Oregon member's altruism earns 'genius' award

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Kelly Douglas with students

When Kelly Douglas, a library assistant at Molalla High School in Oregon, started a club for Russian students to get to know and support one another, she couldn't have envisioned what happened next.

As students from other backgrounds began asking to join, the club grew to 20 students—and it just kept getting bigger. The Culture Club became a sanctuary for many students at the high school who didn't have another peer group to fit into.

In addition to building cultural bridges when the club meets every Thursday, students in the club have taken ownership of an impressive garden on school grounds, harvesting vegetables that help feed students in the cafeteria and local senior citizens via the Meals on Wheels program.

Douglas' efforts have not gone unnoticed: She is the 2014 winner of the statewide Billi Odegaard Public Health Genius Award from the Oregon Public Health Institute. It honors "Oregonians who have shown creativity, dedication and perseverance in their efforts to improve the lives of others in their community."

Daniel Haworth, a member of the Oregon School Employees Association and a 2009 Molalla High School graduate, works at the school as a network administrator. He is the club's co-adviser, and he commends the mindset of students who choose to join.

"It's nice seeing kids together and wanting to do something together that's good and not destructive," Haworth says. "With them, it's 'Let's plant a garden! Let's help the elderly!'… It seems like the students are happier and want to do things that are helpful."

Douglas says the positivity generated in the Culture Club's weekly meetings has paid off with even more than the tangible bounty of produce grown in the school garden.

"We're allowing an adult-supervised opportunity to cross the cultural divide and really blend with one another," she says. "I have 150 ambassadors of kindness, positive energy and acceptance going out through every single hallway in the building."

At a recent meeting, she challenged students to take that positivity and spread it throughout the school.

"I tell them: As soon as you find yourself in a group and someone is talking smack about someone, change the subject or walk away," she says. "Think of how many times negative energy has been obliterated."

She adds that others are seeing a difference in the lives of students who participate in the Culture Club.

"I have teachers who tell me: 'When I see a kid with that Culture Club shirt on, I have high expectations because I know the standards you hold them to in order to be in that club," Douglas says. "I know what they're capable of, so I expect more. And they meet those expectations."

Douglas has also had success in obtaining grants from companies both big and small. One is Molalla Communications, the city's largest business. Recognizing that many of her Culture Club students do not have computers at home, she persuaded the company to donate $2,500 so that each of the club's 11 student officers would have a laptop to use for the duration of their term. The outgoing students then leave the computer for the next kid up.

As happy as she is to win the Genius Award, Douglas wants to ensure Haworth and the students involved get their share of the credit. She says Haworth is responsible for all of the club's technology needs: "I'm the loud one jumping up and down, and Daniel is the quiet one making sure the batteries are fresh in the microphone and the cables stay connected," Douglas says.

But she also sees this honor as a chance to recognize the community that so warmly embraced her efforts.

"It's a door opening for more people to see Molalla and how a small school can make a difference in the community," she says. [Oregon School Employees Association]

August 19, 2014