Jacobs: Tonopah students think big

At first glance, it’s hard to see why Tonopah would be grouped with large metropolitan cities such as Baltimore, Detroit, New York and New Orleans.

But through hard efforts by students and staff at Tonopah High School, Tonopah is being included in a White House program known as “The Opportunity Project.”

“The goal of the Opportunity Project is to make federal and local data easier to understand and digest, so that it can be used to help fix problems in local communities,” the White House said in announcing the effort earlier this year.

“Using this data will help citizens determine access to opportunity in specific neighborhoods and break down inequity.”

Besides the major cities, Tonopah is among the participating communities. By far, it is the smallest among them, too.

This spring, students at Tonopah High School debuted an educational video, which grew out of Tonopah’s inclusion in the Opportunity Project.

The video highlights the challenges Tonopah faces, citing the closure of Nye Regional Medical Center, the town “falling apart” and some old homes that were described as “shacks.”

“We need to fix our town,” states a portion of the video, which adds that “We all need a new beginning.”

The students seek to pave the way for more opportunities for those living here and for others the community hopes to attract as new residents.

A White House description of the Opportunity Project says it “will put data and tools in the hands of civic leaders, community organizations and families to help them navigate information about critical resources such as access to jobs, housing, transportation, schools and other neighborhood amenities.”

“This project is about unleashing the power of data to help our children and our children’s children access the resources they need to thrive,” it adds. President Barack Obama’s administration released what it calls “a unique package of federal and local datasets in an easy-to-use format.”

Through it, the Opportunity Project accelerates “a new way for the federal government to collaborate with local leaders, technologists, and community members to use data and technology to tackle inequities and strengthen their communities.”

The Tonopah students’ efforts were highlighted at recent meetings in Tonopah of the Nye County School Board and of town leaders, including those from the private sector.

Martin Todd, a student at Tonopah High School, stressed the Opportunity Project’s importance to the town.

“I wasn’t born here, but I love this town,” he said. “Seeing all the stuff close down and see everything kind of fall apart, it kind of hurts, and I want to fix it.”

“If we can get the word out, we can put Tonopah on the map,” Todd said. “This could be not as big as Las Vegas, but we could have a thriving cultural center,” he said.

Todd moved to Tonopah from North Carolina in the summer of 2012 at age 13.

“I am a part of the community now, and I’ve got to help,” he said. “I am obligated.”

Tonopah High School teacher Tom Whelan is spearheading efforts the students are undertaking.

“I have think it’s a way for kids to get empowered and involved in making their town better,” he said. “There are some significant problems as you well know,” Whelan said. “The economy is such that these kids go to work at Burger King. They go to work at Scolari’s (grocery), and they go to work at Giggle Springs (convenience store). That’s about all they have available to them as a future unless they want to open up a business or something like that,” he said. “A lot of kids don’t go to college.”

Whelan mentioned the importance of the “motivation to go and do something.”

“I think what’s lacking here primarily is the kids’ involvement in something that is meaningful to them and that gives them a realistic hope that things are going to get better.”

The Opportunity Project gave Tonopah students the chance to appear at a town meeting, Whelan noted.

“It’s involvement,” he said. “Look at them. They are here, right? They’re at a town meeting. That is something they normally wouldn’t be involved in. They are in a video. They are in a project. They are part of something big. They had a professional from the USDA (federal agriculture department) come and lead focus groups with them,” Whelan said. “They had never seen a focus group before. They get to express what they want.”

“What’s really cool about it, what we discovered is that their dreams of the future are realistic and positive,” Whelan said. “They feel frustrated about their town right now. They feel frustrated about their school right now. They see now some hope. They also see that they need to be involved.”

The White House selecting Tonopah for the Opportunity Project is only the beginning. In an upcoming column, I’ll have more on what’s unfolding to help the town for years to come.

Contact reporter David Jacobs at djacobs@tonopahtimes.com