In starting her 15th year as Cheshire Youth Services program supervisor, Lauren Blackwell-Rynich has overseen many projects, but she had never witnessed what transpired last year. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, her department had to go on hiatus, however when she checked out social media, Blackwell-Rynich was pleasantly surprised to see that local people were taking the initiative to plan activities on their own.
“In a time where youth could not do many things, they still found amazing ways to bring people together,” reflected Blackwell-Rynich.
This year, she is proud to announce that her department has come up with a way to recognize what young people accomplished in 2020. In making calendars for distribution in town, Cheshire Youth Services will highlight one to three students each month for topics like fundraisers and activities that helped raise awareness during the pandemic.
Of the 23 total honorees, they range from pre-school to high school students and recent graduates.
“I think it is incredibly important to showcase these students,” said Blackwell-Rynich. “Sometimes, we tend to focus on the bad things that youth do. We have some pretty amazing young people in our community and I’ve been fortunate to interact with many of them, as they’ve grown up through the years.”
For the project, Cheshire Youth Services used the Search Institute’s Developmental Assets Framework to pair with activities. The Search Institute has selected 40 positive traits that young people need to succeed in life.
External assets are based on the relationships and opportunities that youth should have in their communities, families, and schools. Internal assets focus on the emotional/social strengths, values, and commitments that should be nurtured within young people.
Support, empowerment, constructive use of time, and boundaries and expectations are some examples of traits found in the chart.
“We were looking for a way to partner all these assets with our community,” recalled Blackwell-Rynich. “This (project) was a perfect fit.”
The calendars highlight activities that students have done since last March. For January, there is an introduction to the project and student honorees.
“They reached out for a few things, but most of the people developed things on their own,” explained Blackwell-Rynich. “Some of their projects are still ongoing.”
For February, the spotlights start with 2020 CHS graduate Abby Dziura and juniors Juliette Markman, and Jenna Tiso. Last year, the trio started a project called Unity in which they sold stickers and car decals to raise money for Black Lives Matter, the Innocence Project, and the Black Trans Femmes in the Arts Collective.
“We decided to choose that first because February is Black History Month,” Blackwell-Rynich explained.
While understanding that people have been asked to adhere to social distancing, Blackwell-Rynich liked how the students adapted to make a difference in the pandemic.
“Since children are very social, I think it has been an incredibly tough time for youth,” said Blackwell-Rynich. “When kids have a purpose and find things to motivate themselves, it brings them together.”
Along with the calendars, Cheshire Youth Services plans to use social media to spread the word of their project. The student honorees will receive lawn signs as a way to recognize their efforts.
“We also plan to put up banners at Town Hall and the Yellow House in Cheshire,” added Blackwell-Rynich.
Along with informing the community of student activities, Blackwell-Rynich hopes that the calendars and social media posts create a spark in other young people to stay active during the pandemic. She hopes that the spotlight project can become a tradition going forward.
“On the calendars, there is a nomination form, so that people can suggest others for next year,” said Blackwell. “It is important to recognize these kids for the work they are doing.”