EcoKids Program Summary
and Analysis

by Marty Kraft, EcoKids Director

Summary

The EcoKids program was an ambitious effort to involve young people in integrating all aspects of urban neighborhood life into a sustainable model and actually weave that knowledge into the community fabric at the block level.

One goal, for the EcoKids to have the opportunity to participate in a wide variety of experiences in a conscientious effort to make their neighborhood community better, was met. Meeting reports and photos are online. In addition to the valuable learning activities that are not, or cannot, be undertaken in tradition schools, they got to watch the adult leadership "keep to task" for entire year. They also saw about a dozen volunteers as well as a number of their parents, make significant offerings of time and effort for their growth. The EcoKids themselves contributed greatly to make various aspects of the program work.

The first thing we did was plant a fall garden (report #1). We all went to Kansas City Community Gardens and picked up plants and seeds. The next day we planted, with the aid of two city council members who rolled up their sleeves, and about a dozen other enthusiastic volunteers. The adults created excellent example of community activism for the kids to see. The harvest was used to create a banquet (report #3) that the EcoKids prepared and served their parents. The experience of going from seeds to food was an important beginning lesson for these urban youngsters.

Field trips were taken using mass transit, walking or car pools with a stated emphasis on saving energy.

To encourage good consumer habits we went to a neighborhood hardware store, read labels and discussed the use and misuse of household hazardous materials.

We tried to buy organic food, recycle packaging and compost food waste when possible. This was a challenge because the kids were used to food that we all see advertised and in the habit of discarding.

The EcoKids helped create their own logo that they silk screened onto recycled cotton T-shirts at the Kansas City Art Institute.

At the invitation of a neighbor and the help of the Metropolitan Energy Center they weatherized a house and learned energy saving ideas they could put into practice at home.

Through a visit to BNIM Architects office in a downtown Kansas City skyscraper they saw how "green" buildings were designed and could fit into sustainable city planning.

The ecosystems of the bioregion were observed on trips to Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge to see the fall snow goose migration, Westin Bend State Park to see spring unfold, and a local park to test the waters of Brush Creek.

The EcoKids helped created an entire theatrical production called "It's All About Connection" and hosted nine neighborhood Earth Day Celebrations.

Analysis

Our work was to become a community of people working for the good of our neighborhood. Toward that end we worked on conflict resolution through talking through our disputes, creating norms of good behavior and keeping emotions under control. We also worked with rhythm and role playing to understand interpersonal cooperation.

The program proved to be challenging work for all involved. While most of the specifics proposed were accomplished, the hoped for enthusiastic response from the EcoKids and the neighborhood residents has not been realized.

It is not possible to say how the EcoKids or the neighborhood were effected. When the proposal was written we did not realize how unique this program was, a suitable environmental pre- and post- test was not found after many inquiries to a number of environmental educators. The various instruments that were considered had differing material and different audiences and were aimed at different outcomes than the EcoKids program. In addition, given the academic skills of the youth involved, it is possible that a paper and pencil test would not have given an accurate measurement of their knowledge.

Statistics

Time Frame: The program ran from August 1, 1998 to July 31, 1999

Participants:The EcoKid program worked with approximately 20, 49/63 Neighborhood youth, from ten to fifteen years of age. Fourteen were enrolled the first half of the program. Twelve were enrolled for the last half. Five to six kids were involved intermittently.

Program HoursThe EcoKids met for group activities 55 times for total of 193 group participation hours. Each EcoKid was telephoned in advance of each of the group meetings to make sure they knew the details.

Community Service Hours:The community donated more than 637.5 volunteer hours which included helping out with the weekly meetings, field trips, a camping trip, rehearsals and the neighborhood performances. This number includes 18 hours by nine Rockhurst University education students who observed the program and integrated environmental subjects into one of their assignments.

The Dream Center Partners donated 101 volunteer hours in preparation of the garden for the EcoKids planting.

The counted volunteer time donated by individuals outside Heartland All Species Project equaled 738.5 hrs.

Heartland All Species Project logged over 1500 hours in planning, preparation and execution of the EcoKids program. Approximately half of that time was donated.

