Depression and suicide can be delicate subjects, sometimes discussed in the shadows at the edges of people’s lives.
A group of 4-H youth recently had the confidence to bring the topic into the open. With intentional support from skilled and passionate adults, they crafted an event with impacts rippling across northern Minnesota communities.
The recent spike in suicides and attempts, especially among teens, put the topic on the group’s radar. Many had family or friends affected. They also recognized they were seeking healthy ways to process their own emotions about the events – and believed others might be seeking the same resources.
The group, participants in the Growing Responsible Educational Achievements Now (GREAN) 4-H youth leadership program, identified and connected with a spectrum of experts: counselors, teen mentoring programs and community members with firsthand experience losing a loved one to suicide.
“It was the right timing and combination of kids,” said Robbie Radaich, Itasca County 4-H program coordinator. “The topic was near and dear to their hearts, and they took a really different approach to community need and interest.”
The group hosted a public forum at Gunn Park in Grand Rapids in late July to showcase what they had learned during their nearly six-month project. More than 70 people attended. Experts shared stories and resources. And the group’s special, surprise performance of the popular “Fight Song” sent everyone home on a high note.
By all accounts, the kids knocked it out of the park.
Adults lead from behind
Success like that is a testament that teens are positive changemakers in our communities – especially when their passion and commitment meets up with adults ready to invest in the guidance and support the kids need to accomplish their goals.
Radaich and Jan Derdowski, regional extension educator with the University of Minnesota extension service, fit that bill. Both have been involved in 4-H for years. They love their work and working together, and have served as the 4-H GREAN’s adult leaders since its inception in 2010.
They start with a very specific definition of service learning: a project that supports interests and needs of the community, and of young people.
They love the process of standing with teens as they identify community needs, grow past their usual social circles and comfort zones into new relationships and skills.
And they are relentlessly focused on their purpose: to equip teens with tools and skills that lead to self-responsibility and confidence. In the early stages of the program, Derdowski and Radaich introduce tactics such as the stages of group development: storming, norming and performing. They do so knowing that near the midpoint of the project, the group will encounter a “groan zone” – that point in the process where the group must sort through specific interests and voices and coalesce around a single project idea.
That’s their cue to exit – literally.
“We usually step out for a cup of coffee,” laughed Radaich. “Because the kids really need to work through that struggle on their own.”
“It would be so easy for us as adults to tell the kids what to do,” said Derdowski. “Instead, by leaving, we intentionally create the opportunity for the kids to decide on their own.”
Entrusting the decision to the kids gives them a sense of empowerment that is critical to the success of the project, Radaich and Derdowski say.
“As soon as adults decide, you can just see the kids shut down and pull away,” Radaich said. “And in the end, it’s not about the adults making the decision. When the kids figure it out, the work is theirs.”
That’s not to say adults walk away entirely. Instead, the role shifts from that of a leader with decision-making authority to guide and mentor.
“We are there to support the kids as they navigate their decision,” Radaich said. “We love seeing them learn and change based on what they learn. And when the kids can recognize and articulate what they’ve learned, and apply it – that’s great learning.”
Impacts across the region
4-H GREAN team members are bringing what they learn to communities across the region. Members in Ely helped change the course of their 4-H club’s individual service project using the consensus and action processes learned in GREAN. Some earned trips to the state fair by sharing their learnings about these processes in county fair entries.
“When they learned what honors they earned, the first thing they said was, ‘We need to let Robbie know we followed the process!’” Derdowski said.
Most meaningful, though, was an email one GREAN member from Deer River received recently from a student at the Chief Bug-O-Ne-Gay-Shig school asking if the GREAN team would share their forum – and the Fight Song – at the school.
For Radaich and Derdowski, that’s what it’s all about.
“To have another community ask to be part of the work – that’s impact!”
Meet the 4-H GREAN Team
4-H GREAN — Growing Responsible Educational Achievements Now – is an intense service learning project developed and delivered by 4-H members in grades 7-12. Since 2010, more than 40 teens from several northern Minnesota counties, including Itasca County, have planned and hosted events to address community issues including healthy eating, animal cruelty and teen suicide and depression. More about GREAN’s work and the impact adult 4-H leaders can make in kids’ lives in this opinion column by Lisa Rosemore of the Grand Rapids Herald Review, at the 4-H website and Facebook page.