McCook’s Youth Change Reaction puts power in students’ hands

McCook is more than Tucker Gillespie’s hometown—it’s a community where he plays a part in shaping the future. He leads alongside his high school peers, who all credit McCook Community Foundation Fund’s (MCFF) for putting power in students’ hands.

Youth Change Reaction (YCR) rests on a foundation of student autonomy—they decide priorities, they do the work, and they feel the sense of accomplishment. For Gillespie and his peers, that makes all the difference. YCR members—12 total, with three from each high school class – thrive under the shared responsibility.

Since its 2009 inception, YCR has awarded grants to McCook Elementary School reading programs; Bit N Spur 4-H Club for the purchase of a digital time clock for Kiplinger Arena; emergency buckets for the school to use in the event of a lockdown; and filtered water stations for McCook schools. Just last summer, the group collaborated with Nebraska Game and Parks on a bike share program at Red Willow State Recreation Area. The effort brought 12 bikes to the SRA which riders can borrow to ride the trail network. These projects happened alongside organizing dances, helping with community events, and working with middle and elementary school students in a variety of activities.

A gift from Andy and Geri Anderson made these and many other projects possible, as it established a restricted endowment for YCR. Members use its annual payout to award grants to local organizations.

“I think it being student led is the most important part,” Gillespie said. “We feel more passionate about the ideas because they are our ideas. We want to work harder because they are truly ours.”

With YCR, MCFF preemptively addressed a concern revealed by the 2021 Nebraska Youth Survey. Although most respondents said they feel invited to get involved in the community, 75% said they don’t feel like they play a role in making decisions. By giving students control over their own group, MCFF created an environment where they are the decisionmakers.

The tradition goes back more than a decade. Mark Graff, Susan Harris, and Pam Wolford arrived at the idea for YCR after Bloomfield and Graff attended a presentation on youth engagement at a rural development conference. They created the group in 2009 and haven’t looked back.

“We didn’t have a good avenue of listening to our youth,” Graff said. “There was no outlet for them to talk about their dreams or needs in the community. We thought this was a good way for them to tell us what was going on and maybe learn what would make them come back.”

Space to “speak their mind and grow” in McCook

YCR members are beyond busy. They are involved in sports, mock trial, student council, church groups, FFA, speech, and a variety of other school clubs. For many of them, YCR is their favorite organization.

“I think YCR gives kids who want to go the extra mile an opportunity to go the extra mile,” said senior Carsyn Craig. “It’s important we have it so passionate kids have the funding and materials to make a difference.”

For Tesa Nelson, the YCR fills a role other organizations don’t. The opportunity to have significant control over how the group operates is something students can’t often find.

“I think it is important for McCook High School to have YCR because without YCR, the students who want to have a voice to make their school and community better, wouldn’t have the opportunities to,” Nelson said. “Many students also wouldn’t be able to

see our town for the greater good that it is.”

Gavin Harsh, current vice chair of MCFF’s Advisory Committee, was one of the group’s founding members. It’s growing impact doesn’t surprise him. The emphasis on student ownership sets it apart from other groups – and quickly enamored him to the group more than decade ago.

“YCR was so new, it had no proven history,” Harsh, 26, said. “I fell in love with it. I wanted to be a part of the philanthropic community.”

Members are given relatively free rein to determine how to best benefit McCook. Adult supervisors are on standby for questions and guidance, but the students make the final call.

“It’s one of the few places that’s safe for kids to really speak their mind and grow,” Harsh said. “We’re definitely allowing our youth to voice their opinion.”

Harsh, now one of the group’s advisors, said its newest project brings things full circle for both him and YCR. One of his final projects his senior year was organizing a temporary drive-in movie for the community using an inflatable screen. Now, YCR members want to do the same, but permanently.

“The kids were actually old enough to remember that project,” Harsh said. “Now they’re super excited to do this. They are wanting to take on a huge project. They aren’t scared of it by any shot.”

Gillespie is among the YCR members leading the drive-in effort.

“The biggest thing I hear other kids say about McCook is they don’t feel there are enough activities for us to do,” he said. “I’m passionate about any project that gives us more variety in activities.”

“We feel more passionate about the ideas because they are our ideas. We want to work harder because they are truly ours.”

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