Community centers for foster youth

There are two community centers in New York City specifically designed to help at-risk youth (ages 14 to 24) make the transition to adulthood. One is the Next Generation Center (NGC), founded in 2005 by Lynne Echenberg with the Children’s Aid Society, and the other is The Academy, which opened its doors in 2007 under the auspices of FEGS. NGC and the Academy, both in the Bronx, are very alike in their multipronged approach to helping young people plan for their futures. They both lay out three different program cycles related to education, employment, and personal growth. To this end, the centers not only offer GED courses and job preparation and training, but also a whole suite of supportive services including life skills workshops and recreational activities.

Mentoring is the backbone of both NGC and The Academy. After running into problems early on with member retention, NGC began assigning each young person a Life Coach to help them through this period of personal growth. Likewise, the Academy pairs each of their students with a Youth Advisor to help them define and meet their goals and offer them unconditional support along the way. Both centers emphasize that their members are always welcomed back, even if they drop out for a period of time, thus providing a kind of safety net for teenagers who otherwise might not be able to recover from their mistakes. On the surface, the only real difference between NGC and the Academy is that the first has a potentially wider reach, catering both to youth involved in foster care as well as the juvenile justice system, while the second services only foster youth.

When we met earlier today to talk about my work, Lynne said that she could see my Coming of Age program as fitting in very well with these sort of comprehensive services because she considers personal development as an indispensable part of job preparation. One of the major challenges, of course, will be securing funding. I’m not merely referring to a scarcity of funds (although that is certainly an issue), but something related to the very nature of my program. These days both the government and foundations require documented evidence measuring a program’s impact before handing out grants. If I were to open a GED prep program, for example, I could measure the number of students who passed the exam against the number who enrolled in their courses, and submit those figures as evidence of my program’s impact. The seeds I aim to sow, however, have a much longer incubation period, and there is no telling when they will flower. Students who take my course will not  suddenly ace their next exam or get a job the following month. This hurdle is why, Lynne explained, programs like mine don’t exist, but she urged me to stay the course and pointed out some possible avenues for me to pursue. (Thank you, Lynne!)

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