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Iron Range Youth in Action
TOWER – The Woodlands Ballroom at Fortune Bay Resort Casino was nearly full to capacity on Monday, Feb. 13, with a crowd of approximately 425 who were attending the 22nd annual Iron Range Youth in Action (IRYA) conference. In addition to 390 high school students, there were advisors, teachers, chaperones, and St. Louis County staff attending the conference with the theme, Make a Difference.
Thirteen area high schools were represented this year including: Cherry, Chisholm, Ely, Eveleth-Gilbert, Hibbing, Mesabi East (Aurora), Mt. Iron-Buhl, Northeast Range (Babbitt), North Woods (Cook), South Ridge (Culver) and Virginia. New to the conference this year were teens from Duluth East and Duluth Denfeld. The IRYA PARTNERS Board, consisting of representatives from cities and school districts across the Iron Range-area, encouraged the Duluth-based schools to attend in hopes of extending the youth in action program to the Duluth and Proctor areas in the future.
At the registration table, teens were checked in and each given a lanyard with their registration tag attached. The tags had a color-coded system showing which workshops they would be attending. Students were required to register for the workshops ahead of time and had to attend at least three to fulfill the attendance requirement. They were also given a goodie bag containing snacks, an event T-shirt, and an assortment of vendor brochures and pens. Signup for the conference was required a month in advance so that organizers could plan for the number attending.
All grade 9-12 students from the schools represented were invited to participate. Funding for the conference comes from many different sources including local businesses, agencies, community supporters, and St. Louis County (SLC). The PARTNERS Board, made up of 25 representatives from different city and county entities, coordinates the funding for the conference. St. Louis County representatives Tyler Erickson and Taryn Burnett, who are both program coordinators, along with Patty Swedberg, program administrator, were also very involved in planning the conference.
Patty filled me in on the planning work that goes into the conference. “This our 22nd annual conference and we find that Fortune Bay is the best place to hold it because the ballroom is the largest venue in the area. We start planning the event in mid-October, lining up which schools will be presenting and what keynote speakers to invite. We also start organizing our funding and are very thankful to all the local agencies and businesses that contribute to this event every year.”
Following the registration and welcome, keynote speaker, J.R. Salzman, who is a world champion lumberjack log roller and an Iraq war veteran, spoke on his determination to move forward. Despite their high energy level entering the conference, the teens listened intently as Salzman relayed his story of having enlisted with the Minnesota Army National Guard following the September 11 attacks. While serving in Baghdad, he was severely wounded and suffered a traumatic brain injury when the Humvee in which he was riding was hit by a roadside bomb. Although he lost his right arm, he persevered and taught himself how to log roll again. Since that time, he has won a record-breaking 10 log rolling contests—a true testament to his determination to continue competing despite his injuries.
After the keynote address, teens flooded the hallway as they found their way to the several workshops presented during the half-day event. There were eight workshops this year, each of them organized by a team of students with the help of a student advisor. It is up to each team, typically made up of at least five students, to come up with a topic they would like to present, do the necessary research on the topic, then practice to make sure the presentation fits within the 30 minute time slot allowed. All eight of the presentations took place at the same time in different locations, and were offered three times each.
Gina Olson, the SLC support staff representative, who was kept busy at the registration table with the initial check-in process and the workshop attendance said, “The Life Skills and Self- Defense workshops were the two most popular at the conference and filled up quickly through preregistration.” The attendance at each of the workshops averaged around 50 students. The Self- Defense class was stationed in the balcony adjunct area to allow more room for participants to practice their moves.
Chisholm High School, had “learning how to do your own laundry” as part of their presentation. They were in the middle of reviewing stain-removal methods when I eased into the back of the room. The student speaker was using a PowerPoint presentation and had some humorous pictures to accompany her speech, which kept the kids engaged and laughing. She also had pictures of what the “hieroglyphics,” as she called them, on clothing tags stand for as to what methods are recommended for washing and drying. The next section was a video on how to sew on a button. These might seem like trivial skills but, in reality, I know many people that don’t know how to sew or do their own laundry so it seemed a very appropriate topic to present.
