Tara C. Walker-Pollock is the Success After 6 Manager for United Way of Youngstown and the Mahoning Valley, which provides a number of enrichment opportunities and wraparound services for families throughout the Valley. Started in 2015 at Youngstown Community School, Success After 6 will now reach families in a total of 7 schools, including 5 elementary schools in the Youngstown City Schools District. Tara is thrilled about the opportunity she’s been given to serve children and families in the community where she grew up. She hopes to pave the way for the next generation of Youngstown to see themselves as being proud products of Youngstown and fully capable of moving the city towards a great future. Tara resides in Youngstown with her husband and daughter.
Power of the Arts coordinator Karen Schubert interviewed Walker Pollock in the Power of the Arts office downtown.
KS: Tara, thanks for taking the time to talk with me today.
TWP: Thank you for reaching out to me.
So we’ve just come from the ribbon cutting at the SMARTS Center in their new home downtown. It’s such a beautiful place, everything—
The room was full of hope and optimism. It’s great to see. Tell us how you have been involved with the SMARTS program.
So how I got involved working with SMARTS was, I am currently the Success After 6 manager for United Way of Youngstown and Mahoning Valley, and under our Success After 6 Umbrella we have an after school program. We started the program at Youngstown Community School in 2015 and then this most recent school year we expanded into Youngstown City Schools at Taft Elementary.
I was in charge of the program at Taft Elementary so we had SMARTS programming this year. They worked with us the entire school year. They provided three different sessions, so first we did theater arts for ten weeks, we did ten weeks of visual arts and printmaking, and then we did ten weeks of the drum circles.
That sounds incredible. I’ve seen some clips on the Taft Promise Neighborhood Facebook page and it looks like so much fun. There’s just this exuberance and engagement. So at Success After 6— does that mean only particular children can be involved? Is there some kind of a screening process?
So Success After 6, the after school program, we are really trying to work with students primarily that need extra support. Success After 6 is more than an after school program. We also provide a lot of wrap-around services but when it came to the after school piece, we wanted to make sure we were primarily working with students that needed extra support, be it academics, also social-emotional. We help support families; so we started by reaching out to families at the school, letting them know that this program was coming, and gave them an opportunity to be a part that way. We also worked with teachers to identify the students that really could benefit from the support that we were looking to offer. Again, academic support was very crucial to our program, but also the social-emotional support that a lot of students need.
We know that many of our students come from some very challenging situations, at times heart-breaking situations, and so even though we do all that we can to impact their lives in a positive way, sometimes they’re still going home to, again, very challenging and heart-breaking situations. So just wanting to make sure that we had that support to offer to the Taft community which was where we started.
And you started at Taft because it was selected as the Promise Neighborhood—
Yeah, Taft Promise Neighborhood has come together in such an amazing way. There are, probably, over forty partners from throughout the Mahoning Valley that have come together to make Taft Promise Neighborhood a reality. United Way specifically heads up the education piece of Taft Promise Neighborhood. The Taft area was chosen with the idea of having a school as the community hub. So impacting the children that are students of the school but also impacting the communities through the other services and programs that we provided. And Taft, at that point, was one of the only schools in the district that was still considered a true neighborhood school, where a lot of the students lived within close proximity of the school where they can walk or ride their bikes to school. That had a lot to do with why Taft Elementary was chosen as a community hub.
Is this a change of direction for the United Way? They’ve been funding other organizations that have programming, but then to take on programming themselves—do you know the impetus behind that? Was it filling some kind of a void?
We have taken a shift to a more “impact model” where we are providing the direct impact. We do still fund other agencies that support a lot of our impact work that we’re doing, so that part of United Way, that we’ve always known United Way to be, is still in place. But moving towards this impact model is something that more United Ways are starting to do. There are two United Ways in particular that we visited to explore starting the community school concept. There is a United Way in Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania, and then there’s one out in the Salt Lake City area where they’ve been doing this work in the community schools for several years now. And they really started to make great strides. So we kind of used those as our model.
And then when we were able to come together with the AmerCorps VISTAs, and the folks that had already signed on for the Taft Promise Neighborhood, it was the perfect fit. It just all came together at the right time, and we were able to move forward together.
Did they have arts programming at Taft, is there regular arts programming there?
They do have art classes, they also have music classes, so there is a teacher who would come in at least once a week to make sure that every class there was getting art and then also music.
So they would have art or music once a week?
Both. They would have both art and music once a week.
How long has the Success After 6 program at Taft been up and running?
This past school year, the 2016-17 school year, was our very first year in Youngstown City Schools at Taft, and now moving forward into the next school year, 2017-18, we will be in Taft as well as four other elementaries in Youngstown City Schools. We will still be at Youngstown Community School; we’re also expanding into Girard Schools, but in Youngstown City we will continue to be at Taft, also Williamson, MLK, Bunn, and McGuffey. So we are expanding pretty quickly.
That’s exciting. So, any assessment program is not yet complete. But what’s your feeling about what a difference it’s made? What are you seeing and hearing?
I’m feeling very optimistic. This is very difficult work. You become very attached to the children and the families and the challenges that they’re facing. But one thing I’ve seen is that children, and even some of the adults, they are so resilient. And you just can’t imagine the situations they come to school with every day and they still have smiles on their faces.
