A local nonprofit created to serve Joplin students has reached a milestone — finishing its first decade of operations.
Bright Futures Joplin, a grassroots, community-based program that matches student needs with resources through partnerships, is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. The organization will celebrate this week with a slate of virtual events, including daily videos, statistics about the program’s impact, fundraising opportunities and community recognition, on its Facebook page and at brightfuturesjoplin.org.
Since its launch in spring 2010, Bright Futures Joplin has met an estimated 12,200 student needs, served 138,060 weekend snack packs to elementary students and facilitated more than 60,000 volunteer hours in schools. Its model — which connects faith-based organizations, service groups and businesses with the school district to serve students in need — also has been replicated in more than 65 communities across the country under the umbrella not-for-profit group Bright Futures USA.
“It started with some people in a room that had a common interest in meeting basic needs of students,” said Christie Barnhart, a Bright Futures Joplin board member and past president. “And the needs have not gone away. If anything, they are greater than they’ve probably ever been.”
Bright Futures Joplin also seeks to raise $10,000 during its weeklong celebration, and an anniversary T-shirt will be on sale for a $25 donation. Donors can contribute through Facebook or the Community Foundation of the Ozarks.
Funds raised will support ongoing costs of the weekend snack pack program for food-insecure students and immediate needs such as shoes, coats, winter clothing, transportation assistance, school supplies and hygiene items. Donors can provide a backpack full of school supplies for a $45 donation; a $100 donation will fund a set of seasonally appropriate clothing, plus shoes and a coat, for a student.
“A lot of our friends and neighbors still associate Bright Futures Joplin with tornado recovery,” coordinator Sarah Coyne said, referring to the May 2011 tornado that destroyed several Joplin schools. “This anniversary is an opportunity to remind everyone that we were honored to be in a place to step into action after the 2011 tornado, but that we’re still here, still helping kids have what they need in order to feel confident and ready for school on a day-to-day basis.”
Origin of Bright Futures
The concept for Bright Futures was developed in 2008, when the Joplin School District went through a lengthy strategic planning process that involved participation by dozens of community members. Among the key goals of the strategic plan was improving the high school’s dismal graduation rate, which had been referred to by administrators as the district’s “Achilles heel,” then-Superintendent C.J. Huff said.
To achieve that goal, community members suggested tapping into the resources offered by local faith-based and service organizations as well as businesses to build connections that could sustain students as they worked toward graduation. After a kickoff breakfast in April 2010, during which the name “Bright Futures” was coined, the school district worked with Joplin-based Economic Security Corp. to write a grant for the program’s initial funding.
As an ESC employee, Debbie Markman was intimately involved in the development of Bright Futures. She said the vision of using the program to improve the high school graduation rate needed to be expanded to reach students before they got to high school. If that meant getting a pair of shoes to a kindergartner who needed them so that the pupil could focus on academics rather than pained feet, then that’s what it should do.
“We knew it needed to be bigger than just high school kids — we really wanted to get down to elementary level,” she said.
The organization grew steadily and was in a prime position to respond after the 2011 tornado to support affected students with basic needs and to serve as a center for donations. As it grew, it spawned the need for official not-for-profit status; that was achieved in July 2011 by Bright Futures USA, the umbrella organization that oversees affiliates, including Joplin.
Even as tornado needs dwindled in recent years, students’ basic needs haven’t. Through the years, Bright Futures Joplin’s key programs have been Lunch Pals, which connects a community member with an at-risk student for lunch meetups, and the snack pack program, which sends meals home on weekends with food-insecure students.
“It all starts with having a conversation around how we can support kids (and) make sure they have shoes on their feet and food in their stomach and the right kind of social and emotional support,” said Huff, who now serves as a special adviser to Bright Futures USA. “It’s empowering communities to take ownership of all their kids and utilize the resources they have to do great things for kids.”
Today, that mission for Bright Futures Joplin remains largely the same, Superintendent Melinda Moss said.
“I see it as a way to increase access for all students to maximize the learning environment,” she said. “We’re a learning organization, so ultimately everything we do is to maximize the learning of every student. Sometimes that means having our community partners come alongside us to meet those basic needs.”
Some of those community partners, like Markman, have been in place nearly since the beginning. Markman was the first community member to become a lunch buddy through Bright Futures Joplin’s Lunch Pals program, getting paired with a second grader at West Central Elementary School.
Markman said elementary school was “a real struggle” for her student, and middle school was “almost worse.” But once he arrived at high school, maturity set in, and he became a “happy kid” who involved himself in school clubs and athletics. He’s set to graduate in May. The COVID-19 pandemic has interrupted the pair’s ability to meet in person, but they text regularly.
“I just watched the flower bloom before me, and I was like, ‘He’s going to make it,'” she said. “That was life-changing for me. The rest of his life is going to be different because he has his high school diploma.”
Markman said that as a volunteer, she believes Lunch Pals is critical for Joplin students because it matches them with a caring adult who pledges to be there for them, regardless of whether things are good or bad. She also said Bright Futures Joplin is full of volunteer opportunities — for those who want to meet with students, and for those who prefer to work behind the scenes.
“When you volunteer, you get a richness back that you don’t expect, and whoever you’re volunteering for also gets that richness,” she said. “Find your passion, and share that with the community. I think we’ll all be better for it at the end.”
Moss said the school district is grateful to have Bright Futures Joplin in place.
“I believe Bright Futures does meet a need that the school district has,” she said. “I think it’s all of our community partners working together to build the success of our district, and I see it as very valuable.”
Bright Futures elsewhere
The Bright Futures story doesn’t belong to Joplin alone. In the past decade, the Bright Futures Joplin model has been adopted by dozens of communities, from Alaska to Virginia, and by several local school districts, including Carl Junction and Carthage.
The community of Mexico, Missouri, in Audrain County in northeast Missouri, signed on to become a Bright Futures affiliate in 2014 and launched its program in 2015, advisory board member Dana Keller said.
The group started, like Joplin had, with a Lunch Pals initiative across the school district’s three elementary schools, middle school and high school. It recruited city leaders and elected officials first to serve as lunch buddies, and the program quickly grew through word of mouth, Keller said.
Today, nearly 10% of the district’s students are paired with a lunch buddy, she said. Among the more popular of lunch buddies is Mexico’s police chief, who is assigned a student through the Lunch Pals program but also has a rotating waiting list of students who want to sit on her other side during lunch, she said.
But Bright Futures has done even more for Mexico, said Keller, who also is the executive director of the Mexico Area Chamber of Commerce. It has broadened into a communitywide initiative to address poverty, she said, by widening the focus from children to whole families, from the school district to the entire workforce.
Keller said the school district had been focused on poverty issues even before Bright Futures arrived. Rather than provide free or reduced-rate lunches to eligible students, which is an indicator of poverty and low income, the Mexico School District participates in a program that offers free meals to all students because it is located in a general high-poverty area, according to state education data.
But with the Mexico Sustainability Project, and its roots in Bright Futures, leaders are working toward building a thriving community across the board, Keller said. The initiative seeks to create networks across all sectors to keep families above the poverty line and help individuals be successful in the workplace.
“It always boils down to poverty; the root of most issues is poverty,” she said. “(This initiative) never would have happened if we didn’t start with Bright Futures.”