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South Dakota students hone leadership skills

The Wellmark Foundation is partnering with Jobs for America's Graduates South Dakota (JAG-SD) External Link through a $15,400 contribution that supports a fall leadership development and a spring career development conference. In October 2021, more than 40 JAG-SD students from nine schools were provided an opportunity to come together in Rapid City and learn about careers in the health care industry.

The Wellmark Foundation is proud to support initiatives — like JAG-SD — that positively impact Social Determinants of Health (SDOHs). The conditions in places where people are born, live, learn, work and play affect a wide range of health and quality-of-life-risks that don’t have to be a barrier to promising youth. Supporting JAG-SD is one of the many ways The Wellmark Foundation is working to remove SDOH barriers in local communities.

The JAG Advantage

The JAG-SD program is supervised by the South Dakota Department of Education and is proven to help students persist through high school to graduation. Jobs for America's Graduates (JAG) is a state-based national nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting young people with project-based learning, trauma informed care and employer engagement.

"We know that individuals with a high school degree or less or from households with an annual income under $50,000 have many more negative health risks and outcomes," shared Executive Director of The Wellmark Foundation Mary Lawyer about the collaboration. "By sponsoring a program that creates meaningful connections between students and professionals, customized learning and leadership experiences, resources and employability skills these young people will graduate from high school and move into a productive and rewarding career."

JAG-SD Leadership Development Conference

All JAG-SD students participate in local student-led organizations that work together to build on the skills gained in the classroom. Then at a state level, students are encouraged to attend annual Leadership Development Conferences that provides students the opportunity to demonstrate their leadership skills and be recognized for their achievements. Promising middle school and high school students from six schools: Lyman, Todd County, Sioux Falls Roosevelt, Bennett County, Andes Central, and Wagner attended the fall 2021 conference sponsored by The Wellmark Foundation.

Conference participants also heard from a panel of health care professionals that represented different positions that they work in at Monument Health. In addition, Dr. Tim Gutshall, former senior medical director for Wellmark led a breakout session about his life journey and career as a physician.

JAG Specialist Renee Van Der Werff has been part of JAG-SD since it started more than 13 years ago. Van Der Werff works at Wagner Community High School. "Sponsorships like The Wellmark Foundations are amazing," she said. "It really allows JAG-SD to bring speakers into the classroom, host learning opportunities like the fall conference, support community service projects, and connect students to the resources they need."

Supporting students who 'need, want and will benefit from' work-based learning, leading to a fulfilling career

"We know that if students don’t graduate from high school, it doesn't set them up for success throughout life," said Beth Schneider, JAG-SD state director. "We work to identify students who need, want and will benefit from JAG."

Students are recommended for the program by a teacher, coach, parent or counselor. If they're interested, they go through a selection process to find out if they meet the criteria.

"A lot of times students have challenges to graduation that are out of their control. In Lyman County, nearly 40 percent of students come from a home with a substance abuse problem and 18 percent live with someone other than a mother or father," said Schneider. "Our students are finding success where they should be. As of the end of the 2020-21 school year, 87 percent of our JAG-SD students found and maintained full-time employment after high school."

Preparing for future success

Seniors Tawi Starr and Isabella Kreber have been participating in JAG-SD for more than four years. Starr found out about the program from a friend when she was in seventh grade and is the 2021-2022 Wagner High School JAG President. She was able to attend the fall leadership development conference sponsored by The Wellmark Foundation and said she really enjoyed meeting new people from all different areas of South Dakota.

"JAG has taught me so many real-life skills," said Starr. "It's really prepared me for college, the workforce, and has helped my relationships with other students and teachers. It's helped me see that there are more options for me after high school."

Starr ranked third nationally for employability skills in Washington D.C. last year. She plans to attend a college credit summer program and start cosmetology school in the fall.

Kreber was born deaf and didn’t know if she wanted to continue her education after high school. "JAG-SD taught me a lot about what it means to be a leader. It helped me get past my fears of going to college and now I’m actually really excited and ready to go to the University of South Dakota (USD) in Vermillion next fall," she said. "The program has been life changing and has helped me get over my fear of public speaking and find my first job as a cashier at the local pharmacy."

Kreber loves helping people and is planning on studying psychology in post-secondary school. After college she plans to use her degree as a therapist or substance abuse counselor.

During the pandemic enrollment in secondary education has decreased and JAG-SD aspires to help students get to graduation and introduce them to all of their available post-secondary options, including guidance around college scholarships and loan repayment programs.

"Because of our collaboration with JAG-SD, students will be exposed to health care careers that they may not have otherwise thought were possible," said Lawyer. "This will pay dividends not only for each student's health and quality of life, but also for their ability to give back to the next generation."

To learn more about the JAG-SD program or the national nonprofit Jobs for America's Graduates (JAG), visit External Link.