Scholars Lead Statewide Expansion of New Jersey Health Initiative’s Teen Leadership Program

Adults leaders at the project’s professional development workshop, held in August at Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in Princeton

By Tom McLaughlin

As the calendar turns to September, it is once again time to unite for Hunger Action Month, when Feeding America’s food banks urge individuals nationwide to fight hunger in their communities.

According to the organization’s “Map the Meal Gap 2017” study, the issue is as pressing as ever in New Jersey, where more than 970,000 people – including one in seven children – struggle with hunger.

The message is loud and clear to Rutgers University–Camden experts, who are doing their part to end childhood hunger – and, in the process, lead the state’s next wave of civic-minded successors – by providing guidance to New Jersey Health Initiative’s (NJHI) “Preparing the Next Generation of Community Health Leaders” project.

According to Dan Hart, a distinguished professor of psychology and childhood studies at Rutgers–Camden, teens in 11 participating communities throughout the state will receive leadership training throughout the school year and then spend next summer spreading the word about free breakfast and lunch meals offered through the USDA’s Summer Food Service Program, an extension of the National School Lunch Program.

“This project demonstrates that youths can get involved in a project which enables them to contribute to the welfare of their community if they receive the right guidance and discover how their skills and abilities can be utilized,” says Hart. “It’s a perfect project because it’s straightforward – every kid understands hunger.”

The Rutgers–Camden distinguished scholar serves as principal investigator of a three-year, $608,651 grant from the NJHI – the grant-making arm of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation – to help these participating communities use the most effective practices to establish well-functioning youth teams, create projects next summer that are feasible and meaningful to young people, and help youth develop leadership and civic skills.

Each of these communities has been awarded grants of up to $200,000 to recruit a team of 10 to 15 youths between the ages of 16 to 21, tasked with getting the word out about the summer meal program.

At the end of August, Hart; Susan Altman, co-project leader and program coordinator in the Institute for Effective Education at Rutgers–Camden; and NJHI Director Bob Atkins led a two-day professional development workshop for adult leaders at Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in Princeton.

The adult leaders and youths will now gather in September for a team building and skill development workshop at Camp Ockanickon in Medford. Rutgers–Camden will then visit teams across the state on a regular basis throughout the year.

As Hart explains, discussions with adult leaders focused on strategies that he and Atkins developed through their extensive research on youth groups over the past 20 years, as well as the personal experience and insight that the two gained running a youth group – the Camden STARR Program – in the city for the past 15 years.

For instance, he notes, talks emphasized the importance of adults establishing positive relationships with youths, as well as the need for youths to feel like they are part of a team.

“They will take on tough tasks if they feel like they are part of a team that shares a mission,” says Hart, co-author of the forthcoming book Renewing Democracy in Young America (Oxford University Press).

Likewise, he says, it is important for youths to feel like they are taking ownership in the development of a civic engagement project.

“They aren’t going to spend the summer working hard on a project if they don’t feel like they have a hand in deciding what they are doing,” he says. “We want to provide teens with guided exploration and give them the opportunity to develop a genuinely meaningful project that is both challenging and rewarding.”

Furthermore, says Hart, it is important for adults leading youth groups to know when not to talk – unlike school where “adults drone on and on because they have to” – and to realize that youth groups are different for kids than mandatory activities, such as attending school or performing a job.

“If you are leading a youth organization, you have to make the experience of participation enjoyable, with intrinsically interesting activities,” he says. “It’s an obvious point, but one that many adults miss.”

Just as importantly, he adds, the overall experience should be different than just “hanging out with friends.”

“It should focus on doing something challenging and meaningful,” he says. “Ultimately, we want them to learn how to identify projects where they can be successful, address community needs, and develop a sense of themselves as future leaders in their communities.”

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