CANTON It’s easy to get a sense of what the TomTod Ideas organization is about from just the executive titles. The founder, Joel Daniel Harris, has the title of Executive Dreamer and Jennifer Snow Hickman is the Chief Adventure Curator.
The goal of the organization is to provide a way for middle school students to learn about their community and then take an assessment of the needs in the community. They are then tasked with coming up with ideas to address some of the challenges.
TomTod stands for "tomorrow’s ideas today," according to the organization’s website. The organization works with middle schoolers because they "are often projected to be leaders once they mature and age."
"We believe that middle schoolers are equipped to be leaders today and we are here to release their potential," Harris said.
Harris came up with the idea for TomTod Ideas while he was a youth pastor at a local church. One of his students came to him with an idea to raise money to help the homeless.
"I had a student tell me about an idea she had for a sleep over at the church where people would sleep in boxes to get an idea of what it’s like to be homeless," Harris said. "I didn’t take her seriously at first, but then realized this idea could work."
More than 50 people attended the event, which raised $5,100 for the Refuge of Hope. The idea also sparked a few ideas for Harris because he realized there are hundreds of middle school aged kids who have really great, workable ideas. He quit his job as a youth pastor and started TomTod Ideas in 2012.
The three primary programs students can get involved with include Camp What If, What If 101 and What If You Could. The first is a weeklong summer camp for creative, thoughtful middle school students. The students spend time on field trips to learn more about the area during the first part of the week. The rest of the week is spent creating ideas.
What If 101 is an in-school program that walks students through the process of creating new ideas for the common good. What If You Could asks students to submit ideas to TomTod. If the idea is selected, TomTod and the student work on making the idea a reality.
"We encourage the students to come up with the ideas and teach them how to make an idea turn into a solution," said Hickman. "It’s a little bit of entrepreneurship, Shark Tank and middle school madness. We create an intersection for students and adults to work together in a way that shows the students are valued by the adults."
The organization uses mentors from around the county to work with the students. Harris said they work with middle school students because it’s a pivotal time in their lives where they are beginning to explore who they want to be.
"Middle schoolers begin to explore who they are emotionally, socially, physically and cognitively," Harris said. "They are in a process of exploration, where adults are more formed. Middle schoolers are asking why not, where adults are just saying not. Combining the two groups has created some great results."
The organization’s "2015 Awesomeness Annual Report" shows 312 students have participated from 12 schools. There were 800-plus community collaboration participants and 100-plus community members sharing their experience with students.
A few of the ideas and projects generated by TomTod Ideas include the BikeSmart program that offers free bike rentals at various locations throughout the county. Walk for Clean Water was an idea that came to life at the Schneider Road park in Plain Township.
A student wanted to make the challenge of carrying clean water every day like those living in the rural villages of Africa more real to people. The event asks everyone to carry a five-gallon bucket of water on their heads. It raises money every year to send to Nuru International whose mission is to end extreme poverty in remote rural areas.
Another idea was called Spark the Park where Harris said students wanted to work with the North Canton parks system to infuse more interest and vitality into the parks.
"TomTod is an idea incubator run by the students," Harris said. "The students write grants, call meetings to order and pitch ideas. Students are mentored and become mentors and partner with others in the community to make their ideas come to life."