By Letesha Nelson, GCC CEO/executive director
“I wish I could go back to middle school,” said no adult. Ever.
Being 12, 13 or 14 isn’t easy. Their bodies are doing horrifying things, they’re expected to manage increasing academic expectations and they’re navigating that vast territory between being a young kid and becoming an adult. And, at the time when they gravitate toward their friends more than their parents, their peers are at an age where they’re known for being downright mean.
All that said, if I was a middle school kid right now, in this complex, information-overloaded world where trolls are lurking on every social media platform, I’d want to be at Goodman after school every day.
Why? Because here at Goodman, our staff AND our young people are creating a community where respect is big and kids learn to understand and appreciate themselves — and the people around them. And they have fun.
Howard Hayes and Arthur Morgan have both been working with kids at Goodman for over 20 years. I know they are proud of our middle school kids because they love to tell stories about them. But I was curious: Could I meet a few of the kids and get a sense of them — and this community — for myself?
Stepping into the world of middle school again
I stopped in as kids were coming in from school and getting food — tater tot casserole, salad and mandarin oranges. It was loud and a bit chaotic. But when I really looked, I saw kids being polite to each other, teasing each other, letting kids cut in line, checking in with each other — seemingly unfazed by differences in race, ethnicity, gender or style.
I stayed until dinner wrapped up and by the time I started meeting with kids, they were all settled in. Ready for an hour of jewelry or anime club and a youth council meeting for some. Then homework time.
Malyki, Louie and Houja each spent a little time with me. I started thinking of them as a triumvirate because what impressed me is that they are all personally powerful. They aren’t a clique or even super close friends, but they all had kind things to say about each other. They have each other’s back. I’ve discovered that’s just how our middle school kids roll.
I’ll tell you more about them, and I hope you’ll consider making a gift to support Goodman programs. Because our staff are very intentional about helping kids to become their best selves. We all win when that happens.
“We just affirm the kindness and goodness each of our kids has in them.”
A different kind of invitation
Often when we invite you to support Goodman, we tell you stories of a youth who has had big challenges and how Goodman staff have helped them change for the better. There are lots of those stories.
But today I want to give you a sense of how special this community of kids is. Arthur told me he sometimes worries people think kids come here broken and we fix them. But that’s an injustice to our kids. As Arthur would tell you, “We just affirm the kindness and goodness each of our kids has in them.”
So as you read about these students, I hope you’ll think about giving a gift so more kids can experience this kind of community. So more kids find their voice.
Malyki, ‘The Knitter’
Malyki was just 3 when he started at Goodman. Right away, he told me, “When I was younger I was out of control. I threw chairs, yelled and screamed. But my teachers at Goodman helped me be better. Now I don’t get in trouble at all.”
He said he’s affectionately known as “The Knitter” on his wrestling team because after losing a match (badly) his teammates went to check on him — they expected him to be mad, but instead, his teammates found him knitting. He smiled and explained, “Miss Nicole (a Goodman after-school teacher) taught me to knit when I was 9. Knitting still calms me down.”
I asked him what he thinks about Goodman these days and right away he said, “Just being here makes you feel good, and they help with schoolwork. Goodman is a cool community. Everyone wants to see you succeed.”
That made ME feel good. I want every kid to have a place that “makes you feel good.” Don’t you?
Malyki said Howard is one of the reasons why.
“Howard is always supportive. He takes us to do cool things like going to Schuster’s Haunted Forest, the Goodman pool, fishing, parks like Devils Lake and movies like “Boss Baby” — just for fun,” Malyki said. “But he also teaches us about our identities and encourages us to treat other people how we want to be treated. I’ve grown a lot. I’m going to be a good citizen.”
Malyki has a plan of how he’s going to give back and share his gifts. He’s going to be a lawyer. And then a police officer.
“There are two reasons. First, since I was young, I hated bad people, and I wanted to stop that,” he said. “And second, I want to be a good cop and build trust in the police.”
Houja comes into her own
Houja (pronounced hoy-ah) has been at Goodman since she was 3, too. But unlike Malyki, she was a calm and quiet kid, “I barely said a word the whole time I was in grade school,” she admitted.
But she’s found her voice. We’d only just met, but she had lots to say.
