Thomas receives award for work with afterschool program

Photo by Deb Gau Ian Graue presented Candace Thomas with the Afterschool Champion award at Marshall Middle School on Friday afternoon. A group of Marshall Middle School students, staff, and members of Literacy Volunteers of Southwest Minnesota were present for the award ceremony. From left to right, people at the ceremony included students Chorus Paw and Sel Na Soe, Thomas’ husband Will Thomas, and Queen Njemanze, of Literacy Volunteers of Southwest Minnesota.

MARSHALL — She was being named a champion, but as Marshall resident Candace Thomas accepted the award, she said she wasn’t the only one worthy of the title.

“This is an honor, but it belongs to a lot of people,” Thomas said.

On Friday, Thomas was presented with an award naming her as an Afterschool Champion, in recognition of her efforts working with community members to help young people and families develop literacy and science skills. Students and staff from Marshall Middle School, along with members of Literacy Volunteers of Southwest Minnesota, were gathered for the award presentation.

Thomas is one of 12 Minnesotans who received Afterschool Champion recognitions this year, said Ian Graue, as he presented the award. The recognitions were given by Ignite Afterschool, a partnership of afterschool programs from around Minnesota.

Since 2011, Thomas has been involved with Literacy Volunteers of Southwest Minnesota. When it was founded, the group matched up volunteer literacy tutors and adult learners. In 2014, the group expanded their programs to cover families and youth. In 2016, they received a two-year Community Innovation Grant from the Bush Foundation, to help families access educational opportunities and support student success for kids and youth in grades K-12.

One of the programs that Literacy Volunteers of Southwest Minnesota played a big part in starting was STEAM-Ed, an afterschool science, technology, engineering, art and math program at Marshall Middle School.

“This afterschool program started in response to requests from our adult learners,” Thomas said. Parents wanted their children to have a chance to learn science and math skills in fun ways, she said.

The STEAM-Ed program started out with a focus on students who were learning English, or recently graduated from English Language programs, Thomas said. Starting this year, the program is open to all MMS students in grades 6-8.

This year, STEAM-Ed students decided to take part in a Future City competition, and they will be taking their design for an “Age-Friendly City” to competition in Rosemount on Jan. 20.

It took more than just Literacy Volunteers of Southwest Minnesota to make all that possible, Thomas said. Partnerships with Marshall Public Schools, Southwest Minnesota State University, and more community members and organizations all contributed to it.

In working with the middle school students, Thomas said, she’s enjoyed the kids’ energy and seeing them learn teamwork and leadership.

“You know when you come in to work with them . . . you have an obligation to make it a positive experience for them,” Thomas said. “But what really happens, is they make it a positive experience for you.”