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Published April 15 2012

Students take lead in Legacy effort

How to help

To learn more about Legacy Children’s Foundation and/or give of your time and talent, contact Mary Jean Dehne at dehnem@yahoo.com or (701) 793-7613.

ONLINE

Visit the Legacy Children’s Foundation page on Facebook for updates.

FARGO – Addressing a room of about 20 sharply-dressed local business men and women, 15-year-old Julia Sabanaya Moses grips her notebook and smiles nervously.

Not only is the scenario slightly intimidating for a young teen, but her very future may be at stake. Without community help, the Legacy Children’s Foundation – a new nonprofit that has given her a new lease on life – can’t thrive.

She’s not alone. The crowd listens to words spoken by young voices from a video made to explain the existence of Legacy, a new nonprofit conceived of and begun by local teens.

“I just need someone to stay beside me when I make a mistake. I need to know they still believe in me,” says one of the voices.

Though 15 middle- and high-school students lead the gathering – everything from greeting guests at the door to presenting and asking questions – adults guide them.

“Make sure to introduce yourself,” whispers Mary Jean Dehne to one of the students, nudging him into his future as a potential leader.

Dehne, a local educator, spotted a need a couple years back while working with students at Fargo’s Ben Franklin Middle School. Her husband, Jeff, a longtime coach and educator himself, listened intently to what she was sharing. They both wondered what could be done.

She’d noticed that when providing students struggling in school with creative incentive – like a special end-of-year trip to the Twin Cities to reward good performance and behavior – they began to thrive. But when the attention dropped, so went their motivation.

Kids need a more sustained effort to keep them moving forward, Dehne decided, so she gathered some students she’d been working with and asked for their input. What would help them reach their goals?

From this collaboration, Legacy Children’s Foundation was born.

Officially gaining nonprofit status as of last month, the foundation aims to help at-risk students by giving them a boost to help them reach their potential.

Financial assistance is part of the model. Kids receive monetary compensation after meeting performance standards, half of which is held in a custodial savings account until after they graduate. But it’s about more than just that.

According to the Search Institute, from which Legacy has drawn its model, every child needs at least five significant, steady people in their lives in order to thrive.

“That might be a coach, a teacher, a pastor, a neighbor, an aunt, an uncle, a mom, a dad,” Dehne says.

According to a study by Cecilia Rouse, professor of economics and public affairs at Princeton University, drop-outs cost the nation approximately $260,000 over a lifetime.

The goal of Legacy is to reverse those trends, one child at a time, beginning with our community.

Currently there are 25 kids involved; 12 in high school and 13 in middle school.

Participants are expected to live drug-free, pass their classes, follow school rules and provide one hour of community service per week. They’re also encouraged to develop an interest in the arts and establish positive relationships with peers, at home and in the community.

Mike Fritz, a volunteer, has seen the payoff. A few years ago he was mentoring one of the teens currently in the program. He’d made some progress but not enough. Through Legacy, which has partnered with Sylvan Learning Center, the student jumped four reading levels in one summer.

“Most kids at a lower reading level are generally struggling in every aspect of their life,” Dehne says, noting that reading scores are one of several indicators for choosing program participants. The improvements made with Sylvan have been significant. “That’s like riding a bike. You’ll never go back to that lower reading level and your life is forever changed.”

Though the program has started small, currently involving only students on the north side of Fargo, the board hopes to expand to other areas of the community with more financial help and volunteers.

Dehne says it’s been fulfilling watching kids begin to dream in a way they hadn’t before. She was surprised to learn, for example, that some of the children she’s worked with hadn’t ventured very far into the community before, despite living here all or most of their lives.

One had never been to Target. Another rode the Scheel’s Ferris wheel for the first time.

Dehne emphasizes the program isn’t pointing to a lack in the current educational system but offering an additional resource. “We’re simply saying there’s a problem here and it’s all our problem and it has got to change,” she says. “We’re wise to invest in these kids now.”

Sejnur Berisa, 17, says he’s enjoyed meeting new people and learning ways to tackle academics to better his future. Having done some job shadowing through the program, he’s thinking now about a future in sports medicine.

Moses says she’s hoping to go into the Army to train to be an F.B.I. agent – a thought that may never have occurred to her if not for Legacy.

Though the students involved tend to be “fiercely independent creatures,” Dehne says, she’s doing her best to convince them that accepting help now from those who can give means someday they’ll be able to give back to others.

“I tell them, “When it’s your turn to give, you’ll give, because that’s the way communities work,” she says. “And I remind them that there will always be hurting little children in the world who need their help, and that when the time comes for them to give back, they’re going to be great helpers.”