“I’ve been a teacher for a long time, but I’ve never helped kids at this level,” Jelena Soots says. She’s the City Connects Coordinator at GEO Next Generation High School in Indianapolis, Ind.
“I was drawn to City Connects because my family and I are immigrants. And in the forefront of my mind is, What would have helped me as a child? What if we had this option back then? That’s how I shifted into the mindset of thinking about what kids need based on who they are.”
Soots and her family immigrated from Croatia in the 1990s when the country was at war. They lived in a refugee camp in Germany and applied to refugee programs run by churches. They were chosen by a church in Indiana.
“At our school, we have a lot of students from different countries, so talking about my experience with them is an icebreaker,” Soots says. “And even though I’ve been here for a long time, I sometimes struggle with how to identify with American culture and how to identify with my Croatian culture, and with the mix of both.
“So I try to be understanding with our students who are in those formative years of puberty and early adulthood and have to navigate the norms they see at home and the norms they see in school and everything in the middle.”
Soots is also full of energy and optimism. One example is her no brakes strategy for finding community partners.
“I see students’ needs. Then I Google until I cannot Google any longer. Then I email, and I call. A lot of people haven’t heard of City Connects, so I explain my role and what I do. I try to handle all the students’ needs so that over time they can become self-sufficient.”
Her formula is to see these needs, identify the services that will meet them, and remove any barriers.
One example is the community partnership Soots is building with the Riviera Club Foundation, the philanthropic arm of a private country club that decided to serve the larger community.
“I’m working with them to provide free swim lessons and lifeguard training so our students will learn more about water safety. They’re also going to do a mindfulness yoga class and CPR training for students who want to become babysitters or who have younger siblings at home. And they’re going to bring in Pickleball.”
The program will launch later this month. And the lifeguarding skills could lead to summer jobs. The underlying benefit, Soots says, is increased equity. Removing financial barriers, means that students from socio-economically diverse backgrounds can have easy access to these resources.
“I think about how to meet students’ urgent needs, but I also think about how to help students become well-rounded individuals, how to provide them with things like swimming lessons that will be a lifelong benefit.”
Soots made another connection to a community partner through the girls’ basketball league her husband runs, where she connected with the pastor of Speedway Church of Christ.
“I reached out and asked if they would have an interest in helping us and they jumped on it. They said, We didn’t even know this was a need.”
The result was a check from the church to create a food pantry for students.
“We send food home in a backpack every Friday, because while we serve food in school, my worry was about how kids are eating over the weekend.”
“I got Marian University to donate 300 backpacks so that we could use them for things like this. I just emailed them. People are willing to help you if you make them aware of the need.” Marian is an institutional partner in City Connects’ expansion into the Midwest.
To set up a mentoring project, Soots asked her former employer, The L.A.S.E.R. Project, a youth and family service organization, for help.
Now L.A.S.E.R. runs a boys’ group and a girls’ group at Soots’ school, covering life skills like how to pick friends and how to tie a tie. L.A.S.E.R. also facilitates services like visitation support that are required by Indiana’s Department of Child Services.
As eager as Soots is to help, she also learned to slow down — a little.
“I realized that not every idea I had could happen next week. I had to learn about the culture of my school. And I had to learn about the kids and the families.”
Moving forward, Soots has created a Student Support Team that will view the findings she’s come up with in whole class reviews of students’ strengths and needs. Soots has also been sharing her work and insights with her school’s principal and teachers to create a unified view on students’ behavioral challenges as well as how and when to provide students with extra support or referrals to mental health services. To meet these needs, Soots has partnered with an organization called Aspire, which sends therapists to school, eliminating the barrier of having to transport students to the therapist.
“My goal is to figure out how we can get better right now, and how we can get better long term. I don’t want to put a Bandaid on anything; I want to have a solution. My hope for kids is that the more services we bring, the happier they’ll be, that they’ll have opportunities and be excited to do things.”
One focus for the next school year, Soots says, looking to the future: “Teachers need more support, and I’m going to do something about that.”
As much as she has accomplished, Soots acknowledges that there are hard days and hard weeks when she has to address some of students’ most heartbreaking struggles. Her strategy, however, remains the same.
“We have to ask, How can we support these students?”
“I came from a war-torn country. We came here with nothing. We’ve always just had to move forward. I learned that from a young age. So we move forward, and we support kids. That’s how I treat this role.”