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Support Our Leaders (SOL) Program

The Hispanic Center of Western Michigan’s Supporting Our Leaders (SOL) Program strives to close the achievement gap for Hispanic youth by educating parents, providing gang intervention, preventing students from dropping out of school, and by encouraging youth to take a leadership role in the program and in their community. 
Michigan Nightlight: In your view, what makes your program innovative, effective or remarkable? 
Stacy Stout, Education Director, Hispanic Center of Western Michigan: Following positive youth development best practices, the program’s name and logo was developed by program participants. Youth also help design the annual T-shirt design, help guide programming, offer on-going feedback on program services and staff for continual learning and improvement, and help with the staff hiring.
The Hispanic Center has been providing youth services for over 20 years, however, in 2008, the program took on the name of the Supporting Our Leaders (SOL) and revised its structure to focus on bridging the academic achievement gap, particularly the disproportionate high school incompletion rates among Hispanic students, by focusing on strengthening parents’ educational advocacy and awareness, offering intensive gang intervention and high school dropout prevention case management, and culturally responsive college preparation, academic support, civic engagement and leadership opportunities.
The SOL program is the only youth-centered program in the region that specifically targets Hispanic gang affiliated youth and assists them and their family with adjusting to post-gang life.
The SOL program is the only youth-centered program in the region that specifically targets Hispanic gang affiliated youth and assists them and their family with adjusting to post-gang life.
We provide mental health services, substance abuse services, workforce development, high school completion, and intensive case management services. Two of the eight person staff are certified gang specialists in the areas of prevention and intervention, and they provide technical assistance and gang awareness trainings to other youth service providers and to parents in the community to help combat gang influence in the lives of children and youth. The SOL Program also serves non-gang affiliated youth to assure positive pro-social peer interaction among an academically and socially diverse group of youth.
What was the best lesson learned in the past year?
Short-term funding is difficult when addressing long-term challenges via youth case management. Best practices and common sense state that youth need long-term services that are culturally responsive to their needs, thus the SOL Program is looking to further diversity its revenue stream by developing a youth-led microenterprise to sustain program operations and to provide meaningful work experiences for youth.
Too often funding limits services to only 12 months or to serving youth from very limited geographic locations or demographics, such as gender or immigration status. The SOL Program attracts youth from several cities across Kent County and from various backgrounds, many of which do not qualify for all SOL Program funding, therefore the Hispanic Center’s goal is to generate unrestricted revenue to serve all youth that want to improve their lives.
What was the hardest lesson learned in the past year?
The SOL program staff is very passionate about our youth and families, and recently we were asked to provide a high school with consultation on strategies they can use to engage parents. The staff was very disappointed that easy strategies, such as calling parents to personally invite them to conferences, were considered “too much work” by the school.
All too often we see that other youth service providers are not as passionate and willing to work to do what it takes to serve youth and families. We have often filed formal complaints regarding school security officers, teachers and staff that have mistreated students by putting them down, been disrespectful or outright racist to students. Fortunately, most school personnel we work with are excellent, but the “bad apples” can further damage youth who are already hurting. We reframe these experiences as a source of motivation to make the SOL Program the best it can be to overcome these negative influences.
What really differentiates this program?
Our intensive case management of youth takes a relational and full family approach to address and remove barriers to academic and personal success. The staff connect with youth at least once a week and at least three times a week for youth enrolled in our dropout prevention services because they have increased risk for dropping out. We provide most of our services in-house, whereas many other youth programs and schools refer out for services, we are the ones they refer students to due to our cultural competence and array of services in serving youth and the entire family.
All SOL Program staff is bilingual and must have experience working with Hispanic youth in the United States to be hired. The last three hires have been previous volunteers with over a year experience working with the SOL Program, plus additional training and experience that demonstrates their commitment to lifting up youth and families.
The SOL Program staff is known for their youth and Hispanic cultural competence and for going the extra mile to serve families, whether it is evening and weekend home visits to address family concerns or bringing a family to the laundromat after work to assure they have clean clothes for work and school.
The SOL Program staff is known for their youth and Hispanic cultural competence and for going the extra mile to serve families, whether it is evening and weekend home visits to address family concerns or bringing a family to the laundromat after work to assure they have clean clothes for work and school. The staff is often called upon by local schools to address youth’s behavioral problems, to provide consultation on programming, and to speak at conferences and assemblies.
What are the keys to success for your program?
The key to the success of the SOL program is our ability to build relationships and trust with youth and their families. The Hispanic Center has been serving the Hispanic community for over 30 years and has established trust and social capital with the community that allows us to serve the most vulnerable.
Having this close relationship with the community allows us to identify their needs and develop programming and services to meet those needs in a short period of time.
Parent engagement is a pillar of the SOL Program strategy to increase Latino and Latina high school completion rates. Through our partnership with Ferris State University and our Mentor Michigan College Coaching Corps, we host two monthly parent meetings, one in English and one in Spanish, to give families the skills and knowledge to advocate for their children’s and their own high school and post-secondary educational success. We also highlight parent involvement at our annual SOL Summer Showcase and actively include parents as chaperons and participants with college visits, conferences, service learning projects and on fieldtrips. Parents accompany us on our annual trip to Lake Michigan for team-building activities and a cookout and on a day-long business and dining etiquette training at Amway Headquarters. They volunteer to help with one of our two eight-week SOL Summer Academic Camps designed to stem summer learning loss, with the “Rising 9th grader” camp also focusing on successfully transitioning 8th graders into high school. 
Parents of SOL members are also recruited to participate in our annual Latino Parent Leadership Cohort to receive intensive civic engagement and advocacy training regarding education issues. They receive tuition reimbursement for successfully completing our English as a Second Language (ESL) and/or our Digital Connectors class designed to bridge the digital divide facing our Spanish-speaking community.
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