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Helping young people reach their potential

By Lynn Sygiel, editor, Charitable Advisors

Today’s young people are tomorrow’s _______.  It’s a common expression and you can fill in the blank many different ways. It’s an inescapable fact that young people eventually grow up and turn into something.

Today’s adults, as every generation does, hope that transition is a positive one and one that will make the world a better place.

It’s also an accepted premise that many young people need a little help along the way and many nonprofits (and for-profits) are there to lend a hand.

According to the Minneapolis-based National Alliance for Secondary Education and Transition: “Youth development is a process that prepares a young person to meet the challenges of adolescence and adulthood and achieve his or her full potential. Youth development is promoted through activities and experiences that help youth develop social, ethical, emotional, physical, and cognitive competencies.”

In other words, how do you turn young people into successful adults?

Five years ago, an index to measure the youth development in multiple countries was created for the British Commonwealth. The purpose of the Youth Development Index (YDI) is to be able to compare five key areas for young people: education, health, employment, civic participation and political participation.

And as part of this effort, young people were asked for their opinions on the subject. For Eva Maria from New Zealand, youth development “is when, as a young person, you can believe in a future. A real future.”

Clearly, senior staff at Boys & Girls Clubs in Indianapolis would agree with Eva’s assessment. While there have been substantial changes in professionalizing the youth worker field since 1893 when the local club was first established, several things have remained constant.

First and foremost, young people come to the clubs to build relationships. For Maggie Lewis, the organization’s president since May, and LeeAnn Harris, who is senior director of club operations, this focus has been critical to the nonprofit’s longevity.

Research shows that a key factor to promote resilience in youth is the consistent presence of a single caring adult. Harris said that every survey of the views of the clubs’ young people reveals exactly that.

“It’s never, ever been about a program. The number one reason that they come in our doors everyday is because of our staff and the relationships that staff form with young people,” said Harris who has worked for the nonprofit since 1989.

“No matter how appealing technology becomes or how integral it becomes to young people’s success or their day-to-day interactions, no matter whether it’s moving young people toward the workforce or just trying to help them get their homework done, whether it’s a kid who only comes to eat or somebody who comes because they want to be on the robotics group, the only way we successfully serve any of their needs is to have that positive adult mentor relationship,” said Harris.

According to research compiled in the early 1990s by the late psychologist Norman Garmezy that single factor has a significant impact on children living in poverty. But the Boys & Girls Clubs believes it is also about adapting to the needs of young people.

In May, for example, the nonprofit added a new program at its Finish Line Boys & Girls Club on Indianapolis’ Far Eastside. The Pivot Re-engagement Center is a program for 16- to 24-year-olds and is a partnership of the club, Community Alliance of the Far Eastside (CAFE) and other local organizations. Partnering with EmployIndy, the strategy is to move young people toward employment or other options.

About two-thirds of the young people that are served at the club are not in school and are not employed.

Both Harris and Lewis are advocates for young people and think that sometimes adults tend to write them off as lost causes.

“I think we’ve proven time and again, but even recently through our re-engagement center that young people just want opportunities to be successful,” said Harris. “We’ve not had any problems or incidents there.”

She said that the goal for the program that started in May was to register 100 young people, but it’s at 700 and counting.

“These young people have had some bumps along the way and so they’ve come to us to get a better direction and to make the best of themselves,” said Lewis.

It circles back to believing in a future, and according to Harris, that starts in elementary school.

“We’ve seen that even with the school-aged young people that we serve. It’s amazing how, if you’ve never had an opportunity to create a vision for your future outside of what you see in your own community or even if you do have an opportunity to have that vision, hope itself can be knocked out of you before you ever turn 16. We see that all the time, and that’s our job to give them opportunity,” said Harris.

The nonprofit recently received a grant from Finish Line Youth Foundation that matches school-aged young people with employment opportunities at Finish Line stores. It also has a similar grant through Boys & Girls Clubs of America with GAP and Old Navy to support workforce development.

Again it’s about adapting. For several years, at clubs nationally and locally, there was a downturn of the number of teens participating. Many teens were looking for work opportunities. Boys & Girls Clubs saw this as a good way to address the needs of the population it serves and is helping them become a ready workforce.

Another thing that has changed in Indiana is there is now a career path for youth workers. Across the state, there are now education programs, which include certificates, associate degrees and higher education programs to certify and educate youth practitioners.

This year, Indiana is piloting an online program with the Child and Youth Care Certification Board (CYCCB), which is based in Texas. Practitioners in Indiana are able to use an online form to submit applications for Child and Youth Care (CYC) certification.

Practitioners can complete all required paperwork and submit documentation electronically. Over 300 Indiana practitioners, pursuing certification this year, are expected to use the online system, according to Jeananne Reich who is managing the program for Indiana. So far this year, nearly 200 were awarded the certification. Harris estimates that 75 percent of Boys & Girls Club Indiana’s staff are certified.

Lewis said over the 125 years, the facilities have changed from places to swim and play sports to places to obtain basic needs.

“Today, youngsters come to our clubs for basic needs. I cannot stress enough that they are coming for basic needs,” she said.  According to Lewis, poverty is the number one issue where the clubs are located. Annually, the nonprofit serves nearly 7,000 kids at its five facility-based clubs and five school-based sites.

Over half of club members’ households have an income of $25,000 or less, but families are asked to pay $15 for a young person to attend for the school year.  Over 75 percent of the young people are eligible for free or reduced lunch. Last year, it served nearly 300,000 meals and snacks, making it the second largest provider of Second Helpings meals.

In 2001, area schools began hosting after-school clubs. Although those programs are smaller, they are effective, according to Harris, since transportation is not an issue, making attendance more frequent. At these locations it is easier to establish relationships with a child’s teacher. In the city, the loss of community schools makes it more challenging. A given facility can have kids attending 50 different schools.

“There’s been great research done that proves the obvious that the more often a kid attends, the greater the impact you’re able to have. So although it’s a smaller number of kids, we know we have increased impact there because kids are with us almost every day,” said Harris. Second Helpings dinner meals are provided at the school locations, too.

Currently, there are five school sites. Two in IPS — School #44 and Jonathan Jennings — and three in Warren Township — Liberty Park, Raymond Park Middle School and Pleasant Run School. Earlier this year, three school sites closed when a 21st Center Community Learning Center Grant distributed by the Indiana Department of Education was not awarded. Students from George S. Buck (#94) were directed to the new Finish Line Club, which opened in 2016.

Harris and Lewis agree that although the adjectives describing the mission have changed, the basic mission has remained the same. It’s always been about helping young people reach their full potential.

“The part of our mission statement that I think speaks most to youth development is the part that says that we help young people reach their full potential. There are a lot of phrases before and after that — about productive, caring, responsible citizens through this program and that program — but it’s always been helping young people reach their full potential,” said Harris.

After serving as president of the nonprofit, Lewis, who is an elected member and former president of the Indianapolis City-County Council, said that if she were talking to her fellow council members, she would say, “Our youth are banking on us to get this right. They are looking to us for guidance and direction. And while there are a lot of other things happening in our community that take our attention and take our time away, they still need adults to guide and direct them.”

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