Traverse City News and Events

'A Massive Opportunity': Ty Schmidt Talks New Organization, TCAPS Health And Wellness Initiative

By Craig Manning | Jan. 18, 2022

No piece of news published on The Ticker last year drew more of a response on social media 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 reached hundreds of kids. His status as leader and face of the organization led many community members to react emotionally when the Norte board ejected him in September.

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

Four months later, Schmidt has established a new organization called the Good Works Lab, which has convened a local team of “scientists, researchers, advocates, storytellers, health professionals, artists, planners, photographers, designers, strategists, engineers, videographers, lawyers, and big thinkers” with the goal of helping “solve complex community problems.” The group’s first major project? Leading a new health and wellness initiative for Traverse City Area Public Schools (TCAPS). That effort, made possible by a three-year $150,000 Rotary Charities Systems Change Accelerator Grant, puts Schmidt in charge of “creating, promoting, and sustaining policies and practices within the school district that lead to healthy, lifelong 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 his plans for the school district.

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

Schmidt: Well, it was certainly not planned, or strategic. I spent some time reflecting on what it was that that I wanted to do, and on what would get me excited to get out of bed in the morning and get to work again. That was easier said than done. But I realized how fortunate I was to have this incredible tribe of mentors to help me through this transition. I've never been unemployed, or fired. But I think I realized that I had some wonderful relationships out of [Norte], relationships built on trust and respect, not only with professionals who I did a lot of work with at Norte, but also with partners at schools, government entities, nonprofits, and in the private sector. So, work was coming my way: I got six job offers, within a week. But I just needed to take a second to breathe and figure out what I wanted to do.

I ultimately recognized that I still wanted to contribute to this town and this region, especially around the ideas of health and climate, and around the inequities about how we get around and mobility. So I said, ‘What if we put together a team of professionals, people who are way better at some of this stuff than I am? And what if I can help us get some of this 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 the needle on issues that I think had a light shed on them from 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 the lockdown that I was not going let this pandemic go to waste. I wanted to see this as an opportunity to change the systems and mindsets about what matters most. And now we're doing that. With this TCAPS initiative, that’s a massive opportunity to help solve a complex problem. This is my second week [in that role], and it is challenging work, but it is also important work and I'm so grateful for the opportunity.

Ticker: What excited you about the TCAPS initiative?

Schmidt: I'm a proud TCAPS parents. I have two boys at Central High School. I believe deeply in public education. I helped TCAPS with their “yes committee” bond in 2018, to help pass that bond. And then, with my work at Norte, we were at every single school in the district, so I have relationships with principals and teachers and staff. So, this project seemed like a good fit, almost as an extension of Norte: similar work, just kind of minus the bikes.

Ticker: What is the rollout process going to look like for this initiative? Can you can shed some light on what kinds of things you're looking to implement or address?

Schmidt: This is a new puzzle; there's never been a position like this district-wide before. But we're not starting from zero. There's 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'm fortunate to be able to stand on the shoulders of that work. I started [with this project] right after winter break, and I’ve spent these first few weeks learning about that past work, examining mistakes made, and identifying opportunities to strengthen weak links or build relationships. There’s a pretty good blueprint of what our goals and objectives can look like as we look to nudge this system toward health.

As far as the rollout process goes, for this first year, we have three priorities:

One priority is to help our social workers. School social workers, just like our teachers and our counselors, are overwhelmed. So how can we help take some of the basic needs stuff off of their plate to really free them up to do some of this behavioral health, mental health, and social emotional learning work that they are trying to do? There's funding through the state for this: Governor Whitmer just announced new funding to bring more social workers. So we’re looking at all sorts of different funding mechanisms to bring more professionals into the schools. And there are lots of different community partners also at play, including Grand Traverse County Health Department and the Community Health Innovation region, so we're having lots of meetings around that.

A second priority is to reinvigorate our wellness committees, and to do a better job of engaging with parents and students on the building level. We want to give them ownership [of this process], and to help them drive this work and what it means to have a unified, aligned, shared vision for health across the district. I learned that concept at 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, everybody has their own culture. How do we listen to them and provide them with the tools and resources to bring health and wellness to the forefront? And we also want to provide education to parents about how we talk about some of these mental health issues, because we know that a lot of this stuff needs to happen at home. How do you have an authentic conversation with the kids in your life to be able to ask sometimes awkward questions?

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

Ticker: You’ve talked a lot about the youth mental health side of things, but there’s also the nutrition and diet piece, and the being active piece. How do those elements fit into what you're doing with this initiative?

Schmidt: Well, it’s all connected, right? With this grant, Rotary funded a 'Systems Change' initiative, so we're trying to really get to the root cause of problems, and to look at things as a whole: the whole school, the whole child, the whole community. We know that, say, what kids put in their bodies affects not just their physical wellbeing, but also their mental and emotional wellbeing. It’s all 100 percent connected. How can we bring a constellation of actions to think and act differently with all of these types of things that we know matter? So we meet with [the various stakeholders]. I met with the nutritionists; I met with the P.E. teachers; I met with LEAP, the after-school program. And we’re trying to get more nonprofits involved, too, like the VASA Ski Club and the Traverse City Track Club, because we want encourage some of those community partnerships to provide opportunities to everybody.

There's already work being done at TCAPS providing opportunities for kids to eat better, to move more, to understand their emotional feelings. The district's been working on this stuff. My job is just to bring it to the top.

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