Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

SWOP- It’s about youth learning and serving communities

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On July 25, I got a call from my grandson asking if I could take him to his SWOP banquet. Even though I wasn’t sure what SWOP was, it was easy to say, “YES”. Our visits have been getting fewer and farther between — not because anything is wrong. It’s just that now, being twelve, his world is getting wider with different places to go and people to meet. Board games and trips to fun places with Grama are now not nearly as attractive as being with his friends and creating their own good times. I get that. But when I got his call, there was nothing more important than that banquet.

I knew Brad had taken on a summer job but I didn’t have many details. The banquet, he explained, would be a celebration for all the kids who completed six weeks of “SWOP” employment. They’d be receiving their final paycheck, their Certificates of Successful Participation, and “awards” would be given. Sounded like this was an important part of his “SWOP” experience. And I felt privileged to have been invited. So we were “on” for an evening at the Mt. Iron Community Center on July 26. I was excited! Brad, on the other hand, was nonchalant, in that adolescent way that says, “Hey Grama, be mellow. It’s not that big of a deal.”

The big hall was filled with round tables, each decorated with a vase of wild flowers and confetti. A long table up front displayed bowls, baskets, platters, and crock pots filled with fruit, salads, dinner rolls and hot dishes. Another table was decked out with cookies, bars, pies, and other sweet treats that the Iron Range is famous for. Potluck par excellence!

Youngsters and their parents were filling the room, along with some proud members like me from the clan of elders sprinkled among them. Our placemats explained that “SWOP” was an acronym for the “Summer Work Outreach Program,”a non-profit founded in 1996. Forty youth, between the ages of eleven and fourteen, from four Iron Range school districts — Virginia, Eveleth-Gilbert, Mt. Iron-Buhl and Chisholm — had been selected to participate. In its 22 years, through the efforts of a small staff and fifty volunteers, this non-profit program had mentored over five hundred young people, developing social and work skills necessary for successful employment.

After a brief welcome speech from a member of the SWOP Board of Directors, it was time to eat! We queued up, children on one side, adults on the other. Once back at our seats, plates heaped with home-cooked delectables, the formal program began.

A slide presentation projected on giant screens shared images of the young participants engaged in a range of jobs that included pulling weeds, planting seedlings, stuffing envelopes, assisting a master wood-turner, learning to operate a sewing machine, even serving on a jury in a mock trial. Sessions were held with guest speakers who described their employment at clinics, banks, mines, machine shops, stores, and other work settings. The program gave these kids the opportunity to meet people and ask questions to broaden their understanding of a variety of trades and professions.

It also promoted important values and “soft” skills that are at the heart of every meaningful and successful career — a positive attitude, mutual respect for others, willingness to take on responsibility and try new things, showing up on time, pitching in, “sticking to it” until the job is done, taking pride in your accomplishment, and developing a commitment to service. They also attended sessions on how to save, share, and spend money wisely. Way to go!

Acknowledgments were generous for all the founders, funders, community leaders, staff, volunteers, sponsors, parents, grandparents, and of course, the youth themselves, for their extraordinary contributions to this amazing summer experience. Then came the award segment for those young people who had best exemplified the program’s core values, like going the extra mile, thinking creatively to solve a problem, offering support to someone in need, diffusing a conflict, and modeling respect. By the end of the evening, having seen these motivated young people working together for themselves and for their communities, I was filled with great joy and pride. I couldn’t contain myself. I turned to my grandson, our eyes met, and we gave each other a big, long hug. That was a special moment!

In today’s world, it’s common to hear of the great divides between the generations. The ways we communicate have changed. Sometimes it can be hard to make a “connection”. But SWOP gave this group of young people a very special opportunity to feel connected — to each other, to a dedicated group of adults, and to their community. An experience I expect may last them a lifetime. A heartfelt thanks goes out to all the people who made this experience possible for my grandson, and for me. It gave me hope and inspiration for the future. Our youth most certainly deserve our respect, our support, and our investment. My donation is in the mail!

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