“I like the way Goodman teaches us about our identity. I liked learning things like how Juneteenth started. And about Black people’s heritage,” she said. “We get life lessons and go on field trips to the UW campus, like when we learned how to make cheese. And Girls Inc. and GSA — gender sexuality alliance — supports you in becoming whoever you are. Cooking club is fun. And this summer we went canoeing, biking and all kinds of stuff.”
She added, “If you have something you need to talk about, the staff listen wholeheartedly. They give advice, too. Good advice. And they help with homework.”
Houja’s open-minded. The teens watched an episode of “Atlanta” on the FX network recently that led to a discussion of privilege that stretched her.
“I changed my perspectives toward things. It made me realize things aren’t always fair for white people either.”
In the end, Houja admitted, “Goodman is good at keeping me from just hanging out and being lazy.”
“When I was younger I was out of control. I threw chairs, yelled and screamed. But my teachers at Goodman helped me be better. Now I don’t get in trouble at all.”
Louie is pure Louie
Just last year, Malyki convinced Louie to try Goodman. It didn’t take long before Louie felt right at home in the LOFT program. Everyone welcomed him.
This fall he’s also been volunteering at Goodman to fulfill 18 hours of community service he needs to complete for his upcoming bar mitzvah. He’s been vaccuuming and having fun delivering the afternoon meals to the middle school kids.
Louie’s an easygoing, unassuming guy. “Goodman is really good for my mental health. I can relax here,” he said. “Staff listen to what you say and make you feel included. I could talk with staff about anything. And I like that it’s free so kids from families of all incomes get to come here.”
Arthur and Howard credit Louie with making the middle schoolers a tighter community.
“All the kids admire him. They know that Louie is never going to do anything that isn’t true to who Louie is, and they respect him for that. We do, too,” they both agree.
Goodman loves it when kids are role models for each other.
Kids haven’t changed
I keep hearing people say kids today are different. I asked Howard and Arthur what they think about that.
Howard is convinced kids are developmentally the same. It’s the world around them that’s changed.
“When we were growing up, our parents and teachers could control kids’ exposure to adult stuff. Now it’s all SO available to young people,” he said. “I hear kids using words for adult things and I used to think, ‘oh, they understand about X.’ But I started checking in with kids to see if they really understood, and more often than not, they are using words before fully understanding it.”
Arthur and Howard encourage kids to talk about whatever is on their mind.
“We want this to be their home. Let loose. Let them talk. No taboos,” Arthur said. “If they’re thinking about it, we’d rather they talk about it with us.”
He admitted conversations can go to unexpected places — from serial killers to how Disney princesses have changed. No matter the topic, it often leads to rich conversations about things that really matter.
Like during a conversation about serial killers. One of the students chimed in with a story about how Ed Gein was known for hosting what everyone THOUGHT were innocent neighborhood barbecues. Yikes!
True to form, it led to conversations about how to know if a person is who they say they are. How do you know if someone is trustworthy. When should you not trust someone. Every kid had something to say, and they all left a little wiser.
A caring community
I keep thinking about this community of middle school kids our staff has nurtured and I think, “These middle school students are accomplishing something adults often fail at.”
Granted, they aren’t perfect, and all the kids are at different points in their growing, but they’re all taking advantage of the opportunities they have at Goodman (which your gifts make possible!). They are practicing how to break goals down into achievable pieces, becoming open and thoughtful, and learning that asking for help doesn’t show weakness — it’s a strength.
I’ve been reading Robin Wall Ketterer’s “Braiding Sweetgrass,” a book that finds the common ground between science and the Native American wisdom she was raised with.
Her Potawatomi ancestors understood the reciprocity of gifts. She writes, “We are showered every day with gifts, but they are not meant for us to keep. Their life is in their movement, the inhale and exhale of one shared breath.”
Malyki gets that. He told me he tells lots of kids to come to Goodman. When I told Howard and Arthur how great I thought that was, they both said, “All the kids do.”
I love that. That means our kids all know this place is for them. They also want other kids to benefit from the gifts they receive here — like they have.
Goodman’s tagline, “Strengthening lives and securing futures” isn’t just words. Our staff have fine-tuned our programs so kids like Malyki, Louie and Houja receive gifts that will serve them well — and will in turn, serve our community well — as they make their way into adulthood.
If I learned anything from “Braiding Sweetgrass,” it’s this: “The well-being of one is linked to the well-being of all.” Isn’t that why we are wise to invest in our kids? In each other?
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