This summer’s virtual Learn & Earn program was an incredible learning experience for me as well as many of the youth who engaged in the process and embraced the challenge!  It was full of highlights and challenges, frustrations and triumphs; but as I reflect on those six weeks, I realize how much I grew as an educator and a youth development professional.  Beyond my personal experience, however, there is a lot to celebrate while looking back at the impressive work the youth produced, the relationships they formed, the self-exploration they engaged in, and the variety of skills that so many of them developed.  

In one session, we provided the youth with a Project Based Learning experience. Project Based Learning is the framework we use to build many of the teen programs at Boys & Girls Clubs of Western PA, making learning more relevant and enriching! During the first couple of weeks, teens worked on a personal project where they explored their identity and reflected on their lives (past, present and future).  It was an opportunity for the youth to take stock of their strengths, interests, and life experiences to help them start carving a path for their future.  Their level of engagement exceeded my expectations and after the project ended, 75% of the teens in my cohort agreed that the Identity Project helped them to think more about their future.  When asked what they learned or what they are thinking about now, their responses included:

 “I found out what I have to do to become a teacher.”

  “I am thinking about all of the possibilities in my future…” 

“Just motivation and that I’m very determined.”

“That planning your future is very important.”

“How I’m going to get to where I want to be.”

This is what we want, as educators and as an organization.  Our goal is to guide our youth as they build bridges to great futures.  These responses let me know that the teens were on their way!

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I’ve been facilitating the Teen Outreach Program (TOP) for just under a year.  TOP, part of BGCWPA’s Healthy Lifestyles initiative, is a positive youth development program designed to build teens’ educational success, life and leadership skills, and healthy behaviors and relationships.  It is meant to be in person and consists of small group meetings where teens can develop the aforementioned skills, learn about themselves and connect with others.  It’s also an opportunity for the youth to discuss and explore issues that are relevant in their lives.  I was nervous about delivering TOP through a virtual setting and wasn’t sure if we had enough time to create the safe, supportive environment that’s so necessary in a program like this.  Fortunately, most of the youth showed up everyday and by the end of the six weeks, I believe we built a space where they could feel free to share their opinions and thoughts freely, without judgement.  Here is some feedback from the teens in my TOP groups.  When asked if TOP helped them learn more about themselves, 79% of the youth said yes! When asked what they learned, their responses included:

“I learned that I’m more open-minded than I think.”

“That I’m smarter and a better thinker than I thought.”

“I learned that I actually have things that are a part of me.”

“Who I am.”

I noticed that a real theme emerged this summer – Who am I? Who I am.  So many of our teens not only began to ask that question in a safe and supportive environment, but many more found their own voice and began to answer that question for themselves.

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I could go on about all of the growth and amazing skills the Learn & Earn teens developed this summer. However, I want to also share some of the extraordinary work created by the youth.  During my elective, Activate Your Voice, the teens explored the world of activism and how to use the power of words and their voice to create meaningful change in their communities. Here is an excerpt from a student who wrote a letter to a police official urging for police reform:

“I am writing this letter to see a change in my community as a black girl. It’s very important that I get my point across.  I am tired of seeing my people dead and hearing it on the news – another black male or female dead by a police officer’s bullet, fist, or knee. I am tired of having to keep my hands raised everytime I hear that siren. I fear I may be the next one dead in the streets just like Antwon, an innocent teen shot and killed….

… I want to see the day when I can stop asking and wondering: When will things change? When will my people not live in fear for their lives? When will the police stop seeing the color of my skin and start hearing my voice? When will minorities be seen as equals in the eyes of the law? Will I be next or one of my family members?

I hope that the police can march with us and not against us.  You have the power to make these changes and move our city, state, and country to a better place where I, my family, and my community feel safe and protected. I hope I will see change soon in Pittsburgh. This city is truly amazing and will be even more amazing when everyone is treated equally.”

This is just one example of the many students who continued to develop or started growing into their role as advocates for themselves and their communities.  I am genuinely excited for many of our Learn & Earn youth and what’s to come in their futures! The last piece I’d like to share with you is a poem that was written during my workshop, Self-Reflective Art & Writing.  Enjoy:

I am art

I wonder about the obstacles in life 

I hear mother earth suffocating 

I see the lost souls 

I want to taste success 

I am art

I pretend to be my future self 

I feel the wind beneath my wings 

I touch the soft fur of imagination

I worry that success leaves a bitter taste 

I cry when thinking about the great leaders who have fallen do to hate 

I am art 

I understand that scars tell stories 

I say blm and love is love ✊🏾❤️

I dream of the stories that I will tell to my children

I try to make a difference 

I hope I’ll make a difference 

I am art 

Written by Janel McTaggart, Healthy Lifestyles Instructor