Classroom space was provided at the Dream Center at 56th and Forest and Rockhill Baptist Church. Additional studio space was donated by Rockhill Baptist Church for ten weeks. We also worked in a neigbhorhood community garden.

The Neighborhood
The 49/63 Neighborhood is a coalition of smaller neighborhoods born 30 years ago to fight racist real estate practices. Some of these subdivisions are organized into neighborhood organizations and some are not. The neighborhood coalition is known for its crime and drug fighting activities and has received national attention for these efforts. It is a racially diverse area in the Kansas City Missouri School District that has many problems. The 49/63 Neighborhood has a "can do" reputation in the city.

The Heartland All Species Project learned of its funding award from EPA in late April, 1998. On May 2, 1998 the Kansas City Star carried a story that a large portion of the neighborhood would be torn down by the University of Missouri/Kansas City, which is located on the northern edge of the neighborhood. The whole neighborhood was in uproar. How could we build a stronger and ecologically more aware community if large sections of the neighborhood were going to be turned into soccer fields and parking lots? A tremendous amount of the neighborhood’s resources were occupied in defending itself against destruction.

Although the neighborhood reacted effectively to block the advance of UMKC, it was not without wounds. The 49/63 Neighborhood Coalition board president who was extremely supportive to the EcoKids program and understood the value integrating the EcoKids program in the neighborhoods efforts toward plat development, resigned with several other board members. The resulting new board needed to martial energy for itself and already existing programs in light of the threat by UMKC's plans. They reevaluated all its partnerships with other groups including Heartland All Species Project. The EcoKids program was not the highest priority.

Volunteers were then sought through the neighborhood newsletter, the All Species contact lists, the Forest Avenue YMCA, the Dream Center Partners and many other people and organizations with connections to the neighborhood or the environment.

Rockhurst University Partnership
A partnership with Rockhurst University (also on the eastern edge of the neighborhood) was entered into with the hope of suppyling mentors for the EcoKids as well as web design, publishing help and involvement in the Safe Halloween program.

Unfortunately the partnership never developed very far.

The interest, willingness and volunteer time of the Education Department students to become mentors was overestimated by both Rockhurst University and All Species. The program director was allowed parts of five class periods promoting and explaining the program to 9 students in the fall semester who were concerned with teaching language skills to elementary students. Most of the Rockhurst students came to EcoKid events once and afterwards wrote a paper. When asked for greater participation the students said they would like to get further involved but they had too many previous time commitments.

More obstacles emerged when it was noted that there would be no spring classes in the Education Department that would be a good fit for the EcoKids. At that point the director was asked to meet with the Science Department while the curriculum was being written for the spring semester. However, the planning process failed to coordinate subject areas and class periods that the EcoKids program could fit into without extraordinary effort.

In addition to the failure of the mentoring proposal, the staff computer web specialist position at Rockhurst was vacated just when materials were ready to be published.

The Safe Halloween program at Rockhurst was also going to be an opportunity for the Education students to get involved in maskmaking and integrate the EcoKids program into the Safe Halloween activities. However, through miscommunication by all parties, the Security Department that was responsible for the Safe Halloween, showed little in including the EcoKids except as participants.

The Neighborhood Youth
As was mentioned earlier the youth of the neighborhood did not embrace the program as was hoped. Most of the applicants decided they didn’t want to participate with the commitment necessary to fulfill the sustainable community building. Fourteen young neighbors were accepted into the program (designed for 20) out of about 40 who applied (ek app process). We took all who came who really wanted to be included. All participants attended the Kansas City Missouri School District schools.

For the most part we experienced difficulty in building an enthusiastic learning atmosphere. Several of the EcoKids were quite capable but most lacked basic social skills and maturity. These kids as a whole did much better with experiential learning opportunities having very little tolerance for taking in information in by reading or listening, or to following through over time. There was a great deal of competition for the attention of the group by several kids and six of the kids disrupted the class repeatedly. When asked to refrain from interruption the kids often seemed unable to accomplish this.

On two occasions arguments between two EcoKids led to shouting and threats of violence. Two or three other kids took sides and it took a lot of intense energy to come back to sufficient order so that the kids could go home. Several of the other EcoKids helped restore order. Following the second incident the regular program was suspended for two Saturdays while we focused on interpersonal communication skills.

