Building Trusting Relationships is Key to 7th Grade Initiative

September 18, 2019

“We feed them, clothe them, and send them off to school, but when it comes to that social-emotional stuff—it’s tough to teach,” says Kimberley Griffiths, the Youth, Teen & Family Director of the YMCA of Montclair. For seventh graders, this is a pivotal point in their lives as they try to figure out who they are and how they fit in. During this vulnerable time, when tweens are overwhelmed by physical, emotional, and social changes, they need to make a connection with someone they can look up to who is encouraging and supportive of their decisions.

That’s why the 7th Grade Initiative (7GI) program, with its free one-year YMCA membership for all seventh-grade students, was created. The program was designed to give middle schoolers the tools needed to develop confidence, independence, self-expression, and responsibility at the beginning of their transition from childhood to adulthood.

The 7GI is tailored to the individual YMCA community. At the YMCA in Montclair, NJ, 7GI members participate as any youth or teen member would--fitness, youth sports--but there are additional options that were created for this age group that are workshop and/or team building-fitness related.  Seventh graders are invited to participate in the Leaders Club—where young teens meet weekly and gain volunteer leadership skills. Mental health issues, bullying and the pressures of social media are all openly discussed. Transitioning to the Leaders Club means the existing members are setting the bar for incoming seventh graders and learning the power of prevention rather than intervention.

With Griffiths’ guidance as a certified Mental Health First Aid Instructor, the older kids lead discussions, while the younger kids absorbed the information. In this judgment-free zone, the life of one seventh grader was saved. The 13-year-old had suicidal thoughts, felt isolated, and had difficulty figuring out who she was and where she belonged. Club members encouraged her to talk, as well as formed a group chat and took on a big brother/big sister role where daily texts included phrases like, “Hey, have a great day and know that someone loves you.” In the end, the teen was able to gain much-needed confidence and overcame destructive feelings. The group reached out to her parents to let them know they have the Y’s support as well. Parents of seventh graders are also offered mental health first-aid courses to help them recognize symptoms and possible issues.

The 7th Grade Initiative was founded in 2008 by New Jersey YMCA State Alliance Executive Director, Bill Lovett, and adopted by the Pennsylvania Alliance of YMCAs two years later.  The program was updated in 2018 and unveiled to more than 150 people during a joint New Jersey and Pennsylvania State Alliance event.

Since its inception, New Jersey and Pennsylvania offer the program statewide. Across the country, 65+ YMCAs offer some version of the 7GI, and the numbers continue to grow. Several Ys provide free memberships to sixth, seventh, and eighth graders. The Montclair YMCA only offers it to seventh graders, but maintains ongoing interest with relevant workshops on life skills, job-related skills, teamwork and communication activities, to keep learning fun and engaging.

“The magic that the Y creates is building trusting relationships between kids and adults,” said Griffiths. “The Y can’t change or fix the world, but we can do our best to improve it and take a stand in the lives of the kids in our community empowering them to be healthy, confident, and connected.”