Cue the armadillo.
When the little creature scoots into the circle of kneeling Moorhead, Minn., school children, he's simply doing his part for community mobilization.
The same goes for the baby alligator and the bull snake that preceded the armadillo. Here at the Robert Asp Elementary School, the animals get a rock star's reception when they are brought to teacher Joel Swanson's classroom as part of an after-school program.
The children squeal and laugh and reach out to touch them, and then go on to learn about animal care and habits from members of the Red River Zoological Society and Northern Star Camp Fire.
This educational meeting of creatures and kids in Moorhead is one small part of a multifaceted, community mobilization experiment that is supplanting the once-popular American model: identify what is wrong with youths and try to stamp it out.
Over the last two decades, youth programs with singular objectives have multiplied across the United States. But the Moorhead Healthy Community Initiative (MHCI) joins the few that seek to lift and mobilize an entire community.
"What we are doing here," says Superintendent of Schools Bruce Anderson of the far-reaching, collaborative effort, "is focusing on the positive outcome we want and moving together to make it happen."
This is prevention by involvement, not containment.
Example: Instead of adults deciding how to fill the idle after-school hours of many potentially at-risk children, why not survey all Moorhead children for their top 10 choices?
MHCI surveyed 1,100 fourth- through eighth-graders more than a year ago. The result surprised this college community of 32,000 on the banks of the Red River just across from Fargo, N.D. The No. 1 choice was working with animals. Second was swimming, third was drawing.
The survey results were as important as the MHCI decision to recognize children as a community asset and respond with imaginative programs. In addition to the classroom encounter with the armadillo, a 4-H "Happy Trails with Happy Tails" program now matches youths up with trained dogs to visit nursing homes.
What began this overall MHCI mobilization three years ago was a growing concern on the part of community leaders that Moorhead, like many other communities, was beginning to decline as a safe, supportive environment for children and families.
Despite a solid school system, relatively little poverty, and three colleges in town, the community needed to face the encroachment of deeper social issues facing youths and families. The community was also experiencing more ethnic diversity.
In l994, the Search Institute of Minneapolis, a nonprofit organization that provides practical resources to communities to help youths, took a survey of all Moorhead youths. The findings revealed a growing distance between many adults and children, an increase in youth violence, rising use of alcohol and drugs, and sexual experimentation by youths.
"About five years ago we started noticing an increase in gang-type violence and activity, too," says Nancy Taralson, Moorhead community policing coordinator, "and people just hated to see that happening to the community."
The police began community policing and established neighborhood block clubs. Other more traditional organizations, like the YMCA, stepped up their activities. But to address the community-wide problems, a task force of some 80 people came together looking for a new vision that would rekindle community spirit and help develop strong, healthy children and families.
The committee turned to the "asset" model developed by the Search Institute. Moorhead was the second of more than 40 communities across the United States to adopt the asset model in the last few years.
The institute contends that in the interplay of family, child, and community, those children with more "developmental assets" in their lives, such as family support, friendship skills, achievement motivation, sexual restraint, and service to others, will be less likely to slip into at-risk behavior.
Against a master list of 30 assets, Moorhead youths experienced an average of16.8 out of the 30.
But the 1994 survey also revealed, for instance, that of all high school students, 24 percent were using alcohol regularly or binge drinking. And within that percentage, those students with less than 10 assets in their lives were drinking at nearly double that rate. The figures for sexual activity were much higher.
"The more assets a child has," says Dianna Hatfield, coordinator of MHCI since April l995, "the more they thrive, no matter if they are from upper-income or lower-income homes. What makes the difference is how many good things there are in their lives."
The MHCI goal is to enrich children's lives and the community with renewed caring, and move the average number of assets up to 20 to 25.
To achieve this, and minimize outside professional costs, MHCI has a board of directors of community leaders, plus seven asset-building teams with 100 volunteers from all walks of community life.
In 1995, MHCI raised $15,000 from the community and won a $25,000 strategic-planning block grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. It also received a $50,000 violence-prevention grant from the state.
Each team focuses on one asset, including after-school activities, intergenerational connections, positive parenting, or affirmation of core values. The teams spark ideas and collaborations with existing organizations to make each asset a force in children's lives..
"Turf battles have been minimized," says Morrie Lanning, Mayor of Moorhead and an MHCI board member, "and we are all talking the same language."
If Moorhead had a master control room, with a wall map of flashing green lights to denote MHCI-generated activities or collaborations, dozens of bulbs might be flashing on a given day. Many activities are under way for the first time in this school year after months of planning.
Student volunteers from Concordia College here are involved along with the Moorhead Police Department, social agencies, service clubs, landlords, and teachers.
Many of the activities are funded through a $118,000 grant from the state's Governor's Youth Initiative:
*The YMCA will offer 17 carnival pool parties during the year, a two-week swimming camp, and a "drop-in club" for youths 9 to 13.
*Three recreation centers are open for the first time after school from 3 p.m. to 5:30 p.m., offering sports, games, and other activities.
*Service-learning projects for children connect elements of curriculum with a community project.
*Some 30 neighborhood block clubs will put an emphasis on getting to know the names of children in the neighborhoods, matching youths and seniors socially, and encouraging parents to know where their children are at all times.
*After-school activities at Robert Asp Elementary School will offer video production, woodworking, computers, and pottery plus a YMCA program (including snacks and bus passes to get home).
*At Moorhead Junior High, after-school programs include rollerblading, critiquing films, a girls' club, volleyball, and help with homework.
*The Moorhead Public Library converted a van into a "Library to Go" that visits four neighborhoods after school with resources and homework help.
*"Family Meal Time," encourages families to sit down together, turn off the TV, and talk about the events of the day or family history.
Built into the overall program are "Hush Puppies," children who will plan and participate in some of the MHCI activities at schools and then evaluate their success.
"We want to plan things that are really fun, " says Heidi Reed, a student at Moorhead Junior High, "and it's not just adults doing it. We do the planning too."
Many parents, overcoming initial skepticism of yet another program, are now fervent supporters of MHCI, in large part because of their kids' enthusiasm.
Beth Grosen is a facilitator for MHCI's after-school-hours team. She is also Moorhead's assistant director of economic development and the mother of two children.
"Aside from my own self-interest for my kids," she says, "I knew I wanted to be involved because, finally, here was a positive way to help all the families of our community."
How will MHCI measure success? The number of children involved is important, and future surveys will determine if attitudes change. But the scope of the effort brings intangibles. Will the local economy remain stable, relying on higher education and agriculture? Will adult volunteers stay committed to the program? How can future funding be assured while MHCI management stays swift and lean?
Mardy Dovre, the chairwoman of the MHCI board, acknowledges the challenges, but says,"You don't build trust overnight. We would love to become so effective at enabling people to work together that we could go out of business."
"How long does it take to build an asset in a child?" asks Linden Boyd, a member of MCHI's board. "It really depends on the child, and we're just getting started. We don't want to become parents for people, but we are here for activities and support."