Many times the disrupting kids were asked if they liked the program and if they wished to remain. They replied yes and committed to try harder. Most of the kids seemed accustomed to the level of disruption we experienced. In speaking with area classroom teachers we found our experiences with EcoKids were not unusual.

We considered a number of possibilities for improving the immediate situation. Two options; removing kids from the program would leave us with too few kids to complete the program amd broadening the population base for participation so we could have attracted youth with a demonstrated love of the environment, theatre or commitment to service, would have defeated the neighborhood community building aspect of the program.

Parental Support
Even though a parent of each young participant was required to sign a commitment of support for their child's acceptance into the program, and many written and phone invitations to participate were extended, we had difficulty in sufficiently involving families as a whole.

The disciplinary problems and poor attendance had a destabilizing effect on the program.There were many times that the kids were pulled from the activities with no notice for what seemed like minor reasons. Seven of the EcoKids were, on one or more occasions, kept from coming to the events as a punishment for bad behavior. Two of the original fourteen were withdrawn permanently because of poor school grades.

Most parents did support the program various means- sending food, attending the camp out or the shows, or making copies. One parent made a commitment to help at every play. Another parent came to almost every play. We hoped that parents would take a more active role. Perhaps through time that can be accomplished.

Enough good happened in this program that it can easily be called a success, especially when the obstacles noted above are taken into consideration.

In scientific experiments there are no failures, only more data to be interpreted. If we failed to speak of the down side of this programs attempts to move the environment to a central place in the neighborhood community life, we would be doing a disservice to the environment and all who work to make it better.

  • We hoped that we could attract the young people who have a real stake in the future and that they would enter the program with enthusiasm, learn about the environment and help communicate what they learned to their neighbors with the wonder and innocence that only youth can.

  • We hoped that a significant number of neighbors would lend an enthusiastic hand to help the youth.

  • We hoped that Rockhurst University, an institution in our neighborhood, would enthusiastically bring its expertise to help us.

  • We hoped that college students would come forth as mentors for the neighborhood kids.

What we hoped for did not happen.

There were many reasons that speak to particular aspects of the program falling short of the goal. A number of questions need to be asked.

  • Should we attempt to build or strengthen neighborhood community with sound environmental values? How important is strong local community to environmental sustainability?

  • Is “think global and act local” still a valid environmental principle?

  • Does neighborhood community really exist? Or are what we call neighborhoods just rows of houses where we live and move out to various communities to work, worship, learn, shop or have fun?

  • It was reasoned that if the locus of community was more centered on neighborhoods, then the number of automobiles and the energy and pollution they create would be reduced. That seems like a good idea. It seems like a move toward sustainability.

    • My work on this project and others leads me to believe that the main organizing tool for community is the automobile and how far you can get in 20-30 minutes.

    • People speak highly of neighborhoods but there is a low priority for action to center their lives there. During the UMKC crisis mentioned attendance at neighborhood meetings went from 10-20 up to an estimated 500 because people wanted to continue to live where they were. After UMKC altered its demolition plans the meetings went back to their previous small numbers.

  • Can neighborhood communities exist in the face of globalization?

    • Can people organize themselves effectively at a local level within this larger context?

    • Are more economic resources needed at the neighborhood level to create and sustain community?

    • Local owners give the area a neighborhood flavor. Over the years the shops along Troost Avenue have closed as malls with national chains have taken their business. In order to get food, prescriptions, hardware and most other services, residents must drive or take the bus.

    • As an example of globalization effecting this neighborhood, the Brookside Shops, a shopping area which serves the 49/63 Neighborhood and was specifically mentioned in the Focus Kansas City materials as how residents value their neighborhoods, was recently sold by the local owner to an out of state company who immediately raised the rent. Many local merchants are concerned that they will have to quit business.

  • How pervasive are the disciplinary problems in our schools?

    • Have the behavioral expectations in our schools slipped to the point where our children cannot get the knowledge and skills to understand and act on environmental principles?

    • Do the parents and society in general accept these lowered standards?

  • Do our schools, primary, secondary and university level, need to have community building knowledge and skills added to their curricula?


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