A small project for a grand cause
By: Dalila Kahvedzic
Tucked away right off of Gore Ave. in Rock Hill lies a campus that many may not know of – a place of comfort and safety.
The Great Circle is a behavioral health agency that provides different support services, which focus on meeting people where they’re at and teaching them life skills, Transitional Facilitator Emily Mess said.
The school consists of campuses, counseling centers, and services based on homes and communities and provides specialized care from highly trained professionals. Employees at The Great Circle strive to guide those in tough circumstances through their times of struggle in order for them to flourish.
Mess has been with the school for over six years, including when she was a teacher’s assistant. She received her bachelor degree from St. Louis University in English literature and her associate in occupational therapy from St. Louis Com- munity College – Meramec.
“We do a lot of things here at Great Circle; we have an education department, we have home and community based services, we have residential foster care – we just do a lot of things,” Mess said.
Great Circle serves all ages. Their youngest is around the age of 5, and they can stay in the educational system up until their 22nd birthday, Mess said.
“Transition services are the bridge and the gap between when kids are in secondary education and moving into life after high school,” Mess said. “I was initially brought to help develop the department as we have more high schoolers now graduating with us than previous years, so my background in occupational therapy kind of made me a good fit in the realm of helping students as they’re really kind of trying to explore deeper and all aspects of their life.”
It is hard to put in a blurb what transition does, Mess said, but they [employees] do a lot of stuff with the kids on and off campus. A big part of Mess’s job is soft skill development, she said. Jobs can teach people the hard skills and on-the-job skills, but they can- not teach soft skill development – things such as having a positive attitude, enthusiasm, good communication skills and good interpersonal skills.
“They [students] often have had pretty severe trauma or mal- treatment in their past, they’re used to not feeling safe from their past so we have to work with them to get them to trust us,” Mess said. “A huge part of what we do here is trying to model having normal, healthy relationships – you know, because even adults need help with that too.”
Being in the transitional department has led Mess to her partnership with Mike Swoboda, Coordinator of the graphic communication and digital media department at Meramec. She was
holding a career week event when she reached out to Meramec and got partnered with the graphic arts department. Swoboda came to The Great Circle with the career coach van.
“He was really drawn toward our kids and being here,” Mess said. “He was great with the students and that was probably over three years ago, and ever since then he has hosted students coming out there for tours, specific students who need that extra kind of personal connection in order to feel comfortable when they go out,” Mess said. “A lot of our students might just have social skill deficits or challenges, so he has invited parents and he’s come back to work with the students again and just has put a lot of time and effort and creative effort into working with Great Circle.”
Mike Swoboda has been teaching full-time at Meramec, now entering his 7th year. He attended the University of Missouri and earned his MFA in design from the University of Notre Dame.
Swoboda organized the career coach van for a number of years, he said. He would bring himself, 12 or 15 laptops and a couple of student assistants to meet with students and discuss career options.
“We only had them [students] for about 15 to 20 minutes, but it was meant to kind of jazz them up and get them excited about opportunities beyond their high school years,” Swoboda said. “Emily Mess is an ideal kind of partner, [who] really understands the needs of her students and [is] really quick to ask for assistance and I’m happy to be a part of it with her.”
Swoboda was also a leading connection to Erin LeClerc, Interior Design Coordinator at Meramec and with the partnership of the three and others, they hope to have an active part in redesigning Leighton Cottage, a living area which houses 12 teenage girls on campus.
Swoboda approached LeClerc on a professional level in regards to redesigning the cottage, LeClerc said. She then presented the idea of this becoming a student project.
“I kind of explained how that all works – how service learning is a big part of what we do here at the college and it really is just a great learning environment for students to do that,” LeClerc said. “I kind of talked to them about how I would still be involved on a professional level in kind of guiding the students through the project and making sure that they’re following professional standards and codes and everything so they were kind of like – ‘okay,’ so they were on board and they were really excited about it.”
This project will allow students to look at design from a different perspective, LeClerc said.
“First of all, having a real world client I think is really import- ant, but just the challenges associated with the project – having so many guidelines that you have to work around, so many safety challenges and still being creative at the same time,” LeClerc said. “So the end result I think is an experience that will be uplifting, also something that the students can get really passionate about. It’s a project where we can really make a difference.”
Not only does this project benefit students at Meramec, but students at The Great Circle as well.
“I think these girls have never really had something like this where people have given them so much attention for a design project – listen to them and hear them give input and show that we value their opinion more than anything else – it’s really great for them and I think it’s great for you guys too,” LeClerc said.
Understanding the girls’ needs is important, Swoboda said.
“For this particular small constituency of students that you are working with, how do you enhance the enjoyment of their time there?” Swoboda said. “How do you enhance the value of their day to day experience? How do you include them in the design process and we have a term in graphic design – empathic design. Does your design have empathy for the user? Have you had empathy for the user, for the recipient of the design during the process and do the results show that you have listened and collaborated with the people who were a part of it?”
The redesign is so much more important than a theoretical project, he said.
“As a student – it is ten times the amount of excitement and relevance to be doing something that’s real,” Swoboda said.
Heather Lemon, an interior design program student, hopes to achieve a home-like design, she said.
“These girls need to feel safe and taken care of, and I believe that this redesign can do that for them,” Lemon said. “We have the potential to change lives.”
Another student in the program, Jessica Riess, agreed.
“The girls come from challenging backgrounds where their surroundings don’t encourage or inspire them to make more for themselves,” Riess said. “The new design will not only diminish that deficit but also create a sense of home for people who feel like they don’t have one.”
Both students agree that this project is much different and much more eye-opening because it is a real-life project.
“The budget matters, the material matters, everything that goes into this project has potential consequences and the pressure is on to get it right for the client,” Riess said.
With this project, students are bringing a sense of value to the girls’ living space, Mess said.
“A lot of them walk over and go to school not far away from where they live so you want it to feel different and special and age appropriate for teenagers, so they want it to be hip and cool and I think it will just help them, again, feel like normal teenagers,” Mess said. “I think that’s a big part of it. I think it’s inspiring in a way for them to see you guys in school and doing something that you enjoy to do and so I think it’s kind of a win- win.”
Mess is grateful for St. Louis Community College – Meramec’s support of the students at Great Circle, the agency and their vision, she said. She hopes the partner- ship continues.
“We’re trying to just really better ourselves each and every day to becoming a place where people can go when they need support,” Mess said.