Can you imagine a world without supermarkets? A world where you would need to visit specialty stores, wait in line and check-out for each product you were looking for? Imagine how much more difficult it would be if you wanted to bargain hunt! Many people in Tucson are faced with a similar challenge. With transportation, time and money limitations, searching for services to alleviate those same factors is within itself a burden. The work of the Tucson Community Schools Initiative is focused on improving this reality. We leverage partnerships with local organizations and institutions to bring bundled services into the school. The idea is to make it easier for students and families to benefit from these services by creating a community school: a supermarket of services, if you will.
I’ve had the privilege to serve at Santa Rita High School as the Community School Coordinator for the past 10 months. It has been both challenging and rewarding. To give you an idea of the ways I’ve been challenged and rewarded, I’m going to tell you about the Santa Rita Resource Fair.
Throughout the school year on a bi-weekly basis, we have held small scale events open to students and their families. There was a lot of trial and error at play. They were held at different times on different days of the week. Also, different marketing strategies were employed. One thing became very clear: students were greatly incentivized by food. It’s only natural for a hungry teenager to follow their stomach. Just think about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. If you want to assist a student in their self-realization, take it step by step and make sure there is food!
Keeping this present and remembering how my younger self’s mind would wander during class, I knew we needed to restructure our approach. I had the privilege to meet with some students to brainstorm what a successful event would look like. Their input was crucial. As suspected, the first suggestion –unanimously declared – was food. Then we got into other suggestions: “make it visual,” “make it interesting,” “make it interactive,” “make it relevant…” In other words, don’t push a lecture. One of the students smiled and said “color and glitter!” I knew she was onto something. What if the event was more like a carnival, where everything was in the form of a game? The kids smiled “don’t forget about the food!”
I brought this idea to the staff and asked for suggestions, information about previous events and approvals. They were on board! Thus began the logistics mapping. I was quickly provided with a date, time and place to move forward with. This information was inserted into a letter requesting donations. The principal lent his signature to give it more authority, and off they went. I began reaching out to my AmeriCorps contacts in different partner organizations. I wish I could have experienced their reactions as they read that the event was to be a carnival style fair and their tables were to be game booths. Luckily the majority was on board without hesitation.
“Food.” The students’ voices echoed in my mind. I began calling all of the restaurants I could think of. There were so many scribbled on my notepad, many of which I crossed off after receiving a negative. Perhaps an Excel sheet would be more effective. And so a donation tracker was formed. Soon letters were coming in with various admission passes: Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, Live Theater Workshop, Tucson Museum of Art, Reid Park Zoo. Even gift cards from Beyond Bread and Costco. Emails poured in inviting me to pick-up other donations: Mama’s Hawaiian BBQ, Roadhouse Cinemas, The Loft, Cheddar’s Scratch Kitchen, Brooklyn Pizza. Follow up calls revealed my luck with some restaurants for food donations: Serial Grillers, Chipotle, Chick-Fil-A, Marco’s Pizza. I couldn’t believe how giving these places could be.
Knowing this was going to be a reality, I started to confirm with various organizations and institutions. They asked questions and submitted their games to make sure we were speaking the same language. I was impressed. A flyer was created to include all of the confirmed partners and donations. Word spread quickly. Flyers were sent home, posters put up on campus and teachers were notified. The campus was buzzing.
April 28th, the big day had finally arrived. Other AmeriCorps members helped deliver the food donations and take part in the event. Organizations arrived and set up. Staff stood-by for the great student release. And before I was even aware, the courtyard had flooded with students. At first, they walked around with curiosity. Then they began to participate. Students were throwing footballs with Army soldiers, doing yoga and filling out checks with Junior Leaguers, trying on firefighter gear, sketching with FIDM. All the while they were learning about different services like the Community Food Bank and Youth on Their Own. They got to explore their own interests beyond high-school such as attending U of A or Pima, NAU or Prescott College, becoming a police or a lawyer.
Food, right? Well, with each participation at a booth the students earned a ticket. If enough tickets were earned, they were able to exchange them for food. The food distribution windows were continuously busy throughout the bulk of the event. After the big rush simmered down, the remaining students received prizes. I could hear them still talking about the event as they walked away.
As I had mentioned, it was challenging. I had to create some unfruitful events before I realized my aim was off. It was extremely rewarding to see their excitement over this particular event. It was also a great learning experience. Maybe I thought I knew what would work, but it was best to hear it directly from the people I aimed to serve; or in the words of Ignacio Estrada “If a child can't learn the way we teach, maybe we should teach the way they learn.”
By Camille Santiago
AmeriCorps VISTA at Santa Rita High School