With more than 20 years of experience in youth development and developmental psychology, she has been tasked with reinventing the wheel when it comes to youth investment – turning from intervention to prevention.
And she’s doing so through a newly appointed position by Oregon Gov. Kitzhaber, serving as a member of the Oregon Youth Development Council. The council was established in 2012 by House Bill 4165 to assist the Oregon Education Investment Board in overseeing a unified system that provides services to school-aged youth through age 20 with the goal of improving academic and social outcomes for young people.
“The intention of the council is to revamp the investment by the state in youth,” Mary says. “Investment has largely in the past gone through the Commission on Children and Families – which is now dissolved – juvenile justice departments and other sources. Now, there’s a real interest on behalf of the state in investing that money in a way that is more upstream and has to do with positive youth development before there are problems. We’re looking at what we can do and what policies we can establish that will impact youth before they end up disengaging from school and work or getting involved in youth violence and crime.”
The council is creating proposals for a new funding model to invest in youth. Mary’s role is to help the council understand research and effective models for youth development, evaluation of state data and key indicators to move toward that will ultimately inform policy.
It’s a direct outgrowth of her work within the College of Public Health and Human Sciences’ PHHS Extension and Public Health Practice.
“My work focuses on the idea of identity development, about sparks and finding that passion a young person has and putting it in the correct context in terms of youth development programs and relationships with others, and then taking that spark and helping a child get on what we call a thriving trajectory,” she says.
It’s an idea, Mary says, that’s assisted in her personal success.
“I was involved in 4-H from the time I was in fourth grade,” she says. “I was in the horse project and rode my horse – but it was so much more than that. The friendships, the leadership and public speaking opportunities, the competition – everything built my skills and my confidence as a young person, and I attribute where I am today to 4-H.”
Mary not only continues to ride and compete her horses in advance dressage competitions, but she also uses past experiences to encourage positive youth trajectories in her role as a 4-H youth development specialist.
“That was my experience, and I know that it put me on a trajectory toward education and health from having that grounded spark, so that’s something I really believe in and hope to extend to Oregon’s youth,” she says.
Mary says informing public health policy will prevent problems with youth before they arise.
“For so long we waited until there were problems and then we intervened to try and solve the problems, but problems kept happening because we weren’t solving them upstream,” she says. “One of the things I really hope to promote is this upstream thinking where we can invest in youth early on and determine what early signs are – including across ecologies, families, communities and other external factors.”
What she’s found in her research is that youth see health as a major factor in all problems they would like to see solved in their communities.
“I don’t think it will come as a surprise when we start seeing that a lot of the pressing needs for investment are related to health in one way or another,” she says. “I believe research being done in the CPHHS could potentially help inform what the council invests in.”
With Oregon’s 40-40-20 goal in mind (by 2025, 40 percent of adults will have earned a bachelor’s degree or higher, 40 percent of adults will have earned an associate’s degree or post-secondary credential and 20 percent of all adult Oregonians will have earned a high school diploma, modified high school diploma or the equivalent of a high-school diploma), planning began immediately.
Although much work still needs to be done, ideas to put a prevention plan in place include developing applications that community-based organizations can use to apply for grants to fund programs encouraging positive youth development.
“If you get a younger person engaged in something that gives them a positive, expressive identity and helps them develop a personal ideology of rules to live by, then they will take that positivity forward into the community and contribute to others,” Mary says. “If I can play even a little role in helping change that trajectory toward youth investment, support and opportunity that ultimately creates healthier communities, then that’s my passion. That’s my life’s work.”