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August 1, 2013 / HandsOnCorps

A year filled with experiments…by Megan Ward

Megan HeadshotThis was a year filled with experiments. As a pilot program, nothing was in place for the development of a Community School at Enka Middle except for a newly-established partnership between school administrators and the YMCA, United Way and HandsOn Asheville-Buncombe.

I was warned that my work as Parent Engagement Coordinator would be an uphill battle – history had shown little parent involvement among this isolated rural community, with its vein-like road system scattering families throughout the surrounding mountains. In these circumstances, a person can feel immobilized by the certainty of defeat or see it as an opportunity to conduct community-building experiments with nowhere to go but up. I choose the latter. And so the lab coat goes on…

The first class was an easy sell. A monthly series, “Healthy Cooking on a Budget,” invited participants to help prepare a meal that meets federal nutrition guidelines and feeds a family of four for under $20. Our parent volunteer facilitator (a trained chef) put together a cookbook filled with healthy, inexpensive, and easy recipes; this way, participants made some recipes during class but could try many more from home! Of course, they got to enjoy a free meal at the end. How could this not work? The first class quickly reached capacity and each one following was filled, or nearly so. Score!

As I put together other classes, I didn’t receive the same enthusiastic response. A “Becoming a Love and Logic Parent®” series garnered only nine individuals even after several marketing pushes. I wasn’t too discouraged though, because the time commitment was much greater – but the quality of conversation compensated for low numbers, and at the end they voiced a desire for more. So I continued on the parenting theme with a class called “Help Your Student Find Their Spark,” based on the Sparks curriculum. Crickets. Zero parents signed up.

So as in any experiment, I analyzed what went awry. I thought about our current model. Free food and child care was always a goal, but what made the cooking class so appealing? Perhaps it’s the obvious – cooking classes are far more “sexy” than parenting classes. But I had another thought… life is hectic! Maybe parents don’t want to give up an evening that takes away from their family’s limited time together. Rather, they want fun activities that they can enjoy as a family.  Next, we applied this model to our final event.

My co-VISTA and I needed to plan a spring resource fair, so we decided to turn our resource fair into a fun, cookout-style community festival with lots of kids’ activities and giveaways. We invited exhibitors that offered free or low-cost summer opportunities for youth, community meals and other summer food sources, and ways to decrease household costs. But to get people there, we marketed the family-friendly fun.  It worked!

That’s the beauty of a pilot project – your experiment feeds the next person’s success. And now I look forward to passing the torch to the next VISTA!

Megan Ward
AmeriCorps VISTA


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