Monday, April 15, 2013

Empowering Youth: Giving them opportunities to lead and speak about their experiences

Loeb Speaks About Project Coach in a Smith College Class
            As part of Project Coach's model for developing leaders, we give teens in our program the opportunity to lead in authentic situations, to speak about their experiences, and to make decisions about their lives, their community, and our program. Recently, our teens have had many of these opportunities and their growth from them has been overwhelming. The picture above shows Loeb Rosario, a six year Project Coach veteran who is now in community college, speaking to a class of Smith undergraduates about Project Coach, community sports, and building social capital. While speaking, Loeb mentioned how shy he was as an 8th grade student starting Project Coach. If he hadn't told the group, they would never have known. Loeb frequently presents on the program, its benefits to teens and the community and the need for more Project Coach programs. He has presented about it at Springfield middle schools and high schools, at our partner organizations, in New York City, and at many community forums. He is articulate and amazingly reflective about his experience and how Project Coach has helped him grow. He continues says that the best thing about Project Coach is that the staff trusts him to make important decisions, to work on big projects, and to take the lead on community events like Family Nights, Community Sports Day, and Field Day. 
        In line with what Loeb commented on, Project Coach works to provide leadership opportunities beyond coaching a team. Today (the first day of April vacation for public schools) teens went on a tour of Umass and Amherst College and some came to Smith to work on independent projects. Johnny (a senior in high school) worked on creating a structure, an agenda, and a set meeting time for our leadership council. He is leading this group of teens from our program who will make meaningful decisions about the program and how we grow and evolve. Priscilla worked on planning out and organizing our Community Sports Day in May. This included everything from requesting the fields, to meeting with the program director, inquiring about staffing, creating an agenda, deciding which games to play, and procuring snacks and water donations. Loeb and Efrain both worked on finalizing planning for our May 1st Family Night, and the kickoff of our first adult volleyball league. In doing these projects, teens have to put to use many communication and leadership skills taught in the Project Coach curriculum. They also have to do a lot of problem-solving and take initiative in order to move the project forward. They feel empowered by working hard on a project and watching it become something amazing. Staff at Project Coach support them, but the sense of really owning something and being responsible for its success is crucial to their development as leaders.
        Program staff understands that these projects, speaking opportunities, and other additional leadership roles truly add to our teens' positive youth development. A week ago, six of our coaches also spoke about their experience in school and at Project Coach to a graduate class at Smith College. One of our coaches truly came alive speaking to the students and expressed enjoying it so much it made him want to be a professor. These opportunities, though separate from the core of our program, empower our youth in a way that nothing else can. When youth truly feel they own portions of programming, can make crucial decisions about the future of the program, they are trusted to represent the program to important groups, and put in the hard work to make it run, they are significantly more invested and see themselves as agents of change in their community. This is positive youth development at its best!