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Sen. Thune visits young afterschool advocates in Summit, S.D.

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Sen. Thune visits young afterschool advocates in Summit, S.D.

Summit, South Dakota has one paved road through the center of town. Recent counts place the town’s population at about 300, though Summit School, located in the middle of town, is the only school available to many more families beyond the town’s official count.

“I mean it takes 45 minutes to get groceries. We don’t have many opportunities for kids to do anything. We don’t have a Boys and Girls Club or a community center,” said Dawn Marie Johnson, a Summit resident. “There’s a church, a gas station, and maybe one or two local businesses. There’s one park. But otherwise the opportunity for kids to do something after school, or to have a safe space, there hasn’t been anything until our afterschool program.”

Johnson is also the afterschool program director at the Summit School has roughly 180 students and serves grades K-12. As Johnson put it, the school is surprisingly diverse for what one would typically expect of a rural South Dakota community. Located in close proximity to the nearby Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate Reservation, the school serves a significant population of Native students, as well as Hispanic students. In a community so small, you can imagine the excitement when the school received word that Sen. John Thune would be visiting the school to speak to Summit’s students.

Johnson recognized the opportunity the senator’s visit presented for her to talk to him about how vital the afterschool program is to Summit. The Summit Afterschool Program is completely reliant upon 21st Century Community Learning Center (21st CCLC) funding. The precarious status of the program’s funding is not only a staff concern; according to Johnson, her students are keenly aware of the president’s proposed elimination of the 21st CCLC initiative, and it’s a cause they’ve taken up on behalf of their program.

Hearing from the experts

“I think [what makes us] different from other people who have had the grant for so long is that we started out with this loss,” Johnson explained. “We had this grant for maybe three to four months, and then there’s this huge budget cut in our face and we’re faced with losing it right away. So our kids are really well-versed in what our grant is, and why we have it, and that it’s our sole funding to keep the program alive. And so the kids themselves are always advocating for it.”

Senator Thune was scheduled to stay at Summit School only through the duration of his prepared remarks to students, but Johnson knew she had to at least try to get him to visit with the program to experience firsthand why it was so crucial to their community.

“I’ve always found that the person to go to is the assistant—not the actual [policymaker],” Johnson laughed. “If you get their assistant or whoever’s doing their scheduling fired up about what you’re doing or advocating, they’ll generally have a really good push for you when they go speak to them.”

Johnson managed to win over Sen. Thune’s assistant, but she knew that it wasn’t particularly likely the senator would stop by the program; members of Congress, especially ones as prominent as Sen. Thune, have tight schedules and many priorities. But then the senator took a question a student—a high school senior who had been texted by a 2018 graduate who had served as one of the afterschool program’s youth leaders.

“Summit is not the only community who has positively impacted by this [21st Century Community Learning Center] grant in South Dakota. According to the South Dakota Argus Leader, 6,000 students are enrolled in the [21st CCLC] program across the state,” the student started. “The Senate did pass an appropriations bill that keeps the 21st Century program level-funded for 2019, but my question is, would you ever support a budget that includes this program being cut?”

Youth are the best advocates for what matters to them

Johnson was in shock—despite later (half-joking) queries from those present, she did not in fact plant the question with the student.

“When that question got read, I just naturally started clapping really loudly and fist pumping, and then all of the sudden everyone did!” she said excitedly. “And everyone was wondering oh, what’s he going to say, waiting for his answer.”

Thune’s answer—while not an outright promise to vote against a budget that eliminated the 21st CCLC initiative—affirmed that he would always support a program that demonstrated it was valuable to the children it serves. He did so emphatically enough that the crowd started cheering and whooping. This prompted the school’s business manager to step forward.

“Who here has been affected by the afterschool program in a positive way?” the business manager asked.

Every single student in the audience stood up. Johnson was blown away.

“I’m on the side just tearing up just a little bit because you don’t really realize, even those one or two times some kids are hanging out after school for homework, they still find it so beneficial,” she said. “I’m used to my K-8th grade crew, they have solid attendance. But to see the whole student body of 180 kids stand up, I just felt—oh my gosh.”

Seeing is believing

If the senator would’ve been on the fence before at his assistant’s suggestion, he was now on board. During the program, Sen. Thune was engaged with the students and interested in the process by which kids received their afterschool snack and chose their activities.

“He sat and he listened. He watched me check in the kids, and he came over by me and asked what I just did,” Johnson said. “And I told him again, we enroll about 70 percent kids who are on free and reduced-price lunch program. This is a big deal—afterschool snack is a big deal.”

Earlier Sen. Thune and his team had gotten lost on the way to school (which Johnson had a giggle over, considering the town has on main paved road).

 “I said, ‘I heard you got lost, I’m sure you saw there was nothing for kids to do,’” Johnson recalled. “’So this, on top of providing a snack, a safe place to go—that’s just the basics, we go a lot further than that.’”

Make it happen

Johnson has valuable advice for other afterschool advocates trying to impact their policymakers—even without the serendipitous movie moment. The main takeaway is to allow the students to be their own best advocates.

“I have the best students, and they’re all on board,” she said. “When we have visitors, I am never the person that gives the tour, I’m never the person that talks to them about our program. It’s always the kids that do it. So even with our Lights On Afterschool event that’s coming up, I’m taking four 7th grade gals to a couple of radio stations and they’re going to be the ones that talk about it, not me.”

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