“A massive opportunity”: Ty Schmidt talks about a new organization, TCAPS Health And Wellness Initiative

No news posted on The ticker last year drew more social media reactions than the ousting of Ty Schmidt as executive director of Norte. Schmidt had founded the youth cycling nonprofit in 2013 and grown it into a multi-county force that has reached hundreds of children. His status as the leader and face of the organization led many in the community to react emotionally when Norte’s board kicked him out in September.

For his part, Schmidt admitted that the pandemic had put his organization “on rocket fuel” and that he “didn’t handle that demand and growth very well.” “I kept both feet on the gas and burned the right people,” he wrote in his first public statement after the ousting.

Four months later, Schmidt created a new organization called Good Works Lab, which brought together a local team of “scientists, researchers, advocates, storytellers, medical professionals, artists, planners, photographers, designers, strategists, engineers, videographers , lawyers, and big thinkers” with the goal of helping “solve complex community issues.” The group’s first big project? Leading a new health and wellness initiative for public schools in the Traverse City area (TCAPS). This effort, made possible by Rotary’s $150,000 three-year Charitable Systems Change Acceleration Grant, gives Schmidt responsibility to “create, promote, and maintain policies and practices within of the school district that lead to healthy and lasting habits for students and staff”.

The ticker caught up with Schmidt two weeks into the new TCAPS initiative to learn more about the Good Works Lab and its plans for the school district.

Ticker: Tell us a bit about the origins of the Good Works Lab. What are the thoughts, goals and plans behind the organization?

Schmidt: Well, it was certainly not planned, nor strategic. I spent time thinking about what I wanted to do and what would make me want to get up in the morning and get back to work. It was easier said than done. But I realized how lucky I was to have this incredible tribe of mentors to help me through this transition. I have never been unemployed or fired. But I think I realized I had wonderful relationships out of [Norte], relationships based on trust and respect, not only with professionals with whom I have worked extensively at Norte, but also with partners in schools, government entities, non-profit organizations and in the private sector . So the job was coming: I received six job offers in one week. But I just needed to take a second to breathe and figure out what I wanted to do.

I finally recognized that I still wanted to make my contribution to this city and this region, particularly around the ideas of health and climate, and around inequalities in travel and mobility. So I said, ‘How about we put together a team of professionals, people who are much better than me in some of these areas? And what if I can help us get some of that work and still be involved, but not work as much [as I did at Norte]?’ So that’s the Good Works Lab. It’s a social change agency, and we have an agenda to move things forward that I think have been brought to light by this pandemic. [Editor’s note: In addition to the TCAPS project, the Good Works Lab has also launched advocacy initiatives around youth mental health and housing in Traverse City.]

I made a promise to myself last year during lockdown that I wasn’t going to let this pandemic go to waste. I wanted to see this as an opportunity to change systems and mindsets about what matters most. And now we do. With this TCAPS initiative, it’s a huge opportunity to help solve a complex problem. It’s my second week [in that role], and it’s challenging work, but it’s also important work and I’m very grateful for this opportunity.

Ticker: What got you excited about the TCAPS initiative?

Schmidt: I am a proud parent of TCAPS. I have two boys at Central High School. I strongly believe in public education. I helped TCAPS with their “yes committee” link in 2018, to help pass this link. And then, with my job at Norte, we were in all the schools in the district, so I have relationships with principals, teachers, and staff. So this project seemed like a good fit, almost like an extension of Norte: similar work, just a little less the bikes.

Ticker: What will the rollout process for this initiative look like? Can you shed some light on the kinds of things you’re looking to implement or fix?

Schmidt: It’s a new puzzle; there has never been a district-wide position like this before. But we are not starting from scratch. There has been a ton of work over the years with the District Wellness Committee, and also a lot of wellness work at the building level. I am lucky to be able to lean on the shoulders of this work. I started [with this project] right after winter break, and I spent those first few weeks learning about this past work, reviewing mistakes made, and identifying opportunities to strengthen weak ties or build relationships. There is a pretty good blueprint of what our goals and objectives can look like as we seek to nudge this system toward health.

Regarding the deployment process, for this first year, we have three priorities:

A priority is to help our social workers. School social workers, like our teachers and counsellors, are overwhelmed. So how do we help them get some of the basic needs off their plate to really free them up to do some of this behavioral health, mental health, and social-emotional learning work that they’re trying to do? There’s state funding for that: Governor Whitmer just announced new funding to bring in more social workers. So we’re looking at all kinds of different funding mechanisms to get more professionals into the schools. And there are a lot of different community partners involved as well, including the Grand Traverse County Health Department and the Community Health Innovation Region, so we have a lot of meetings about that.

A second priority is to reinvigorate our wellness committees and better engage with parents and students at the building level. We want to give them ownership [of this process], and to help them lead this work and what it means to have a unified, aligned and shared vision for health across the district. I learned this concept in Norte: “Nothing about us without us”. So I want to make sure that we listen to parents. Because every school building is different. From Blair to Westwoods to Silver Lake, everyone has their own culture. How can we listen to them and provide them with the tools and resources to put health and wellness first? And we also want to educate parents about how we talk about some of these mental health issues, because we know a lot of these things have to happen at home. How do you have an authentic conversation with the children around you so that you can ask sometimes embarrassing questions?

The third priority is to leverage community partners who are already working on [these issues]. There’s a lot of great upstream work going on with the social determinants of health, and that’s important because we recognize that it’s not just things that happen in school buildings [that impacts health for students and staff]. It’s everything, from housing to poverty to access to care. So leveraging these resources with community partners to expand support to schools is another top priority.

Ticker: You talked a lot about the mental health aspect of young people, but there’s also nutrition and diet, and physical activity. How do these elements fit into what you are doing with this initiative?

Schmidt: Well, it’s all connected, right? With this grant, Rotary has funded a “systems change” initiative, so we’re trying to really get to the root of the issues and look at the bigger picture: the whole school, the whole of the child, the whole community. We know that, for example, what children put into their bodies not only affects their physical well-being, but also their mental and emotional well-being. Everything is 100% connected. How can we get a constellation of actions to think and act differently with all these types of things we know matter? So we meet [the various stakeholders]. I met the nutritionists; I met the PE teachers; I met LEAP, the after-school program. And we’re also trying to involve more nonprofits, like the VASA Ski Club and the Traverse City Track Club, because we want to encourage some of these community partnerships to provide opportunities for everyone.

There is already work going on at TCAPS to provide opportunities for children to eat better, to move more, to understand their emotions. The district is working on this thing. My job is just to bring it to the top.

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