The national dialogue continues over the rural-urban divide in America and what to do about those people and communities ‘left behind.’ There’s the sense that rural poverty is both a critical issue and one that is simply too big to resolve. When presented in monolithic terms, the problems can feel insurmountable.

But what if real progress lies, not in top-down, one-size-fits-all solutions, but in incremental, grassroots-driven change? Nearly two years into IYF’s LEAPS initiative, launched with support from BHP, what stands out are both the very real needs of youth growing up in rural Texas and northern Louisiana and the existence of local champions who are making a difference—one community at a time. In addition, we’ve confirmed and deepened our understanding that complex challenges like those affecting rural America require innovative, and integrated, approaches.

LEAPS’ holistic approach is rooted in four principles:

  1. Partner with local organizations to fill gaps and build connections so that schools and communities can reach their own goals. LEAPS is not a project or solution imposed by IYF; rather, it provides extra “boots on the ground” to strengthen the work of young leaders, principals and other visionaries, and lighten their load. Consistent with IYF’s work around the globe, we began by listening—to students, teachers, principals, employers, and nonprofit leaders—about rural challenges and gaps in critical resources and services. After mapping the resource and service needs of youth and local leaders in each region, we tailored technical assistance and grant funds in consultation with local partners. To date, we’ve engaged over 70 companies, schools, government agencies, and nonprofits in creating a network of support for young people, ages 11 to 24, in West Texas, South Texas, and Northern Louisiana. To sustain this impact, we offered new tools, curricula, and training in trauma-informed care, soft skills instruction, leadership development, advocacy, labor market analysis, and more.
  2. Identify and invest in local champions. In every community, we found resourceful, committed individuals and supported them in taking their work with young people to the next level. One of these, high school teacher Shannon Wagner in Cuero, Texas, now delivers IYF’s life skills curriculum, Passport to Success® (PTS). “Four years of high school goes by really fast,” she says. “Through these classes, we're telling students it's never too early to prepare for your future.” Shannon shared with us how this new program and other LEAPS’ initiatives really inspired and motivated her this year.
  3. Seize all opportunities for youth input and support. Young people will soon be the stewards of rural America, yet many teenagers feel excluded from civic life. Flipping this switch is relatively easy, with considerable gains for youth and communities. Whether assessing local needs, designing programs, or advising grant making priorities, youth are integral to our efforts, with youth advisory committees being formed in each region where LEAPS is active. Young people gain leadership and project management skills, mobilize peers, propose solutions, and collaborate with decision makers. Moreover, young people are experts about the issues that affect them the most. By listening to local youth, we learned about the impact of low wages and economic stagnation within families and of growing anxiety and depression among teens.
  4. Embed broader services into public schools. In remote communities, young people often lack access to mental health and wellness services; mentors; career fairs; and support in overcoming educational, financial, and emotional hurdles. LEAPS brings these much needed-services directly to students through dedicated partners.

Clearly, the challenges facing rural youth are complex and elude easy answers. It takes time to build trust within smaller communities, with the sheer distance between locations posing a barrier to program implementation. Looking ahead, more questions loom large, such as how to stimulate economic growth and entrepreneurship within LEAPS’ communities and what role localized banks might play in building a broader base of wealth. Nonetheless, we’re already seeing progress says Laura Alderman, Executive Director of Step Forward, LEAPS’ partner in Northern Louisiana. “Our partnership [with IYF] has already influenced policy and practice changes within organizations, K-12 systems, and higher education." 

LEAPS recently hosted a learning event attended by service providers and youth from each of the regions where the initiative is active. Listen to IYF's President & CEO, Susan Reichle, who focused not on the size of the mountain left to climb, but on the next steps and solutions. According to Reichle, "If we are not focusing on rural populations and on exploring how to help young people increase their agency so they can take advantage of economic opportunities, then we're not doing our job." 

To learn more about LEAPS, watch Strengthening Youth Opportunity in Rural America with LEAPS or contact IYF's Program Director, Katie Raymond at k.raymond@iyfnet.org