Helping At-Risk Youth Through Tutoring and Community Garden Initiatives

l-r: First-year students Jeremy Bergman, Ashlyn Gohl, Greta Held, and Madelaine Khosti.

Named as one of the fastest-growing communities in the nation, St. George has experienced a population boom prompted by its location, amenities, a lower cost of living, and more educational opportunities (such as the establishment of RVUCOM’s Southern Utah campus). With so much change, however, comes the need for expanded social services.

Youth Futures is a non-profit organization that meets the needs of the area’s homeless, unaccompanied, runaway, and at-risk youth. It opened its doors to Southern Utah’s first youth homeless shelter in the fall of 2018, coinciding with the matriculation of RVUCOM-SU’s second class of medical students. The shelter, which is located in downtown St. George, provides emergency shelter and temporary residence for adolescents, as well as drop-in services that include food, clothing, laundry facilities, computer access, and case management.

Within months of the shelter’s grand opening, the Medical Student Advocates for Underserved Populations (MSAUP) club began forging a relationship with the non-profit. This included developing a weekly tutoring program and a collaborative garden area located at the shelter. Four students from the Class of 2023 (subsequently selected as project managers) have taken up the charge, bringing vision and consistency to the tutoring and community garden initiatives.

The Youth Futures youth homeless shelter and resource center in downtown St. George, Utah.

Ashlyn Gohl, OMS I, is the project manager for Youth Future’s Tutoring Initiative, a role that she says challenges her to step outside of the medical school bubble and develop her leadership skills. At the end of a long day of attending classes and studying, she looks forward to tutoring at-risk youth. As an undergraduate, SD Gohl worked with Hosea Youth Services, a homeless drop-in center based in Eugene, Oregon where she played an integral role in developing a public health initiative, a mentoring program, and job search services. During her time there, she saw the devastation that comes with dropping out of school or not being able to keep up with the course load. “I feel that tutoring services are an immense need for [at-risk youth]…[it creates] an environment that nourishes long-term success,” says SD Gohl.

Through weekly coordination of volunteer tutors, SD Gohl and fellow project manager Jeremy Bergman, OMS I, have built trust and rapport at the youth shelter. Their continued presence has also provided the opportunity to expand the scope of the program. “We hope to continue building our relationship with the youth and engage a large portion of RVUCOM’s [medical students],” says SD Bergman. In addition to tutoring, the students want to add recreational programming and professional development activities.

Prior to medical school, SD Bergman had volunteered through his church at middle schools, coaching Special Olympics and mentoring teenage boys. “I wanted to be involved in something meaningful,” he says of his decision to join Youth Futures. For him, volunteering meant being a role model and a good influence for those who might not have one.

“Reaching out and leading [others] helps me to remember why I am in school: to serve those who need it most.” – Ashlyn Gohl, OMS I.

Manuela Marin Salcedo, OMS II, former project manager of the Youth Futures Community Garden and Tutoring Initiatives, poses after working the garden in the spring of 2019.

Youth Futures’ Community Garden Initiative, managed by first-year students Madelaine Khosti and Greta Held, promotes wellness and sustainability within the community through recycling and composting programs. Compost from Crimson Cliffs, the student housing community, will be collected for use at the Youth Futures Community Garden. In the spring, SDs Khosti and Held – and a volunteer force of RVU students – will build additional raised garden beds. In preparation for the expansion of the garden, SDs Khosti and Held have secured donations from local small businesses and have applied for a community improvement grant from the Healthy Dixie Council.

Before joining Youth Futures, SD Khosti worked with The Be Kind People Project in her hometown of Phoenix, Arizona. That project emphasized kindness, particularly to oneself, and SD Khosti has carried this same perspective into her work with Youth Futures. “I’m passionate about health, especially as it pertains to youth,” she says. “I believe that nutrition is at the root of self-care and the key to a healthy lifestyle. [However], this is not often a philosophy that teens and young adults practice or understand. As an osteopathic medical student, I think acknowledging this crucial factor is a big part of our holistic approach.”

Vegetables grow in one of the garden beds at the Youth Futures’ Community Garden.

Prior to RVUCOM, SD Held worked closely with Science in Action, an organization based in Spokane, Washington that brings science activities into the classroom. “Empowerment through education is necessary for helping youth develop a mindset that allows them to critically evaluate the world around them,” says SD Held, who plans on involving Youth Futures in the development and maintenance of the community garden. “When the stress of homelessness is present, survival mode often takes precedence over learning. These circumstances demand the creation of a safe space with supportive mentors.”

“[This] is an awesome opportunity to not only practice our philosophy [at RVUCOM] and be active in the community but to also act as role models in educating the youth to be conscious of their own well-being.” – Madelaine Khosti, OMS I

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