In September of 2021, I was tasked with an exciting yet daunting project — all teen programming at the YMCA of Metropolitan Milwaukee would begin rolling up to me. I was excited to get started but knew that the pandemic had hurt our teen programs. Many participants lost interest when all engagement became virtual. Not only were they less engaged, but we had lost many of the staff who had been working with them at a time when they most needed to be connected and feel a sense of belonging. It would be challenging to rebuild, but I saw it as an opportunity to begin reaching even more teens who could benefit from critical social connectivity.
Reviving a Legacy Program
The first step was identifying what our Y was good at when it came to teen programming. The easy answer was our Teen Achievers Program, which will be celebrating 40 years in the fall of 2022. The YMCA of Metropolitan Milwaukee Teen Achievers Program is an academic achievement/career development initiative for high school youth and teens of color. Our Y was one of the last Ys to change the program name from “Black Achievers” to “Teen Achievers.” It had always open to everyone, but some participants felt that the program name was not inclusive.
In 2016, before I was leading teen programs, I participated in two of the cross-college tours that the teens went on every spring break. On the final evening of the tour in Nashville, our group of Teen Achievers connected with the YMCA of Middle Tennessee’s Achievers for a night of great food, dancing and comradery. I noticed that their Achievers program was larger and more diverse than ours. They were serving Black and Hispanic/Latino teens, while ours was primarily serving Black teens. We knew we had an opportunity to serve more young people who could benefit from the program, but we weren’t engaging with their communities.
A New Opportunity
It was not until 2021 that we had an opportunity to make some intentional changes as we tried to rebuild the program following the challenges caused by the pandemic. YMCA of Metropolitan Milwaukee had just received funding through the American Immigration Council’s Center for Inclusion and Belonging, in partnership with Walmart Corporation, to implement a project that would advance and foster intergroup activity and social cohesion between populations from different backgrounds.
We had learned that nationally, Hispanic/Latino teens are the most at-risk of dropping out of high school, so we knew that it was important to start serving them through Teen Achievers. To do so, we needed to begin marketing intentionally to the Hispanic/Latino community in Milwaukee. The YMCA of Metropolitan Milwaukee had been closing facilities, so we also had to identify locations that would be accessible to the teens we were trying to reach. Additionally, we needed to rebuild a team that could manage the program and find sponsors to fund it. After marketing the program toward Black teens for years, we knew it would be important to identify a partner to help recruit and start offering the program in locations that were more accessible to the Hispanic/Latino community. I met with the college and career advisor at St. Augustine Prep, a K-12 school that serves the local Hispanic/Latino community on the south side of Milwaukee, to ask if they would help recruit participants. I also asked if the school could serve as a Teen Achievers program hub so teens would not have to travel over 20 miles to the only existing program location at the time located on the north end of Milwaukee County. Additionally, I requested that they allow teens who did not attend the school to participate. I am proud to say that they agreed to all our requests.
Participants are imagining better futures for themselves after visiting universities, listening to speakers from their respective communities and learning about career opportunities that may not have been accessible to them before.
Rebuilding on a Legacy
Rebuilding on a Legacy
We officially reopened Teen Achievers in December 2021 with a goal of serving 20 teens at three hubs located in the north, central and south sides of Milwaukee. So far in 2022, we have served 64 teens with an almost even split of Black and Hispanic/Latino participants. One Saturday each month, they convene in one location to share their backgrounds and experiences over different cuisines. We also feature guest speakers for our “My Journey” series and licensed clinicians host a series on healing.
The teens in the program have grown from identifying commonalities and learning to appreciate their differences. They’re imagining better futures for themselves after visiting universities, listening to speakers from their respective communities and learning about career opportunities that may not have been accessible to them before. Our goal is to serve 100 teens by 2023.
We learned that offering more locations for equity, providing safe spaces, opening intentionally for all and listening to our teens has allowed us to create multiple pathways for participants to achieve their goals while building equity for all in the spirit of social cohesion.