Removing Barriers to Education
United Way of the Eastern Upper Peninsula is located in Sault Ste. Marie, MI – less than 5 minutes south of Ontario, Canada and over 5 hours away from our State’s capital. We serve a rural population, three counties wide where hopping into the car to go anywhere could mean a 20 minute drive – or more.
Living in a rural area has its advantages and disadvantages. While we enjoy less traffic and a sometimes slower approach to our day, we also contend with lower wages, higher transportation costs and having fewer resources available to cover basic needs than might be more readily available in a larger metropolitan area.
With this in mind, in October 2012, United Way of the EUP began coordinating a life skills group with students from a local alternative education school in Sault Ste. Marie. From 2012 to 2013 we met with seven students on a monthly basis and assisted with topics such as subsidized and youth supportive housing; applying for state benefits for food, medical and child development assistance; the ins and outs of opening a bank account, and saving for the future; as well as nontraditional post-high school education opportunities. Of our seven students, all four who were slated for graduation attended their commencement in cap and gown! In 2013 our group really grew, and we had over 20 students.
In addition to the basic necessities of living that these students struggle with – most of the time on their own, without the support of home or family – they are also faced with not having personal documentation that most of us might take for granted. We’ve had to work on helping students obtain the documentation necessary to apply for a job: driver’s licenses, state IDs, social security cards, birth certificates and, in some cases, tribal membership documentation. We’ve also worked on resumes, job skills, Social media “dos and don’ts”, creating workplace-appropriate email addresses, food, clothing, and more. We coordinate speakers from the community to address concerns or topics that the students are interested in; this year it was employers that the students chose who spoke about job opportunities available in our community after high school graduation. We have met with probation officers to get some of our youth on a healthier path, as well as Northern Transitions, Inc. and Michigan Rehabilitation Services.
In addition to helping students with these resources, we encourage their repeat attendance to the group with snacks and pantry items that can be taken home. We’ve found that those students with family are often struggling to work to help for bills and groceries at home. Providing them with some healthy food choices eases some of the stress of their home-life. Each of our students looks forward to this.
In May of this year, we had 15 of our students graduate. Students who had no personal documentation have now obtained what they needed. Students who had never learned how to put together a resume were now armed with a basic knowledge of what employers look for, and how to update resumes as their experience grows. Many from our student group were able to attend a campus tour, something that several have said they would have never done – nor been given the opportunity to do – on their own for various reasons; including the fact that a few of our students had never in their 16+ years, ever been to the lower peninsula where our tour took us.
We’ve had so much terrific feedback from students and instructors in our Sault Ste. Marie school, that in April 2014 we branched out to a second alternative education school in Kincheloe. In the short time we had last school year, we were able to coordinate students in a community service project through the Chippewa County Economic Development Corporation. The students received some great positive adult interaction and community feedback on the job they did during their project. We are just starting to schedule this school year’s groups, and can’t wait to get started.
The United Way of the Eastern Upper Peninsula serves Chippewa, Macinac and Schoolcraft Counties in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Learn more by visiting www.unitedwayeup.org.