Students tackle school safety, mental health at Junior Achievement camp

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As tens of thousands of young students across the nation prepare to collectively demand safer schools as part of the March For Our Lives event this weekend, dozens of students in Richmond last week took the conversation a step further by coming up with innovative ways to create the change they want.

On Thursday, about 60 students from the Richmond High Engineering Academy, Pinole Valley High Engineering Academy and Hercules High MESA and Robotics participated in the Junior Achievement Social Innovation Camp at Richmond Memorial Auditorium. The annual workshop sponsored by Chevron Richmond tasks students with developing innovative ideas that solve challenges in their community or that concern them.

They split up into groups, were mentored by Chevron professionals and their ideas were judged and challenged in Shark Tank-style fashion by three notable members of the business community, including Richmond native and celebrated entrepreneur Devin Lars.

The problems the students chose to solve spoke volumes about their current mindset. And the solutions they proposed further showed why it is unwise to underestimate youth.

Of the eight groups of teens participating, four aimed to provide mental health solutions to students in distress, while a fifth aimed to prepare their peers for active shooter situations. The project Reaction Alert was described by the teens as an emergency alarm system that provides an easy way for students to alert authorities and classmates about an active shooter using their smartphones, and to access videos and information about how to respond.

Another group’s conceptual app, Confidence, has a “quiet talks” feature allowing students to consult anonymously with mentors or others about issues they’d rather not discuss with parents, teachers or classmates. The app also provides distraction games designed to help combat mental illness, anxiety and depression, and it would also connect users to professional help and provide alerts on community service opportunities and social events that encourage students to help each other and the community.

As the students described it, the Confidence app would crack down on “bullying, racism, abuse and neglect and mental illness.”

“We want to provide a voice for kids who feel lost or alone,” one student said. “We want to dissolve stigma around these issues.”

The students were not tasked only with coming up with ideas. They had to explain to the judges what sets their app or service apart from existing versions. They also had to exhibit a business plan that identified funding sources and detailed costs to build and operate.

Two days before, as a way to help build their presentation skills, Chevron hosted a “Fundamentals of Business Workshop” at the Richmond Refinery for all 60 students. The workshops were facilitated by Chevron employees and consisted of Business 101, Marketing, Finance and Effective Presentation and the Art of Persuasion.

Judges didn’t let them off easy. Bret Alexander Sweet, the Richmond Center Director for the Renaissance Entrepreneurship Center, pressed the teens who created the Reaction Alert app on how they plan to address troublemakers who would attempt to activate the emergency alarm without reason.

The young innovators were a step ahead of Sweet: students enrolled in the Reaction Alert service would, as a requirement, provide email addresses that could identify them in cases of false emergency activation, the group said.

Not all of the eight groups tackled problems involving school safety and mental health. One project, College Easy, aimed to be a one-stop shop for college-bound high schoolers; another, Diverse Community Support, aimed to be the one-stop shop for new immigrant families and individuals; and yet another attempted to address the water crisis in Cape Town via desalinization solutions.

West Contra Costa Unified School District Superintendent Matt Duffy praised the students’ ideas as forward-thinking and urged them to continue to think “outside of the box.”

“It’s been really cool to listen to your ideas,” Duffy said after offering some of the solutions he’s come up with in his 20-year career in education. “If you continue to have ideas about how to help innovate, how to help make the school district better, that’s what we’re all here for. Give me a call, shoot me an email. I’m happy to talk any time.”

Andrea Bailey, community engagement manager for Chevron Richmond, said the Junior Achievement Social Innovation Camp never fails to expose the limitless potential of local youth.

“These kids are truly inspirational; they offer a viewpoint that is incredibly valuable in tackling societal challenges,” Bailey said. “Chevron is proud to support this event and to help guide our future leaders with real-world strategies on how to turn their ideas into reality.”

The Social Innovation Camp is one of a number of community education initiatives launched by Chevron Richmond with the aim of sparking interest in STEM subjects, or science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

The camp is part of Junior Achievement USA, the world’s largest organization dedicated to educating students about workforce readiness, entrepreneurship and financial literacy through experiential, hands-on programs.

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