Normally, Meegan Yerico considers herself to be a bit of an introvert.
“I’m one of those more anxious people and a little bit more shy,” said Yerico, a rising junior at Dunkirk High School.
But over the last three weeks, she can see personal growth in how she communicates with — and understands — others as part of a summer work experience provided by SUNY Jamestown Community College’s Liberty Partnerships program.
“I think it’s been a really good thing for my communication skills,” Yerico said. “I was skeptical at first and didn’t really know what to expect, but this camp has been a really great opportunity for us.”
Yerico is one of 16 high school students taking part in the paid summer camp, an annual element of the college’s grant-funded program developed in 2017 to reduce the number of middle and high school students in Jamestown, Salamanca, and Dunkirk who are at risk for dropping out of school.
“We really look at the program as an opportunity to expand a child’s world,” said Laurie Whitermore, program director. “A big part of LPP is self-discovery and we create personal learning plans and instill the idea of setting goals at a young age and that is such a valuable tool for them to learn.”
The summer work experience typically involves a theme-driven community service and educational opportunities — but recent events have given this year’s theme a deeper meaning.
“With all of the continued issues surrounding racism, we really wanted to lean into that conversation, and we wanted to do it in a way where we connected with the community,” Whitermore said.
With help from Jamestown mayor Eddie Sundquist, a guest speaker during the program’s Leadership Day, the LPP staff developed a summer experience focused on community service with an emphasis on promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion.
The students originally planned to help refurbish the Underground Railroad tableau in Jamestown’s Dow Park before one of the statues was stolen in May. Education about that era in American history, however, continued to be a focal point of the camp.
Students partnered and volunteered time with the Fenton History Center in Jamestown, took a field trip to the Underground Railroad Museum in Niagara Falls, and learned about quilt coding, a method used by enslaved people to communicate while in pursuit of freedom. Students then created their own quilt block symbolizing safe spaces for vulnerable populations.
That activity was a favorite of Giana Santiago, a rising junior at Dunkirk High School.
“To learn how they used the quilts was surprising, because my grandmother makes them all the time and I never realized there was something more in-depth behind a quilt,” she said. “I never thought of it as something to symbolize safety.”
The last two weeks of the month-long camp gave the high school students an opportunity to present to and mentor 19 middle school students involved in the program using the book “Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Boy” by Emmanuel Acho as a basis for their presentations.
“It’s been quite entertaining to watch in some ways — they got frustrated because the (middle school) students were not listening in the manner they thought,” said Whitermore. “They tweaked their presentations and when they presented them again, it was a complete turnaround — you could tell that they had the students’ attention.
“It’s just a learning tool and it is a work experience rather than a camp, because they do get paid, but the understanding is that you’re staying busy and contributing and they don't get to opt out,” she added. “You have to be an active participant.”
That active participation also allowed both age groups to help design and paint a mural in downtown Jamestown with guidance from local artist Gary Peters, Jr. The mural, located on the side of The Wine Cellar on North Main Street, depicts a butterfly with the phrase, “Be the change you wish to see.”
“It was really fun and really hands-on,” said Santiago. “I never expected community service to be something like that. Even though I’m not very artistic, it’s very fun because you’re getting your hands dirty and you’re really getting into it and I really like the message we helped to put out.”
“I’ve never been exposed to community service like this,” said Yerico. “I was really happy to help out at the Fenton Museum and the mural and painting the statues. It’s just been a really good experience to hone in on things that you really don’t think about.”
“That has been exciting to watch,” Whitermore said of seeing the students take an active role in the community. “A lot of times students can be too cool for camp, and we’ve run into that in the past, but this group of students has been engaged from day one and really taking a look at their own journey and the perspective that they have based on their own experiences and what is working for them and what they would like to change.”
Students have also heard from various guest speakers, including JCC professor Traci Langworthy, local activist Chloe Smith, and videographer Joana Leamon, a 2020 JCC graduate who is helping the students with a video capstone project.
“With each of the guest speakers, we ask them to share their journey and how they got to where they are,” said Whitermore. “The goal is to show students that it’s never a straight path. That’s such an important piece that they see.”
And, for students like Yerico, it’s helped establish some direction as she looks ahead to her future goals.
“I’ve always known I wanted to do something with kids, but I never knew what area and now that I’ve worked with these kids, I’ve gotten a more clear image in my head regarding what grade level, what I want to teach and what I want to work with,” she said.
“It’s just opened my eyes in terms of what I really want to do.”