NORMAN — A visitor to a regular afternoon session at Loveworks would never know it began as a small after-school program for at-risk middle school students.
Monday through Thursday, approximately 40 students (led by volunteers) are busily crafting, creating, brainstorming, dining, studying, learning and interacting in an environment abuzz with a kind of positive energy that can only come from young people excited to be where they are.
Loveworks, Inc. is a two-year-old outreach program founded by Clark Mitchell of Journey Church in Norman, launched to give back to the community by positively reinforcing its most vulnerable population: middle school students.
“When we began, we had three big strategies,” said Loveworks Executive Director Michael Hirsch. “To help students to live into their potential, live into their dreams, and see kids break the cycle of poverty — not economic poverty, but poverty of thinking and self-image.”
Since its inception in February 2011, Loveworks has grown to encompass two campuses in Norman, with a third in preparation in Ponca City.
“We want to create unique environments for each student. Through kids talking to their friends and parents talking to each other, we’ve gained a wide range of kids. Loveworks isn’t an environment strictly for ‘at-risk’, it’s for kids potentially on their way to Harvard,” Hirsch said.
A prime example of a Loveworks beneficiary is Beth Willoughby, an eighth grader at Longfellow Middle School who began participating in Loveworks through a friend’s referral when the program was still brand new.
“I was going through a really rough time in my life and I had a friend who was coming here and told me about what it was and what they do,” Willoughby said. “I decided I wanted to come too, so my friend and I sat down with Michael (Hirsch) and I explained why I wanted to join and I’ve been here for the past 2 years.”
Students participating in Loveworks spend time in small groups doing hands-on activities and there is also time allotted for academic tutoring and lessons on leadership and empowerment.
A concept that resonated with Willoughby was the metaphor of the iceberg, encouraging students to reveal those elements of their character which they typically withhold, and devote all their talents to accomplishing goals.
Willoughby incorporated this lesson with the encouragement of her mentors to coordinate a program-wide production, in which more than 100 students showcased creative talents such as video production and acting in a perfomance.
“I absolutely love this place,” Willoughby said. “Coming here is a great time to for me to put whatever is bothering me aside, just let it flow and be in a place that’s positive and uplifting.”
In addition to daily encouragement, Loveworks is also a place where students like Beth Willoughby, who has expressed a desire to one day open a restaurant, can receive mentorship from real-world restaurant owners like Interurban co-founder/owner Rusty Loeffler.
“My original desire to volunteer really had nothing to do with my background, it was to put something back in the community and help the kids, that’s where the future is, in younger generations,” Loeffler said.
As the program progressed, Loeffler’s culinary skills were much needed in utilizing a partnership with Regional Food Bank to prepare dinner for the students and teaching the culinary arts focus group. The culinary class became so popular that it now serves to reward students who exhibit improvement in school grades and attendance.
“I have a passion for food and the kids love it. It’s an opportunity for them to learn and try dishes they probably wouldn’t at home,” Loeffler said.
According to Hirsch, it is this kind of community convergence and networking that keeps Loveworks alive and successful.
“When people ask about our success they want to look at materials and resources, but I point to our community,” Hirsch said. “All walks of lifehave come together an dunited to invest in this generation. We have volunteer leaders from high school, an incredible relationship with the University of Oklahoma students, young professionals and retirees. Volunteers have been the ingredient that has surprised me over and over again...they’re always needed so as to maintain a 2-1 ratio of volunteer to student,” Hirsch said.
Benefits of lending expertise or gaining valuable experience aside, the bottom line is nurturing young people who need a caring environment.
“Any adult can make a positive influence on a kid just by being there, caring and listening to them and expressing an interest in their lives,” Loeffler said. “Kids like to know that adults care and want them to succeed, it helps their self-esteem. We’ve seen a lot of benefit in that as we go forward with Loveworks.”
To volunteer, refer a student or find out more, visit www.loveworksoutreach.com.