YELLS, founded by former Marietta High educator Laura Keefe, is Marietta’s community organization for high school and elementary school students of the Marietta City Schools, and I remember vividly my first visit to the YELLS program at Woodlands Park (slated to be demolished in 2014). Three third-grade girls rushed up to me at the after-school program at Woodlands. Each in turn, they shook my hand, introduced themselves and welcomed me to YELLS.
Delightful, courteous, and overflowing with the energy of children who are well-loved and nourished by their community, those grinning emissaries were my first encounter with YELLS. Its after-school program, focused on character-development, academic enrichment, and community engagement, services more than forty children every single school day and engages many of those same children in a YELLS summer camp.
YELLS’ second site, at Liberty Point (formerly Ashton Place), houses another powerful program — the one I know best: the mentoring and leadership program for high school students. I have volunteered consistently with these students and attended gardening service days, community food and culture festivals and artist events which, at their largest, attracted hundreds of Franklin Road residents.
Every YELLS service event is created, planned and implemented by the enterprising high school students of YELLS. Both the program at Woodlands and the program at Liberty Pointe — apartment complexes on Franklin Road — are hives of creativity, joy and hard work, where young students are academically supported and mentored, and older students plan service projects that address issues of community health, recreation, safety and education on Franklin Road.
The Marietta High student mentors are a diverse group ethnically and socioeconomically; they not only serve their community and mentor its youth, they learn to work together, despite their very different backgrounds. They are not all A-students; they are not all Beta Club members, but they are all passionately committed young people who are inspired and inspiring.
YELLS’s newest initiative — based at Woodlands Park — is a Community Action Café, to be run and staffed entirely by high school students, founded on highly successful models in cities like Boston and New York.
At the Café, the high school student-volunteers and adult volunteers of Franklin Road will offer study sessions and snacks, educational workshops, community events, technology access, and of course, a safe, cheerful environment for all comers.
Through community building projects, mentoring and running the new Café, the Marietta City School students of the program gain a deep sense of social responsibility, of the importance of civic engagement and of the meaning of service. In major studies of American attitudes toward public education, respondents overwhelmingly attest that instilling these quintessentially democratic values is integral to the mission of public schools.
Schools are not merely where children are taught literature, science, math and history, but also where they learn to be engaged citizens, to be informed voters, to be initiative-taking members of their communities — where, in short, they learn to be American.
The work of YELLS intersects directly with and strengthens this mission of public education. The city’s support has made the work of YELLS possible, and the work of YELLS has helped to revive Franklin Road, which has seen declining crime rates and increased safety in recent years.
Community building like that of YELLS can and has reversed negative perceptions and positively affected the quality of life on Franklin Road. The strong networks of support YELLS has cultivated among parents and students on Franklin Road are a testament to what the determination, energy and creativity of committed young people and adults can produce in a troubled neighborhood — in a neighborhood in which residents deserve every opportunity enjoyed by those in more affluent parts of town.
The importance of improving opportunities for the children of Franklin Road is something everyone can agree on, and supporting YELLS is a wonderful way to thank the students, adults, teachers and mentors who make the organization so effective. For more information this season about how to support YELLS, go to www.yellsinc.org.
In a season of gratitude, let’s celebrate the generosity, energy and passion of the students and adults of Marietta YELLS.
Ruthie Yow grew up in Cobb and was educated in Marietta. She is completing her Ph.D. at Yale University. Her dissertation, “Home Team Colors: Race and Educational Justice in the Resegregating South” is about public education in Marietta.