Empowering students is part of the program with Middle School Matters

At Webb Middle School, United Way Capital Area is helping 20 7th graders become the next generation of community leaders by hosting a nationally-recognized Volunteer Project Leader (VPL) training program on campus.

Nikki leads VPL training at Webb
Nikki leads VPL training at Webb

These dedicated 12- and 13-year-olds regularly get to school early every Thursday to participate in training. They are eager to learn how to make their school and neighborhoods better.

“It started when we hosted volunteer projects on campus last spring,” said Nikki Krueger, Director, Volunteer Engagement at UWCA. “After Deloitte’s IMPACT Day there, the principal and assistant principal asked if we had leadership opportunities for their students. This fit perfectly.”

The VPL course is a national initiative to turn casual volunteers into active community leaders. While Hands On Central Texas (HOCT), the UWCA program that runs the course locally, has trained hundreds of adult volunteers, this is the first time HOCT has brought this course on a school campus. HOCT staff adapted the training to fit the needs of middle school students.

“We’re training students to identify school and neighborhood needs and lead volunteer projects that address those issues,” said Nikki. “They’ve already completed interviews with other students, teachers, family members and neighbors to figure out what they will work on first.”

The Webb VPL class presented their discoveries to the group, along with special guests from UWCA and Bank of America. Projects included volunteering at soup kitchens, cleaning up local elementary schools, constructing play areas like a soccer field and cleaning up graffiti.

These young leaders will launch their first projects this Friday: beautifying their campus by cleaning litter, recycling and completing art projects to hang in the hallways. In December, students will gather donated materials and construct 90 fleece blankets for area non-profits. All in all, they will complete at least seven volunteer projects this school year from start to finish.

“Lasting change is made when students take ownership of their actions and make their school and community a better place,” said Amber Walsh, Middle School Matters Coordinator. “We are training students who will be the next generation of leaders improving Austin communities.”

UWCA was already present on the Webb campus as part of Middle School Matters- an initiative to bring essential services offered by non-profits to key campuses and thus increase graduation rates. The VPL program furthers that work by helping student leaders hone their skills and empowering them to make positive change. After an initial pilot year at Webb, UWCA hopes to bring the VPL program to the two other campuses served by Middle School Matters, Decker Middle School and Mendez Middle School.

Encouraging student leaders is not just part of Middle School Matters, it’s a key element of Webb’s culture. They regularly host University of Texas Law students on campus to hold youth court- a court system where students help define justice for themselves and each other. Webb also has a robust after-school program.

“These projects have helped kids realize that there’s a world outside of the St. John community that’s interested, engaged and willing to help,” said Valerie Torres-Solis, Assistant Principal at Webb Middle School. “They’re inspired and motivated to make a difference, which is an amazing thing to see in anyone, particularly middle school students.”

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