words by Lia Pietrolungo
The middle school experience is nothing short of awkward, yet it functions as one of the most important times in cognitive development. Joel Harris, founder of TomTod Ideas Inc., understands not only the importance of fostering healthy cognitive and social development in middle schoolers, but sees middle schoolers as the energetic and highly imaginative problem solvers of the present and future.
During his ten years as a middle school youth pastor, Harris noticed how the ideas of middle school students are too often looked past or erased by adult underestimation of their abilities. TomTod, short for tomorrow’s ideas today, provides middle school students with a space in which to thrive creatively, work collaboratively and have their ideas set in motion.
Rather than place middle schoolers in a box of standardization and voicelessness, Harris asks, “how can I help you embrace your imagination not as something to be discarded, but as something to be leveraged?” While society runs away from adolescent creativity, Harris gives the students who work with TomTod mentors the platform to dream, the funding to explore innovation and a megaphone with which to be heard.
Through private donations, volunteer mentor programs and collaborations between mentors and teachers, the nonprofit organization is doing much more than lending an ear. Mentors and students work toward a common goal set by the students themselves to create what Harris calls a “unique space” where adult experience, wisdom and resources intersect with middle schoolers’ energy, creativity and innovation.
TomTod has large-scale outreach programs in place, each with a focus on the organization’s six core values: Imagination, belief, development, compassion and justice, celebration and the ripple effect of events beyond Northeast Ohio.
Their first program, What if You Could, is an application-based 6-18 month, high-resource project where middle schoolers can pitch ideas, connect with mentors and create a team of their peers in order to achieve their innovative goals. TomTod then provides the creative team with funding and resources to sustain the project.
Camp What If is a week-long summer camp divided in two components: city exploration and community outreach. Middle schoolers can create ideas and enhancements in response to issues they’ve explored during the first half of the week, then present their ideas to community leaders at the camp’s Community Ideation Celebration. This year, TomTod is adding a residential component to Camp What If in which middle schoolers will spend the week at Malone University learning about the global refugee crisis with a focus on community displacement.
What if 101 is TomTod’s largest in-school program that walks students through the ideation process, emphasizes community conversation, organizes field trips and brings in community leaders to work with students. Mentors create a concrete curriculum in tandem with the school’s context while collaborating with teachers in the classroom. The program currently runs at five different middle schools in Stark County.
In the spirit of exchanging ideas and helping middle schoolers to find their footing as young innovators, Harris hopes to bring TomTod into Summit County, starting with the Akron Public School system. “There’s sort of this imaginary wall that exists between Akron and Canton that doesn’t make a ton of sense to me,” says Harris. He hopes that bringing TomTod to Akron will help bulldoze it down so that Akron and Canton can build a bridge in its place. Although TomTod works primarily with Stark County, the organization is making plans to bring their magic to Akronites through school visits and their annual Feast of Ideas fundraising gala, which will be held in April at the Firestone Triangle Building.
“When adults actually listen to middle schoolers, when we respond to them and help them put their ideas into motion,” Harris believes, “then really great things can happen.”
(Featured photo courtesy of Joel Harris, pictured top, left with mentors and students.)