Ten-year-old Dillon Blestrud says he has seen some remarkable changes in his classmates since they began doing community service with the Trendsetters Club at Kyrene de Los Niños Elementary School in Tempe.
"Usually, they were all like obnoxious," he said, "but once they started helping our community, then they started being nicer and more respectful." Blestrud is the president of his school's club, which meets after school to learn about leadership, civic responsibility, caring and affirmation.
Since 1998, Trendsetter Through Education clubs for students in grades four through six in Valley schools have partnered with churches and the business community in providing positive activities during the critical preteen years.
The clubs were the brainchild of Sharon Eivinsen, a 40-year educator, a Lutheran and chairman of America's Promise to Youth program in Mesa.
Churches like Mountain View Lutheran Church in Ahwatukee Foothills and Fountain Hills Presbyterian Church alone have combined to give more than $15,000 to the Trendsetters to fund seven clubs with about 150 children enrolled. Funds, which also come from a state tax-credit program, primarily go to pay teachers to serve as advisers to the clubs.
"It really comes from our Christian mission," said executive director Eivinsen, who looked back on her years of teaching. "I have always had this dream that all people care about kids, and actually, they all belong to us, but how can we affect them? How can we help kids we don't even know?" The key, she said, is making a commitment to help the children living in one's neighborhood.
"How do we connect people of faith with the public school?" Eivinsen asked. It can be accomplished without violating church-state separation demarcations, she said. "We have managed to do that in a very politically correct and wonderful way." With a go-ahead from school principals, the call goes out to the "pied piper" teachers who enjoy character-building projects with children - and can be paid for it. Some schools have as many as five advisers for their clubs.
The seven major thrusts of Trendsetters Clubs are:
Service-learning, choosing projects that meet real needs in the world around students.
"Healthy way the only way," which emphasizes good habits and avoiding destructive habits like drugs.
Civic responsibility, through club offices, leadership, agendas, etc.
Environmental issues, protecting the environment through action.
"School is my work," developing sound habits of learning, problem-solving and self-reflection.
Learning to thank, especially affirming and appreciating parents, teachers, caring adults, etc.
"Up close and personal," discovering more about oneself, including developing talents, hobbies, journaling and family trees.
When the Rev. Stan Jones, a retired Presbyterian pastor, was chairman of Building Assets for Youth and Families for the Arizona Ecumenical Council, he methodically explored Valley organizations that make a substantial difference in kids' lives and found two that excelled. The Boys and Girls Clubs were apparent as a leader in youth-building. The other with a clear character mission was Trendsetters.
Jones quickly became an advocate. "I have invested much of my retirement time and energy in establishing these clubs," said Jones, who is board president. He speaks to churches to raise funds and encourages people, supporting tax-credit giving of up to $400 per household.
Eivinsen said the after-school activities are important for children who are vulnerable to negative influences at that time of the day in their neighborhoods.
"This is a way that people of faith can actually do something effective to help kids, and we know people of faith want to do that," Eivinsen said.
On May 2, students from the seven clubs gathered in an auditorium of Banner Desert Medical Center in Mesa for the ninth annual Trendsetters celebration. Each club's projects were showcased in skits, talks and video on the theme "Kickin' Up Kindness."
At Mesa's Eisenhower Elementary School, children made ABC quilts for children at risk, took Christmas presents to a senior citizens' home and marched in the Mesa Day Parade. The Sunshine Acres Trendsetters Club put together bags of "little stuff" like candy and soap bubbles for homeless children at Thomas J. Pappas School in Tempe, made baby quilts, and held a supper where parents could share family stories.
Trendsetters at Lindbergh Elementary in Mesa organized a coin drive ($1,144) for tsunami victim relief through the American Red Cross, made fleece blankets for the school nurse's office, and filled plastic eggs for six classes, including three with Head Start. In Lindbergh's report in the Trendsetters' newsletter, they said, "We confess that our efforts to rally the school to clean up the campus fizzled this year."
Retired New York speech therapy teacher Joan Jaeger of Fountain Hills attended the celebration and said she wants to start working in Trendsetters. "I have to really give credit to Stan Jones because he really made an effort to not only make our church aware, but to speak to other groups," she said. "In this day and age, we see so many negative things," but Trendsetters goes right to shaping children in positive ways.
For Carol Becvar of Mountain View Lutheran Church, Trendsetters reaches children who can be outwardly focused. "It is a wonderful way for them to learn responsibility for the citizens of the community," said the retired Illinois fourth-grade teacher. "This is my age group. I know how important it is." She said the youngsters learn community service at a time when "we are becoming a me-centered world."
Becvar and Angie Gray, another former teacher, say they began helping the Kyrene de Las Lomas club out of an initiative by their pastor at Mountain View. The Rev. Rick Nelson's initiative is called Helping Communities Helping Youth.Gray's research led to Eivinsen and Trendsetters.
Schools, she said, have their hands full just working on academics. "They don't have time to teach the whole child," she said. "And that... is necessary."
"It takes a safety net around the children to make a healthy caring adult," she said.
In a what-kids-say comments section in a Trendsetter newsletter, one student told of visiting a nursing home: "Some of the people would not stop shaking our hands, but we really had a blast." Said another, "I never realized that sometimes having fun could help people."