When a letter first arrived with a gold seal, Malarie Laffoon was a bit skeptical. It looked like spam mail.
But when she opened it, it revealed a delightful surprise: Brady, her 8-year-old son, had been nominated and invited to attend a prestigious STEM program in Seattle this summer.
In order to be nominated, his grades had to be high and he had to demonstrate an extreme amount of maturity, both attributes Laffoon recognized. But still, a week at a camp in Seattle?
“I’m thinking, ‘Really, my 8-year-old kid is gonna do this?’” Laffoon said.
Brady was skeptical, too, she said, which made her feel a bit better: It was fine that he didn’t want to go. Laffoon couldn’t sleep, though, she said; it was too great of an opportunity, too huge for his future, to not encourage him more to go. And when they re-assessed, Brady was on board—and so was she.
“I will be in the motel next door,” she said. “I can’t see myself being six hours away from him.”
As it turned out, though, Brady wasn’t the only boy from Priest River who had been nominated. So had Austin Schuler, his classmate. And so, the plan is for two boys from North Idaho to attend the National Youth Leadership Forum's Pathway to STEM for one week in July.
“This is such a small community, and Seattle’s huge,” said Kristy Schuler, Austin’s grandmother. “Austin’s never been to Seattle, so this is gonna be an experience of a lifetime. These two young boys get to go to a big city, and a university at that. I think it's a very big thing.”
Austin, who turned 9 in September, and Brady, who will turn 9 in May, will attend the program at Northwest University. According to the program website, EnvisionExperience.com, the boys will have the opportunity to “develop skills in leadership, self-management, time management, communication, collaboration and goal setting, and will gain a better understanding of their own strengths and interests. Students will come away from the program with a clear view of their pathway toward a lifetime of rewarding work and studies, and with increased self-confidence, self-awareness and independence.”
Those who attend are carefully supervised and are able to check in with their families regularly. The boys will be able to room together at night, Laffoon said, and she will never be far away.
One highlight, Laffoon said, is the chance to build functional robots and bridges, which Brady is excited about. She is hoping that the trip reveals to Brady that he has all sorts of possible paths to pursue.
“I’m really hoping that he learns some independence,” she said. “I want him to know there’s a bigger world out there than our little towns we’ve lived in.”
Schuler said Austin is excited about the forensic, science-based activities. “When we were reading the brochure,” she said, “the part that struck him was the CSI stuff, studying the skeleton. That was the one that really popped out at him. … It’s going to be really fun for these kids.”
The Laffoons—Malarie and Brandon, as well as their children Brady, Brody and Braxly— moved to Priest River recently from Montana, where they had lived for 10 years. They like that Priest River is small, Laffoon said, and that nature is right there at their doorstep.
“I like that I’m able to watch my kids walk from my house to school. I like that there are woods and a river within walking distance,” she said. “We’re out in the woods almost every day in the summer.”
The STEM program tuition is $2,395, a cost that the Laffoons have found some creative ways to meet. Laffoon has been teaching painting classes in town, something she started doing as a way to raise funds for the school. For this program, they have established a GoFundMe page at bit.ly/2LGh0tG.
Brady has been out in the woods helping his father split wood, she said, and that “Brady wants a chainsaw for his birthday so he can cut wood with his dad, not only split it.”
Brady has been a great model of leadership and character, according to Priest River Elementary third grade teacher Elanna Philipoff.
“People like to be around Brady,” she said. “He’s very kind, he’s nice, he’s very lighthearted, he’s generous. People just gravitate to him. He’s one of those kids that kids and adults like.”
Philipoff, who has been teaching in Priest River for 25 years, has personal experience with the NYLF Pathways program: Her daughter attended a similar event, focused more on government, in Washington, D.C, when she was a fifth grader.
Philipoff said she is a firm believer in the power of STEM programs— though she likes to add Arts to the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, and thus call it STEAM.
“I think that’s a really strong focus that our kids need. Our kids are so used to everything being fast,” she said. “They love the engagement that (STEAM) can offer, and I think our kids are different than they were 20 years ago. They’re different learners, and they need that reasoning and to see how things work.”
Schuler agreed with that assessment. Schuler has two sons and a daughter herself, and said she noticed raising them that boys are just different than girls, and that a STEM program is right up the alley for boys who benefit from hands-on learning. Austin, she said, is already doing this in many ways: He loves Scouts, rollerblading and just being outside.
When Schuler saw the letter in the mail, she, like Malarie Laffoon, was so excited. “It is such an honor, and then after reading about it, this is really incredible.”
But both Schuler and Laffoon are a little nervous about being away from the boys for an entire week, so they will be making the trip as well as staying close by. They have been to Seattle before: The Laffoons went last summer to visit the zoo and the science center; Kristy Schuler has a niece there and has visited before, though Austin has never been. Schuler, though, isn’t nervous about Austin enjoying himself.
“I don’t think he’s nervous at all. He’s a really social kid, so he has no problem with any of that,” she said. “I think I will be freaking out more than he will.”
For the Laffoons, it was clear to them that this was a chance that they couldn’t pass up, despite some of Malarie’s reservations.
“It’s an absolutely once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” she said. “The reality of him getting nominated again is slim to none. It’s one of those things when you get this you have to do it. … It scares the heck out of me … but it’s gonna be a big step for me as well to let him spread his wings.”