By Michael Gresham
The Texas Catholic
PLANO — Their contributions to an innovative student-led project aimed at helping less fortunate peers earned three John Paul II High School seniors a trip to Rome in November to share their ideas with students from around the world.
Seniors Ethan Gant, Sebastian Conklin and Delinah Hailey represented JPII, one of only four high schools in the United States asked to participate in the iCan Design for Change Summit that invited students from 47 countries to Rome Nov. 27-30. At the summit, which included a private audience with Pope Francis, the JPII students presented innovative approaches for addressing food insecurity among teens, which were developed as part of the school’s Social Innovation Lab.
“It was truly an amazing experience especially the opportunity to meet all the students from other countries and see what they were doing,” said Gant, who also had the opportunity to shake Pope Francis’ hand during the private audience. “The whole experience was very inspirational.”
Melissa Downs, JPII associate dean of student activities and academics who accompanied the students on the trip, said the students were able to hear a lot of different innovative projects from students from around the world who were working to help their communities.
“Our kids met students from Ghana, Dubai, the Ukraine, Ecuador and just everywhere. It was great for our students to get affirmation for the projects they presented to students from around the world,” she said. “It was really very inspiring to hear everyone’s ideas and how they are affecting issues in their part of the world.”
Hailey said the atmosphere at the summit was “extremely positive.”
“There was a strong sense of solidarity that we felt and a very tangible hope that sharing our projects and continuing proactive innovation in our communities was having — and would continue to have — a tangible and incredible impact on the world.”
The three students were all members of JPII’s inaugural Social Innovation Lab, which launched in the Fall 2018 to train students in the skills of innovation while pairing them with community agencies to address systemic social problems.
“The lab is an effort to engage the students more deeply in community issues, to really go beyond the great tradition at JPII that we have of service and helping within the community,” said Frank Santoni, lab director. “It builds upon that and allows us to understand what’s really going on, how some of our community agencies are addressing these social issues and how are some ways those solutions can be improved or boosted by the insights that teens could bring.”
In the Social Innovation Lab, JPII students use “human-centered design” techniques to research, prototype and test new approaches to community challenges. Ultimately, the lab blends project-based learning with community engagement to bring to life the school’s Catholic mission, “Seek to Serve.”
“I didn’t fully realize the Catholic aspect while we were doing it, but once I was able to sit back and think about our project, it does truly match up with what our Catholic faith teaches,” Conklin said.
The lab started with 14 students in 2018 and began this year with 15 juniors and seniors. At the moment, the students are running three projects concurrently — looking for ways to increase student reading for pleasure, choosing healthy options in the dining hall and engaging fan support at JPII sporting events. In the spring semester, Santoni said the students will work with Children’s Health to increase participation in a telebehavioral health program launched on the campus.
Focus on hunger
The project that earned students a trip to Rome involved a partnership last spring with North Texas Food Bank to tackle the issue of food insecurity among teens.
“It was interesting for me to see how many kids in our communities and school community struggle with this issue,” said Conklin, adding that he felt thankful and inspired by their work to help address that issue in those communities. “To do the kind of work we’ve done, it’s an opportunity to do something good.”
Santoni said JPII student researchers surveyed more than 200 food insecure teens and also studied current research on the psychological impact of poverty and food insecurity among teens. The findings surprised the students.
“We set out to design ways of reducing the stigma associated with teens accessing traditional food pantries and make them more appealing to teens, but what we learned totally changed the direction of our innovations,” Santoni said. “The real problem the teens were trying to solve was not whether the food pantry was not ‘cool enough,’ but rather about finding ways to help their parents who were struggling financially. They were looking for ways to earn extra money and pitch-in to help with bills.”
With a new focus, the JPII innovators developed prototypes to test on their own campus. Ideas were aimed at teens looking to earn some extra money while balancing the typical demands of school work and extracurricular activities.
The effects of their research was not lost on the students.
“The project allowed me to see the connections between service and community and Catholic school teachings in actual application to support what I’ve learned in a way that was creative, innovative and focused on empathy,” Hailey said.
Gant called his work with the Social Innovation Lab impactful, adding that he has been grateful to be a part of its inaugural project.
“It has equipped me with the tools that I can now go out and help others.”