Halli Ellis: What a GREAT program for our youth | TheUnion.com

Halli Ellis: What a GREAT program for our youth

It’s not every day that children get to throw wet sponges at police officers, meet students from different schools, and be trusted enough to paint the town, but this summer, youth got firsthand experience on how fun and rewarding it is to be involved in the community.

The GREAT Summer Youth Academy has been around for five years, featuring one-week sessions for fourth-eighth grade students. I’ve had the privilege of being a staff member since the beginning and every year, I witness the transformational growth the youth go through in a short life-changing week. The children come from all over Nevada County, representing different schools and bringing with them different life experiences. Some children start out shy, slow to jump in and participate, but by the end of the first day, they’re already saying it’s the best camp ever!

The academy empowers youth to be successful in life by equipping them with life skills taught by law enforcement officers. We expand upon the lessons by going to the pool, 49er Fun Park, doing skits, scavenger hunts, spongetag, capture the flag and team building games. The activities create opportunities to build trust, create safety, provoke laughter, build relationships, and it opens the door for important lessons to be understood and taken seriously.

We teach the children about teamwork, cooperation, kindness, empathy, as well as how to communicate effectively, refuse peer pressure, control their anger, make great decisions and set goals. The 26 children truly get individualized attention throughout the week and feel connected. For every three students there’s one staff or volunteer participating right alongside, encouraging and supporting them. The children walk away knowing that we teach them about drugs and alcohol because we genuinely care about their health and we see the potential they have to follow their dreams. Through videos, role playing, stories and more, we inspire the youth to strive to do their best, their very best and make the world a more awesome place.

We have a valuable resource in the community and it’s the youth.

This year, Reinette Senum was a positive asset to the academy as she helped lead us in community service projects in downtown Nevada City. Our lesson that day reminds us that you don’t need a title to do something amazing. I enjoyed sharing with the children that Reinette is the former mayor of Nevada City, and even though she doesn’t hold that title anymore, she’s a great example that if you care about the community, you can always find a way to make a difference. The children enjoyed painting the gas-lamp poles, the red curbs, picking up trash, giving compliments to strangers and cleaning the planter beds on the boardwalk.

Besides working as a team leader for the GREAT Summer Youth Academy, I also co-direct the nonprofit organization NEO, New Events & Opportunities for youth. Last year, NEO and GREAT decided to partner to increase support for middle school youth by creating a Campus Outreach Program. NEO received $1,500 from the Nevada County Association of Realtors Charitable Foundation and with the funds created a leadership team of 15 middle school youth who had graduated from the GREAT Summer Youth Academy. The youth met monthly with NEO staff to learn leadership lessons and plan activities to bring to their schools. Within seven months, the leadership team hosted 42 activities on six different school campuses, and engaged 400 youth a total of 1,500 times. Not only did we raise awareness of NEO to hundreds of youth, but we built relationships with them, encouraged healthy lifestyle choices and we were able to get new youth involved in the community. This program wouldn’t be successful without the youth leading the way, and this year, we already have more than 30 youth who are interested in being leaders.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but looking back to when I helped start NEO when I was 19 years old, it’s because an adult believed in me enough to ask me to create something. To this woman, I had value. She saw my skills and gifts, my passion to help others and she encouraged me to make a difference. Now, as an adult, I hope to do the same for these kids. The youth can and will do great things, but the more that we encourage, love and believe in them, the more they will encourage, love and believe in themselves and their peers. We have a valuable resource in the community and it’s the youth.

I want to give a big thank you to the Nevada County Food Bank for supplying snacks for the four weeks at the academy and Campus Life for letting us use their van. I also want to thank one of my role models, Zack LaFerriere, for recruiting me to work at GREAT, as well as Karen Wallack-Eisen at the Family Resource Center, Probation Officer Jim Amaral, Team Leader Ariel Ellis and all of the amazing volunteers who donate their time each year to make this program possible!

If you’re interested in learning more about the GREAT Summer Youth Academy and ways to support it, you can visit GREATSummerYouthAcademy.com or visit NCNEO.org to learn how you can support the youth through the Campus Outreach Program and the newly opened NEO Youth Center. We all have what it takes to make a difference!

Halli Ellis is co-founder of NEO in Grass Valley.

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