The Self-Defense presentation I was able to observe was sponsored by the team representing
Mt. Iron-Buhl. Self-defense tactics were demonstrated by Lynn Stuckey from the Mesabi Family YMCA in Virginia. Kids were paired up following her demonstration to gently practice what techniques had been shown. Once again, there was much laughter but I could tell the kids were paying attention and seemed to be very interested in what Lynn had to say.
Other workshops included:
• Self-Worth, sponsored by the team from Virginia
• Healthy Relationships, by North Woods School
• Responsible Pet Ownership, by Cherry
• Warning Signals (what an unhealthy teen relationship looks like), by Mesabi East
• Effective Communication, by Ely
• Sleeping Beauty (tips for healthy sleeping habits), by the team from South Ridge School
It appeared that all of the workshops were very well attended.
Following the morning filled with workshops, lunch was served in the Woodlands Ballroom and Jason Mystic, a certified master hypnotist, provided entertainment during this time. While I was unable to attend the hypnotist show, I heard from quite a few who said it was a lot of fun and the antics that Jason Mystic had people performing under hypnosis were entertaining. Gina Olson contacted me the next day and said, “I have to tell you that I was able to look in on Jason Mystic and found myself laughing out loud! He had some of the hypnotized kids believing that audience members were animals in a petting zoo and the animals needed some attention. The kids, in their altered state, were petting the heads of audience members. It was funny and he put on a great show. ”
Those same sentiments were also reflected by some kids I spoke with following the event.
Sophie Lenz, a sophomore from Northeast Range School agreed that the hypnotist was a great part of the conference. This was her second year in attending the conference and she had this to say: “I really liked the workshops this year. I attended Life Skills, Sleeping Beauty, and Self-Defense, which was my favorite. It seemed like the work- shops this year were better than the last time I was here. The first speaker was also really good and had great things to say.”
Sophie was an attendee at the conference but she has also been involved in other IRYA activities. She said, “Some of the things we’ve done at the Northeast Range School have been the Buddy Backpack program where packs are filled with food to give to kids that may not have enough to eat. We’ve also had penny wars between the classes to help raise money for the food shelf.”
When asked if she had anything else to add Sophie said, “I would encourage everyone to be involved in the IRYA. It’s good for people to get involved in their community and be helpful.”
Two other students that attended the conference were sisters Kate and Claire Beaudry from North Woods School in Cook. Kate is a senior this year and attended as one of the five-member presentation team from North Woods. As a presenter, she was unable to attend the other workshops but her involvement was interesting from a different perspective. Kate said, “I’ve attended the conference twice before, but this was the first year I’ve been part of a presentation team. I helped set up the day before with decorations and making sure all the equipment we needed for our presentation was working and ready to go.” Patty Swedberg (SLC program administrator) told me that there were around 60 volunteers that helped set up the event the day before.
The North Woods presentation topic, Healthy Relationships (creating healthy family relationships and friendships) was arrived at on a group level. Kate said, “Our presentation team along with our advisor, Jon Scherf, met a while back and had a brainstorming session. The discussion turned to abusive relationships and that just seemed to be something we all agreed would be interesting. There were five of us that actually gave the presentation but there were many more in our group that did the research and gave us the material we needed to work with.”
As to the conference itself, Kate said, “It seemed very well organized. Tyler and Taryn (SLC coordinators) were great to work with. I also really enjoyed the keynote speaker. He was very interesting and he had a good story on how to persevere. The hypnotist was really funny so that was a good part of the conference and the chicken fajita lunch was great!”
This was the second conference that Claire Beaudry, a sophomore at North Woods School, had attended and she too enjoyed the day. Claire said, “The keynote speaker had a very inspiring story and I also found out how much training went into log rolling. The hypnotist was really funny so that was a good speaker to have too.”
Claire attended the Life Skills, Sleeping Beauty, and Effective Communication workshops. She said, “My favorite workshop was Effective Communication, but all of them I attended were good. I like the conferences because I get to see students from other schools. I know a lot of them through sports, but here there is a blend of kids that attend, which is nice to see.”
