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Recycling bag project taps 3-D social-emotional learning

Photo courtesy of Janai “Grandma Boom” Mestrovich | Natalie Hescock, Grace Hescock, Addison Hescock, Reese Vaughan, Rylee Vaughan, Janelle Diaz and Jayden Diaz display their original bag designs created through the Superkid Power Recycling Bag Project in spring 2021.

ASHLAND — Adults make the rules and children must oblige — most of the time.

Janai “Grandma Boom” Mestrovich takes a different view in her approach to three-dimensional social-emotional learning, in which children tap their internal resources and exercise creativity, influence and imagination as they learn about social responsibility.

This fall, Mestrovich will distribute 3,000 canvas bags through the Superkid Power recycling bag project, intended to help children acknowledge “in a realistic way” their role in helping the Earth by designing their own reusable bag with something they value about the environment.

“If we’re just telling them rules to follow, then at what age do we think that they’re going to start participating in being creative on their own?” Mestrovich posed. “Every child deserves to feel like a super kid. But it’s not because of how much money they have or where they live — it’s not anything to do with external reality.”

Starseed Foundation, which prioritizes Oregon-based programs providing exposure to the arts and environment, funded the bag project through Mestrovich’s nonprofit, Superkid Power, Inc.

With a master’s degree in family and child development and 45 years of 3-D social-emotional learning experience, working with children is Mestrovich’s joie de vivre.

The Starseed Foundation first funded Mestrovich’s environmental bag project with 113 children in Drain. As she sought to expand to a few classrooms in the region, the foundation encouraged her to distribute at least 1,000 bags, she said. Mestrovich distributed 1,400 bags in May.

Each of the 3,000 canvas bags distributed this fall will include fabric crayons, an insert explaining goals fueling the project and instructions for sealing each design on the bag.

Ashland School District requested bags for all students in kindergarten through fifth grade. Boxes of supplies stacked in Mestrovich’s living room were due for pickup Sept. 9.

Rotary Club of Sherwood was looking for family activities to offer as a reprieve for pandemic stress, Mestrovich said. They are slated to receive 120 bag kits.

Southern Oregon University community preschool wanted bags for the first day of school, so families could decorate them together and to encourage students to use their bags daily to carry materials as “just a natural part of life,” Mestrovich said.

“We have to involve the children in the solutions that we are seeking and practicing, but the catch is to do it in a fun way,” she said. “When children have fun learning and applying, they integrate it much easier because it’s not something they’re memorizing from somebody else. They have ownership.”

When children go home and teach their parents what they’ve learned, the learning cycle completes. The recycling bag project is part of Mestrovich’s vision for seeing confidence, self-worth and capacity for healthy self management raised among American children, knowing they are needed and respected in their communities, she said.

Projects like this help to unite parents and teachers “in honor of the children,” she said, such that both influential adult figures are engaged and support the same message behind the educational activity. Teachers and teaching assistants are expected to design their own bag as well, replacing a division between children and adults with a shared purpose, she said.

Mestrovich writes songs and jingles to keep her lessons interactive. In the case of the recycling bag project, the tune goes: “Mother Earth, you’re my home, I’ll care for you so you’re not alone.”

Select classrooms at Talent Elementary School participated in the recycling bag project in the spring. This time around, all teachers wanted in, said office manager Cheryl Joseph.

Some teachers used the spring project as a community service opportunity, creating service hours-turned-donation-dollars through Southern Oregon Sparrow Clubs. Funded by community sponsors, each community service hour translates into money, which is typically donated to the family of a child with a serious illness, Joseph said. In the spring, students donated their artful bags to the Talent Food Project for patrons of the food bank to use.

Though Joseph said she expects an increase in enrollment — closer to the typical 450 students — as Talent rebuilds, just over 300 currently enrolled students will receive a bag kit this fall.

Over the years, Talent Elementary teachers have developed projects for students to understand one’s effect on the planet, and the environmental impact awareness component of the bag project fits right in, she said.

“Talent is a community that emphasizes that within the whole entire city, so it’s part of our way-of-being here at school,” Joseph said.

Project participants this fall include Southern Oregon University Community Preschool, ScienceWorks, Tree House Books, Ashland School District K-5, Talent Elementary School, Briscoe Head Start Migrant Pre-K Division, Boys & Girls Clubs of the Rogue Valley, Lone Pine Elementary School first grade, Family Nurturing Center, Rotary Club of Sherwood, Cave Junction Early Head Start, Southern Oregon Head Start, Children’s World Montessori, Sand Creek summer camp, Drain summer camp, Kansas State University preschool and kindergarten, and Mestrovich’s granddaughter’s 10th birthday celebration this October.