My Afterschool Program Changed My Trajectory. Here’s Why.
October 4, 2023
I was 15 when I first set foot in Neutral Zone, a youth center in Ann Arbor, Michigan. I remember why I showed up clearly: earlier that summer, I was recruited to join their Teen Advisory Council program by a summer camp counselor who was a couple of grades ahead of me. Thanks to his initial encouragement, I showed up, and then I kept showing up. It didn’t take long for me to realize that I felt a similar magic there to what I experienced at camp, a magic that was rooted in belonging.
As a young person who didn’t particularly enjoy – or excel in – traditional school, I struggled with feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem as a student. While I am fortunate to have had multiple impactful teachers and benefited from the privilege that comes with being a white cisgender person in an affluent community, classrooms were not where I did my best learning. I struggled to stay engaged, often skipping classes or faking illness to stay home. However, my home life had its own set of challenges as my family faced financial, mental health, and substance abuse issues that led to instability.
My afterschool program is where I began to find my footing. Because of the safe and supportive culture the staff worked to establish, I had a consistent place to show up as my full self; to meet new friends and deepen relationships with old ones; and sincere opportunities for leadership and skill-building. Perhaps most importantly for me at the time, I was able to develop strong relationships with adult mentors that were nonhierarchical and reciprocal. They sought my opinions and partnership and valued what I had to say. It was invaluable for me to be seen in this way and gave me the confidence I needed to excel both in and out of school. As a result, I’ve grown into an adult with a fundamental belief that all young people should have access to high-quality programming where they are able to be fully seen and cultivate agency. That is what led me to my work at the Forum for Youth Investment.
As a young person, I was invited – and paid – to be part of Youth Driven Spaces, a collaborative project between the Forum’s Weikart Center for Youth Program Quality and the Neutral Zone that produced the Teen Advisory Council guidebook. Little did I know that years later, as I embarked on my job search with a particular interest in youth development, I’d stumble upon the Forum’s name and remember that I had co-authored the introduction to that very guidebook when I was just 17.
Reflecting on this journey makes me appreciate the profound and lasting impact that out-of-school time programs can have on young people, opening them to new experiences, opportunities, and even future career paths they might not have otherwise known were an option. These programs not only provide opportunities for personal growth and leadership, but can open doors to unexpected adventures, memories, and lasting relationships. As I recount this chapter of my life, I’m reminded of the incredible value that afterschool programs provide for young people everywhere.
This is why I’m excited each year to celebrate Lights on Afterschool. This nationwide celebration is a reminder of the crucial role afterschool programs play in the lives of children, families, and communities. It’s a day to recognize and appreciate the dedication of those who make these programs possible and the young people who benefit from them. So, mark your calendars for October 26 and join in the festivities to celebrate and generate awareness for afterschool programs across the country. Chances are that these programs are changing lives for the better, just as they did mine.