There’s a lot of warm and fuzzy feelings that you get from doing this work, but again, academics was a crucial part of our program, and you know, we’re working. We’re working on making strides academically, as well. One of the key changes going into this next school year in Youngstown City is that we will be working together with the district, because the district also started an after school program this past year, and so we will get to work together to help impact the children both academically, and then Success After 6 will also provide enrichment opportunities for the students.
It’s so much more than just an after school program where you’re just keeping people alive and maybe giving them a snack.
Which all of that is important, but we say all the time that we’re not here to babysitting children. No disrespect to that line of work, but for us, again, it was about academics, because it’s no secret that Youngstown City is facing a lot in terms of overcoming where they are as a district, academically. So anything that we can do to help support them, moving forward and reaching success, is absolutely so crucial to our program.
What about the arts, in particular? Why include that if you really need an academic program? Why not just focus on the academics without the arts?
We just heard some of the statistics at the ribbon-cutting ceremony: it’s very real that arts programming impacts children’s lives in a major way and gives them something to focus on and put their energy towards. One of the statistics was saying how children involved in the arts are less likely to dabble in drugs and do some other things. We have a lot of children who are going home to some very tough situations, and so I think the arts is so important to give them something positive to focus on and help them to find something within themselves that they might not have ever known was there, that they can aspire to.
Of course, academics is very crucial, but with Success After 6, it was also crucial to help with the social-emotional development of our students, because it takes more than just book smarts to be successful in life. While that is huge, it was very important to provide those other outlets for students to express themselves, and inspire them in the classroom but also expose them to different opportunities.
So— creativity and a sense of empowerment, strengthening those neural pathways, and just feeling really engaged. It’s often a collaborative or group project, so you’re working together, knowing people in different ways.
Speaking of AmeriCorpsVISTA, you and I met during an AmeriCorpsVISTA service year at Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corporation. At the time, you were working on your master’s degree at Penn State in Community and Economic Development. What do you think led you to want to do this kind of nonprofit work?
It really came during that time of being at YNDC as an AmeriCorpsVISTA and also being in school for my master’s at the same time. Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corporation provided such an amazing opportunity for me to learn and get into community development work because it was different from what I’d been doing. I learned so much there. But one of the things that came to me, especially while I was a VISTA, was, you know, the work that’s being done by organizations like YNDC and others in the Valley is amazing, but, as we who are here doing the work right now move on and start to do other things with our lives, who are we going to pass all of this work on to?
For me, I felt that it would be a disservice to our community if we weren’t also working just as hard on the development of our youth, so that they have something to grow up and say, like, I want to impact Youngstown! This is where I’m from, I’m proud to be from here, and I can have an impact right here, where I grew up. For me, growing up in this area, I’ll be quite honest, I was encouraged to go away to college, and I didn’t feel at the time that there were opportunities for me here to do what it was that I wanted to do. And when I came to YNDC and I saw, oh yeah, there is opportunity for me here, I became really, really passionate about being able to spread that to the youth that are coming up right now, so that they can have something that they can take ownership of right here in Youngstown.
I know exactly what you mean. I think there’s a big difference. For me, it just occurred to me that we all have a sense that things are good or not good or—whatever that general feeling is—and maybe we have a few theories about what might make it better. There’s something life-altering about looking at the data and really seeing how the data’s changed over time and looking at best practices, what have other communities tried, and what have really worked? It’s also very uplifting, but it’s also so concrete. You realize you don’t have to move forward making public policy on theory. We can really try out plans that have solid backing, statistics-wise.
And so, you’re a new mom—
How do you think that has that changed your idea of the importance of the arts in our individual lives? Do you see her engaging? I know she’s pretty little.
She’s 2 ½. I can’t wait— I was just thinking at the ribbon-cutting ceremony for SMARTS, I can’t wait until my daughter can benefit from programs like this. I was fortunate to be able to take dance lessons and piano lessons when I was a kid. So many kids don’t get that opportunity because their families just can’t afford to provide those types of opportunities. But to have things like SMARTS in our community is so exciting. I definitely can see my daughter being engaged in the arts. She’s already very expressive and loves music, just like me and her dad, and I can totally see how it can help further develop her. She’s very smart, very intelligent, and I just can’t wait to see how she can benefit from programs like SMARTS.
And I really appreciate the point you’re making that we are working to convey this idea that the arts isn’t just for people who can afford it. That that enrichment should be available to everyone. And people need to see themselves there. They need people who look like them, and people whose experiences are similar to theirs.
Do you have anything else that you would like to tell us about the power of the arts in the community, or anything you’d like us to know?
I’m just very excited for opportunities like this to be taking place, be it SMARTS, be it Lindsay Renea Dance Theater—there are amazing arts opportunities here in Youngstown being led by people who are from this community, and it’s really exciting to see. I just am grateful to be a part of it, grateful that we’re able to continue working with SMARTS and that they’ll be able to expand with us as we expand. Just being able to spread the word: this is arts. This is for you. I’m just really excited about this opportunity and where it’s going to lead.
⇒Watch a video of Taft’s end-of-the-year picnic with a cameo by Tara’s daughter. dance_party