June 2, 2014 – Union Tribune

WIT, short for Whatever It Takes, trains high school students to do community outreach

Like many other motivated high school seniors, Christina Clark, Sophie Woods and Elisa Greenberg are preoccupied this spring with graduation, summer jobs and packing for college.

But the young women have quite a bit more on their plates, as well. As members of the first graduating class of the community outreach program WIT, they’re planning an event next week to showcase WIT projects that were conceived, developed and accomplished entirely by local high school students.

WIT, short for Whatever it Takes, is a nonprofit that trains teens in leadership and entrepreneurial skills, then puts them in charge of pulling off projects that have included feeding needy families, an anti-bullying campaign, elder care and youth workshops on body image and obesity.

Woods, a 17-year-old resident of Hillcrest, developed a six-week arts workshop for grade-schoolers and said she can’t believe how much she has changed in her four years in WIT.

“The idea of picking up a phone and calling a school principal in my freshman year was absolutely terrifying. Now I know how to make calls, write thank-you letters and emails and how to get a job done from start to finish. I feel like I could go out and do anything now,” said Woods, who will be a pre-law student at North Carolina’s Davidson College in the fall.

WIT is the brainchild of Sarah Hernholm, a former elementary schoolteacher who created the college-credit program to unlock teenagers’ hidden potential.

“I’m passionate about teens and making them understand how valuable they are to the world,” said Hernholm, 37, of San Diego. “They’re a great resource for ideas, if adults will only take the time to listen.”

One of the biggest breakthroughs on that front occurred in March, when Clark, Woods and Greenberg were invited to Chicago to present the results from their joint WIT project to executives with the American Medical Association. The teens used a $10,000 grant to develop a six-month mentorship program teaching healthy eating and exercise habits to obese children. At the conclusion of their presentation, all three students were offered AMA internships.

“It felt so amazing to give that presentation and have all these adults take us so seriously,” said Clark, an 18-year-old Rancho Santa Fe resident who’s considering studying sustainable development when she attends New York’s Columbia University in the fall.

The seeds for WIT were sown after Hurricane Katrina, when Hernholm was teaching fourth- and fifth-graders in the San Diego school district. Students asked her how they could help victims of the 2005 catastrophe, and she insisted the students plan their own fundraiser.

“I always put it on the kids to figure it out for themselves. I’d tell them ‘you have to want it more than I do because if I do it, you will never be empowered,’” Hernholm said. “Taking a project from idea to completion is a great way to learn. It’s like running a marathon. You don’t really finish the race without running every step yourself.”

After getting pink-slipped four times during the recession, Hernholm left teaching in 2010 to start WIT. She started small, with a group of 8-10 freshmen at her alma mater, Francis Parker School (the initial group included Clark, Woods and Greenberg). WIT has since expanded to include more than 50 students at seven private, public and charter high schools countywide.

Students pay $1,800 annual tuition to participate in the yearlong program (scholarships are available). The money is used, in part, to pay the salaries of the part-time faculty who meet with students one night each week during the school year. Curriculum includes lessons in leadership, problem-solving, values and ethics, current events and how to develop a social campaign. In the fall, teams of 2-3 students pitch their ideas to a panel of outside donors and those that achieve funding are carried to completion in the spring.

Not every idea gets funded, and not every student makes it through WIT. Hernholm said the purpose of WIT is to provide real-world experience to students, so if they’re missing deadlines or not following through on goals, they will be asked to leave.

Although many of the students in WIT come from privileged backgrounds, Hernholm requires that each new campus site mix students from different schools and socio-economic backgrounds.

“It forces them to break out of their little bubbles and confront the stereotypes they might have about others,” she said.

Greenberg, 18, said her eyes were opened when she found out that schoolchildren who depend on free lunch programs often go hungry during holiday and summer breaks. She led the team that created the WIT project FULL, where 30 low-income families were invited several times a year to collect free groceries that Greenberg arranged through donations from Vons and Bread & Cie. The program has been so successful, she has trained another WIT student to replace her as administrator when she heads this fall to Connecticut, where she’s considering a degree in civic engagement at Wesleyan University.

“This experience has helped me grow as a leader, and it’s been so rewarding for us as a team to realize we’re making a difference right here in our own community,” said Greenberg, a University City resident.

WIT operates on a $150,000 annual budget from the East Village offices of its development partner Mission Edge San Diego, a startup that provides business and infrastructure services to fellow nonprofits. Hernholm said she is growing WIT gradually and hopes to reach 120 students this year, including new groups at San Diego’s new Central Library and in St. Louis. She said getting the student mix right and finding funding for well-executed projects is more important than a rushed expansion.

To help get the word out about WIT, a showcase event is planned at 6 p.m. Monday at the Central Library. Nine groups of students will talk about their projects, followed by a dessert reception. Clark said the event will celebrate the first four years of the program and point a light toward the organization’s future.

“It’s a bittersweet time for us,” Clark said. “But we’re all excited to see where WIT goes.”

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