When it comes to youth violence and crime, a number of studies confirm that afterschool programs are a great deterrent. In light of such evidence, there has been a conscious effort by many Genesee County schools to offer something for youth to do after school, especially those who are considered at high risk of participating in criminal activity as a result of their age or home situation. One local program that is experiencing a great deal of success is YouthQuest, an afterschool program on-site at several public school campuses in Genesee County.
The product of an opportunity presented four years ago to the Flint and Genesee Regional Chamber of Commerce by the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, YouthQuest is available to the Carmen Ainsworth, Flint, Lakeville, Montrose and Mount Morris school districts for students in kindergarten through eighth grade. Any student in these districts is eligible to take part in YouthQuest at the program’s 12 sites. Most sites have about 100 participants, who attend Monday through Thursday in conjunction with the regular school week. During their time involved with YouthQuest, students have shown improvements in behavior, academic performance and school attendance.
The program allows students to enjoy in-house athletic and academic activities on a daily basis, while also affording them the chance to attend out-of-town sporting and creative learning events. “We literally change lives three hours at a time,” says Loise Richardson, who has been on board with YouthQuest since its inception four years ago. Past excursions have included trips to Chicago, the Michigan Science Center, and the Air Zoo of Kalamazoo. Children must meet strict requirements in order to travel with the group, and Loise has seen the transformation in kids because of these high expectations. She recounts the instance of one student whose change was the result of wanting to attend the Chicago trip. “One story that I love to share is about a student who had many behavioral issues. He was constantly disrupting the atmosphere until over the summer, when we established what [the students]had to do in order to go to Chicago. We didn’t have an issue with him at all after that. He was our star student all summer and that has carried over from summer to now. He’s been completely different.”
Deantio Shakir works as a Disciplinary Counselor at the International Academy, one of the YouthQuest sites, during the day. He witnesses firsthand the importance and necessity of offering students alternatives in order to curb possible behavioral issues. Shakir says that the results of afterschool programs convinced him to get behind the movement. He says, “I saw the growth in the kids. They may have made bad decisions in seventh grade, but by ninth grade you see that they have changed.” Shakir believes that YouthQuest trips provide an impetus for students to change their behavior. “I love what they do with the kids,” says Shakir. “They bring kids outside the box and they let them explore. They go outside of Flint at times, and I think they need to have that.”
In fact, the field trips are regarded as a focal point for student advancement in YouthQuest. Amanda Teeter-Hoffman is the site coordinator for YouthQuest at the International Academy. She is excited by the exploration opportunities granted to students because the lessons are more creative experiences and not just a “page-by-page” process out of a workbook. She says, “The kids learn the exact same way that I needed to learn.” Teeter-Hoffman believes that availability is what makes YouthQuest important – and successful. “It’s here!” says Teeter-Hoffman definitively. “It is a place for kids to go to after school. Many local kids go home to no parents, and that is a danger zone. They have nothing to do and that is when they get into trouble. But here, we are on fire! We keep them moving and socializing and at the end of the night they don’t want to go home.”
Sporting activities have included bowling, cycling, golf, tennis, and swimming. Rhetta Hunyady is the Vice President of Education & Training for the Chamber, and she worked to get YouthQuest off the ground when it first began. Hunyady stressed the importance of physical activity, mentioning how many local students have “never gone swimming” or have “never ridden a bike.” Deneshia Smith has been with YouthQuest for two years and works with attendance at the International Academy site. She strongly believes that the physical aspect of the program makes it a more comprehensive afterschool activity. She says, “Once I got to know about the program and saw what it offered: enrichment, nutrition and physical fitness, I saw that these were all the things that I stand for, so I knew that I wanted to be a part of this with the kids.”
YouthQuest is dedicated to “youth development” in its most authentic form; in this spirit, youth advisory councils are held periodically to allow student input on proposed activities. The children are also given the chance to teach others, including their parents, what they have learned in the program. The idea is to support the students in our community throughout the most trying years of their education in an attempt to address the challenges they face. At the elementary level, Rosemarie Ludwig, who often works with kindergarten through second grade students, believes that YouthQuest’s ability to “individualize activities that encourage excitement for learning” is an integral piece of early childhood development. After junior high school, the sponsors of YouthQuest also make TeenQuest and the Summer Youth Initiative available to high school students as a means to ensure that the strides taken throughout the early stages of development continue throughout the volatile high school years.
Any program is implemented in order to produce a result. YouthQuest is a well-rounded program that touches on several aspects of student’s educational experience. As a result, the social impact of such a program is something from which the community as a whole benefits. Just as there are studies that support the importance of afterschool programs, there are other studies that clearly reveal the link between successful students and strong societies. YouthQuest is the type of program that can produce the healthy outcome that many look forward to seeing in Flint – one afternoon and one student at a time.