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Building peer-to-peer relationships and taking "safe risks": Project Morry

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Building peer-to-peer relationships and taking "safe risks": Project Morry

In a conversation with Dawn Ewing, Executive Director of Project Morry, we sat down to discuss how the program is fostering a safe space for youth to re-engage during the summer and how youth are able to define success on their own terms. Project Morry was one of the 36 grantees of the 2021 Aim High awards program. Aim High grants are awarded to afterschool, summer, or expanded learning programs that help economically disadvantaged middle school students successfully transition to high school.

The Afterschool Alliance invites out-of-school time programs to apply for the 2023 New York Life Foundation Aim High grant. The application period closes February 1, 2023.

What is Project Morry?

Project Morry is a comprehensive, year-round youth development organization located in Port Chester, N.Y., dedicated to empowering children from under-resourced communities to create a positive future. Project Morry provides opportunities to complement in-school learning and development and expose middle school children to year-round experiences they otherwise do not have access to. Through a variety of creative programs, traditional camp activities, and leadership opportunities, campers discover their passions, engage with their peers, and take “safe risks” as they apply themselves to educational challenges.

Project Morry changes the outcomes for more than 400 students annually from the N.Y. tri-state area. Our overall goal is to level the playing field by addressing many of the obstacles middle school youth of color from economically disadvantaged communities encounter in achieving a successful future.

How did the Aim High Grant make a difference in your program?

The Aim High grant really allowed us to build our own social-emotional learning (SEL) and racial equity tools that allow youth to start their own conversations and build their relationships in Project Morry and beyond. Our program has always revolved around (SEL) and our racial equity work. We have our social justice program where youth have the opportunity to talk about topics like equity versus equality, microaggressions, and intersectionality, which supports our students as they have these conversations outside of our program.

One of the ways the Aim High grant supported our racial equity work was through staff training and professional development. When you have a staff with a strong base, it really helps us create a supportive environment and safe space for youth. It’s about creating a safe space for everyone and allowing them to advocate for themselves. We really wanted staff to get in touch with their own stance and answer some of their own internal questions, because if you don’t know where you stand, then how are you able to help support the student’s own journey? We wanted our staff to not only understand the equity framework but learn how to support students’ journeys as they find out how they fit in. I think when you’re having these conversations with staff, it also allows them to know that they’re in a safe space.

What do youth need from out-of-school time programs right now?

Overall, I think youth need to feel that sense of belonging. Coming out of the pandemic, I think both young people and adults are more aware of who they are connecting with. We know what we need and we are looking for relationships we know we can give to and also get back from. And I think that our students are experiencing the same thing. What we are able to do at Project Morry is foster a sense of belonging because the kids are helping create it. As they age through the program, they have different levels of responsibility and leadership. Our older students are able to lead younger students through their own experience and help them belong and make them feel important.

At the program level, we need to continue having those conversations around self-care and being aware of what youth need to help them belong in their surroundings and adapt to different situations. Some of the kids in our communities don’t always have the power or resources to make the changes they want. We need to continue building out the tools these students need for them to be in control of their choices. One example of this is self-regulated time-outs; students have the opportunity to say, “I need some space” or, “I am not going to do the right thing right now” without us having to ask. They are given the chance to pull themselves out in a way that’s healthy for them. We give them the power to make that decision for themselves. That is a powerful tool.

How is the program responding to those needs?

We are being more intentional about listening and asking questions. You can get any answer you want when you ask, “How are you doing? Good?” Rather, we ask, “What should we be doing to help you?” and, “Is this what you need right now?” We found that the kids are responding much more robustly. They

are able identify their needs and tell us what they are.

When you’re with these kids and families for ten years like Project Morry is, there are highs and lows. Our kids and our families are no different from us. When there’s that consistency and that familiarity, there’s less of a chance for those children to get lost and fall through the cracks.

How are you supporting youth voice in your program?

In Project Morry, youth voice and choice piece presents itself officially and unofficially. In the official sense, we build out benchmarks for students’ progression in the program. For our younger students, we look at imagination; how are they able to play and organize? As they age through the program, students will have more time in their day to decide how they want to spend their time and pursue their interests. As they become older, they then begin facilitating those big brother and big sister programs and making those big decisions for younger students. This allows them to look both internally and externally and make decisions based on what they think younger students would enjoy, benefit from, and succeed in based on their own experiences.

