already a really unfamiliar time filing the FAFSA,” she said. “So if we can make them feel comfortable during the process and confident with the information they’re given — that’s a big goal for me personally.”

It’s given members of the group chances to meet with students who shared personal struggles many simply weren’t aware of.

“It’s been a very eye-opening experience, hearing some of the things these kids of color and of different backgrounds are going through, compared to my experiences,” said Kevin Pope Jr., another Initiative member.

Pope said he’s had hints of issues in the community through his work at Community 1st Credit Union, where he’s witnessed loans be issued that were as low as $100. But Hanson made him aware of other school-specific issues, such as the fact only about 75 percent of black students graduate OHS, compared to 93 percent of white students.

“Being a part of this community and not really knowing what was really going on — that really touched me,” Pope said.

“I think there is a narrative out there the media perpetuates, and people have a lot of misconceptions,” Hanson said. “They think we need more discipline, or the students are a problem, where we’re not understanding the backgrounds or the situations these students have experienced.”

Above all else, the members agreed the primary purpose of the group is to foster positive relationships with local youth. Part of that is making sure the group’s members come from backgrounds as diverse as those of the youth they hope to benefit.

“It’s also very important to me that we have representation of all backgrounds: race, culture, socioeconomic status, identity — because students need to see that,” Hanson said. “They need to see somebody they relate to. And we struggle with that within our district and within our community.”

Going forward, the group hopes to take an active role in this need by providing mentorship opportunities with local youth.

“Growing up, we had programs like Big Brothers and Big Sisters,” Pope said. “We have none of that now.”

The Initiative meets monthly, but the members all stay involved in community affairs. Each is encouraged to attend school board and SIAC meetings, as well as other civic events.

“We want to be solution-focused and actionable,” Hanson said. “We’re not just getting together to sit around and talk. We want to make things better.”

Jack Langland can be reached at jlangland@ottumwacourier.com.

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