Claire is an active participant in the IRYA program at North Woods School. “Our IRYA group meets every Monday to come up with ideas to help our community. There are about 15-20 members in the group. This year we plan to do a snack food drive in the spring to provide snacks for the elementary students. We’ll ask people to bring in such things as animal crackers and fruit snacks so there will be supplies on hand for the younger students. Another project our group participates in is picking up garbage in the ditches around the school area in the fall and spring of the year.” Kate Stone, a sophomore at the North Woods School, was also on the presentation team. Kate said, “I thought the conference was great. I’ve attended before and have always liked the conference. The speaker this year was awesome. With everything he had been through, he just told it like it is. You have to work hard to get to where you want to be; nothing comes easy.” Kate also helped with set-up the day before the conference. “We worked for about five hours so it took quite a long time to get the place ready, but it was a lot of fun.”
These comments seem to mirror what the student evaluations indicated. According to the results provided by Gina, the majority of kids listed the speakers as their favorite part of the conference indicating that they were “awesome.” Students also responded that the lunch of chicken fajitas was their favorite part.
According to their responses, the kids learned something meaningful from the presentations they attended. Some of the comments were: “I learned today that vinegar gets out grass stains” and “Communication is key in a relationship.” Other comments included: “Tea, yoga and lavender help you sleep” and “Pets help lower stress.”
Gina said that the closing comments from students such as, “You are who you are and don’t let anyone change that; I can make a difference” and “Never give up,” were her favorite. She adds, “Most said they will make a difference by being kind, helping others, and standing up for what’s right. I believe that says it all and shows the conference was a huge success.”
The annual conference is just one Iron Range Youth in Action activity in which teens participate. In July of 2016, 14 students from five Iron Range Schools joined together to help children and families served by two Twin Cities agencies. The two-day trip brought IRYA students to the Ronald McDonald House and a Salvation Army kids camp in St. Paul. The students were responsible for planning a meal, shopping for necessary groceries, and then preparing and serving the food to 70 people at the Ronald McDonald House. The following day they visited the Salvation Army kids camp playing games and spending time with the children there. IRYA students involved in the trip came from South Ridge, Mt. Iron-Buhl, Virginia, Hibbing and Mesabi East schools.
Other activities over the past six months in which IRYA students have participated are:
• Kids Voting: Virginia Schools K-12 students participated in an election that ran parallel with the state and national elections held in November.
• Field of Screams: Area students dressed up and volunteered at this four night event held at the Minnesota Discovery Center in Chisholm.
• Food drives: Students held food drives in December and donated items to area food shelves.
• Blood drive: Chisholm IRYA participated with the Memorial Blood Center in December by donating blood.
• Costume contest: Eveleth held a contest from which proceeds were donated to the food shelf.
• Cardboard Box City: IRYA students built box homes in which they spent the night in and around the Biwabik Pavillion. They also made fleece blankets to donate and the proceeds from the event were given to the Aurora Food Shelf and Project Elf.
• Habitat for Humanity: Area students volunteered to help build habitat homes.
• Salvation Army: Virginia IRYA kids assisted with daily distribution by sorting and packing items.
• Gift wrapping: Students helped wrap presents at the Thunderbird Mall in Virginia for
two weeks in December.
• Bentleyville: South Ridge students dressed up as reindeer to entertain and assist at this annual Christmas light display event in Duluth.
• Nursing home visits: IRYA students visited nursing homes to help make crafts and cookies and to visit with the residents.
This year, on February 22, students involved in IRYA will be travelling to St. Paul to work in conjunction with the American Lung Association in lobbying legislators. One of the issues that will be discussed is the need for regulation and continued research on electronic cigarettes.
Students will be also be involved in the Pepsi Challenge Cup ski race to be held at Giants Ridge on March 4. They will be helping run a re-fueling station by handing out water, Gatorade, bananas, and energy bars to racers participating in this annual cross-country ski race.
Established in 1996 by St. Louis County Commissioner Liz Prebich and the PARTNERS Board, Iron Range Youth in Action continues to thrive and offer opportunities for youth throughout the area to make positive change in the communities of northern Minnesota. Their mission statement reads: “IRYA maintains and supports quality programs for students in grades 9-12. We promote positive youth development and public service values, and encourage Iron Range youth to become young leaders who are better engaged with their communities. At the same time, we work to bring positive changes to northern Minnesota through partnerships with area businesses, organizations and elected officials.”
IRYA now has more than 400 youth participating from 11 schools and 37 communities. The possible participation of the Duluth and Proctor area schools will make these numbers grow substantially. To learn more about Iron Range Youth in Action and the opportunities it provides for youth and their communities, visit www.irya.org.