In summer camp, kids are able to take these “safe risks” and know that they can try something out as a choice and know that they won't be judged or ridiculed for it. A great example is our annual talent show facilitated by our eldest campers. Kids have the choice to participate in our talent show and for many kids, it’s the first time they have participated in an activity like this. This year, I saw something I had never seen before. We had a group of students perform a song, but they did it from behind the curtain. The students facilitating the talent show had the sensitivity to respond to the performers’ fears and offer a solution we might not have implemented ourselves. This was wonderful to see. Our eldest students were able to meet the younger students where they were and help them define what success means to them. In a program where students know that they are safe, they are not afraid to say, “This is what success looks like for me.” Success for those students was singing the song, regardless if it’s behind the curtain or in front of it.

What is one way that you were able to create a safe space for youth in the program?

This summer, we hired a full-time licensed clinical social worker. She was able to be the person to step in and help those youth who needed that extra support, instead of needing a program staff member to step out with that student. We are now able to continue programming without sacrificing the group and also take the time to help the student build the tools that they need. We built a sensory space around our social worker, Kristen, where students and staff were able to go to decompress. “The Shack” was filled with soft places to sit, nice-smelling scents, and visual sensory objects. Camp can be very overwhelming and sometimes we all need something to wrap around us. This was a really cool tool that we had never thought of. Kristen also suggested that we get ear plugs for our students. Kids that might have previously been overstimulated or overwhelmed, were now sitting with their friends because they had earplugs in.

Why are staff so critical in fostering an effective program?

In order to run an effective program, you need to have effective staff. We’re being a lot more intentional about professional development. Especially in the summer camp setting, we ask our staff to give a lot. But we want to give a lot back to them. Our staff matter and make a difference. It’s not just about saying “Good job,” it’s about telling them “Good job, here’s why.”

What are your best practices for re-engaging students?

Don’t change things but offer a lot of room. Be intentional with your staff to ensure that they are setting students up for success. Utilize peer-to-peer relationships.

Kids come back because of the relationships they have with one another. They come back because they want to see their friends. You can’t hug your friends online. You can’t sit and eat pizza with your friends online. Peer-to-peer relationships are critical for youth, but also for promoting accountability and responsibility. This shows them that “If I’m missing, something can’t happen.” They become an example for someone younger than them.

Once they come back, you can’t just jump back as if everything's the same, but it is also important that none of the rules have changed. The safety to show up is knowing that space is still safe. Staff training is also critical in making sure that staff are sensitized to the concerns of youth. These concerns might be obvious, but it’s always important to make sure that we don’t validate the things that students fear might happen when they come back.

Meet our 2024 cohort of Youth Afterschool Ambassadors!

“We are so proud to announce the 2024 class of Youth Afterschool Ambassadors,” said Afterschool Alliance Executive Director Jodi Grant. “In their applications, youth shared powerful perspectives about their afterschool experiences, and we can’t wait to help them share...

BY: Elizabeth Bannan      10/13/23

Apply to become an Afterschool Alliance Youth Ambassador!

We are thrilled to announce that we are seeking applicants for our Youth Ambassador program! Youth aged 13 and older are invited to apply by sharing their afterschool experiences by August 31, 2023. Each school year, the Afterschool Alliance recruits 7-10 youth to serve as Youth Ambassadors to...

BY: Elizabeth Bannan      07/25/23

U.S. Dept. of Ed. calls for more afterschool and summer supports

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BY: Ursula Helminski      07/17/23

Voters, parents, and youth agree: Afterschool supports mental health

“For me, the introduction to my culture and the feeling of being a part of something bigger than myself, goes hand in hand with a spark or an increase to my mental, spiritual, and physical health,” writes Sasha Neyra, 16. Sasha is a high school junior and Member of Big Lagoon Rancheria....

BY: Charlotte Steinecke      05/04/23

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Highlights from Youth Voice Week 2023

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Join us for Youth Voice Week!

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New podcast discusses youth perspectives on program design

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U.S. Dept. of Ed. calls for more afterschool and summer supports

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BY: Ursula Helminski      06/29/23

Building peer-to-peer relationships and taking "safe risks": Project Morry

In a conversation with Dawn Ewing, Executive Director of Project Morry, we sat down to discuss how the program is fostering a safe space for youth to re-engage during the summer and how youth are able to define success on their own terms. Project Morry was one of the 36 grantees of the 2021 Aim...

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U.S. Dept. of Ed. calls for more afterschool and summer supports

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BY: Ursula Helminski      07/17/23

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BY: Maria Rizo      06/27/23

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BY: Sophie Kidd      06/26/23

Building peer-to-peer relationships and taking "safe risks": Project Morry

In a conversation with Dawn Ewing, Executive Director of Project Morry, we sat down to discuss how the program is fostering a safe space for youth to re-engage during the summer and how youth are able to define success on their own terms. Project Morry was one of the 36 grantees of the 2021 Aim...

BY: Maria Rizo      01/19/23

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BY: Charlotte Steinecke      01/10/23

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BY: Elizabeth Bannan      08/01/23

U.S. Dept. of Ed. calls for more afterschool and summer supports

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BY: Ursula Helminski      07/17/23

Creating a safe space in afterschool for LGBTQIA+ youth

Photo courtesy of The Gender Spectrum Collection Afterschool programs provide a safe space for youth to be their most authentic selves, with opportunities to engage with peers outside of the school day, connect with caring adults, and explore their interests and passions. But LGBTQ+ youth in...

BY: Maria Rizo      06/27/23

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Creating a safe space in afterschool for LGBTQIA+ youth

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BY: Maria Rizo      06/27/23

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BY: Charlotte Steinecke      01/10/23

Program Toolbox recently updated for new, established, and growing programs

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BY: Maria Rizo      11/22/22

Afterschool supports LGBTQ students

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BY: Guest Blogger      06/28/22

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BY: Elizabeth Bannan      10/13/23

Apply to become an Afterschool Alliance Youth Ambassador!

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BY: Elizabeth Bannan      07/25/23

Voters, parents, and youth agree: Afterschool supports mental health

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BY: Charlotte Steinecke      05/04/23

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Spotlight on youth voice: What afterschool mentors did for me

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BY: Charlotte Steinecke      04/24/23

Highlights from Youth Voice Week 2023

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BY: Charlotte Steinecke      04/06/23

Join us for Youth Voice Week!

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BY: Guest Blogger      03/22/23

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BY: Guest Blogger      03/02/23

An afterschool program that feels like a family

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BY: Guest Blogger      02/27/23

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BY: Guest Blogger      02/24/23

The power of representation: Being a role model for the next generation

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BY: Guest Blogger      07/27/23

Success stories: The Burma Center

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BY: Sophie Kidd      06/26/23

Activities and resources to celebrate Asian American and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander (AANHPI) Heritage Month

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BY: Ursula Helminski      05/15/23

Building peer-to-peer relationships and taking "safe risks": Project Morry

In a conversation with Dawn Ewing, Executive Director of Project Morry, we sat down to discuss how the program is fostering a safe space for youth to re-engage during the summer and how youth are able to define success on their own terms. Project Morry was one of the 36 grantees of the 2021 Aim...

BY: Maria Rizo      01/19/23

Celebrating 25 years of masterpieces with a masterpiece of a movie

“We want to show the softness.” – Mingotae Kebede, director and producer A filmmaker and former staff of a long running Washington, DC Afterschool program, Life Pieces to Masterpieces was asked to help the program create a small video to commemorate the program’s 25th...

BY: Jillian Luchner      12/09/22

Guest blog: A book about everyday superheroes inspired Girlstart campers to pursue world-changing careers in STEM

By Alexa Brown and Hannah Winkler, coordinators at Girlstart. Girlstart aims to increase girls’ interest and engagement in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) — a mission accomplished through free summer camps and after-school programs across Texas,...

BY: Guest Blogger      09/12/22

Afterschool supports LGBTQ students

By Tran Tonnu, marketing manager at School's Out Washington, and Janell Jordan, King County program manager. This article originally appeared on School's Out Washington's blog on June 17, 2021. It has been republished here with their permission. For LGBTQ folks, June...

BY: Guest Blogger      06/28/22

Celebrating Juneteenth in afterschool programs

Image by William Adams from Pixabay Juneteenth National Independence Day also known as Freedom Day, or Jubilee day honors the emancipation of slaves in the United States. More than 150 years after its first celebration, the Juneteenth holiday provides an opportunity to learn and teach about the...

BY: Tierra Easter      06/17/22

$1.8M awarded to middle school out-of-school time programs

The New York Life Foundation and the Afterschool Alliance are pleased to announce the 2022 Aim High grant recipients. In its sixth year, the Aim High grant has provided a total of $7.95 million dollars to help fund afterschool, summer and expanded learning programs as they help middle school...

BY: Dan Gilbert      06/14/22

You're invited: Help amplify youth voices in afterschool!

Join us next week for Youth Voice Week! We want to hear from, and amplify, the perspectives and experiences of young people.  From Monday, March 28 to Friday, April 1, we will be sharing pieces by youth about their afterschool experiences, and what youth need after school. Afterschool...

BY: Maria Rizo      03/21/22