Community Learning Exchange

Benton Harbor MI Boys & Girls Club

The Boys and Girls Club of Benton Harbor provides young people with access to structured education and recreation opportunities to improve scholastic performance and leadership development. Boys and Girls Clubs have a proven track record of enhancing the lives of young people and their families, and in turn improving the neighborhoods where these young people reside.

How does Benton Harbor develop leadership and support youth in academic success?
During KLCC, Benton Harbor revolutionized the model (see KLCC Bridge article, February 2009, below) for working with teens by inviting teens into decision- making roles in the operations and development of programs. The Fellowship focused on how to improve education; all of the Fellows graduated and went on to college. Using youth and adult partnerships, the Fellows created a tutoring program that continues, raising reading levels for 60 youth by 3 grade levels in 2009. In 2010, former Fellows returned as tutors. Also continuing are programs to help parents understand how to negotiate the college system and get financial support for their teens ready to go to college.

The model of using youth and adult partnerships to develop programs and practices that welcome youth as they develop their own leadership capacity has dramatically increased the number of youth of all ages coming to the Club.

Creating collective leadership capacity.
In many community change efforts, women vastly outnumber men. When the work involves the success of young people, this can deprive youth of valuable role models. In Benton Harbor, a group of African American men (see KLCC Bridge article, May 2008, below) formed a strong collaboration to support each other in engaging in the community. They held high expectations for each other and for the youth they worked with. They also developed strong personal relationships with youth that ultimately led to a way of working where youth and adults partnered to carry out community change projects.

KLCC Bridge
February 2009,Volume VI Issue 2, pages 6-7

Doug Schaffer spent the last 10 years as the athletic director and men’s basketball coach at Benton Harbor’s Lake Michigan College, but his six months as the new executive director of the Boys and Girls Club of Benton Harbor (BGCBH) opened his eyes to a new way of perceiving youth development. “I had only been in this role for a couple of months and I [initially] perceived the KLCC programming as [just] another example of a youth development program,” says Schaffer. “[Adults say to the kids] ‘here is what you have to do on a daily basis and you will be equipped for success in school, outside school and on into adulthood.’”

This perception got reworked during a meeting this past November when KLCC-affiliated staff from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation oriented Schaffer to a new way of considering how youth and adults can cooperate to promote youth development. “After the meeting, I saw that youth-adult partnerships extend beyond youth development. Youth and mentors grow together and learn from each other, the voice of young people is able to be heard.”

The open exchange of ideas at the November meeting gave Schaffer a firsthand look at the way that KLCC encourages and engages in forthright dialogue to pierce straight through to the heart of any matter at hand. “We celebrated successful stories of our young people and also shared some of our shortcomings. More than once we talked about how refreshing it was that everyone could say ‘here’s where we fell short and this is what we learned from our mistakes,’” Schaffer says. He is quick to acknowledge the learning opportunities that have arisen out of the transfer of experience-based knowledge from one generation of KLCC fellows to the next. “I think that this class of KLCC fellows has the opportunity to be impacted even more [than the previous one]. They will have the benefit of alumnae who went through the process coming back from college and from the professions who are built-in mentors, who were them not that many years ago.”

As a five-year Benton Harbor resident, Boys and Girls Club (BGCBH) executive director Doug Schaffer is aware of the need for programming that addresses the needs of a broad cross section of young people in the community. The Club, the common name for the teen center on the campus of Benton Harbor High School, provides a place for high-school-age youth to gather after school. Unfortunately, the same level of service is not equally accessible to teens of the same age group who live closer to the Main Street headquarters of BGCBH closer to downtown. “Teens [who live downtown] have to make a decision about whether to stay at the teen center after school when they don’t know how they will get home later,” Schaffer says. Public transportation is not readily available in this small Michigan town.

To meet this need, BGCBH is pursuing the development of a program at the main location modeled on the KLCC fellowship at work at The Club, which would be housed in a large space currently available at the headquarters. A group of young fellows, headed by Arika Simmons, is working with local businesses in the areas of layout and design in selecting furniture and other enhancements for the teen room. “Arika is putting her expertise into doing her best to create a great environment for serving our community, which has growing capacity needs,” says Schaffer. “We are seeking capacity-building dollars to make this happen.”

A youth fellow since the beginning of Benton Harbor’s KLCC project in 2005, Simmons has developed the skills and confidence to negotiate with local vendors on behalf of the teen center. “[Arika] understands, not being much older than the current teen group, that we as adults overreach on certain things that may not be important to teens,” says Liji Hanny, program director of the BGCBH Teen Center, referring to Simmons’ cost-cutting suggestions that saved $10,000 from the proposed $30,000 budget.

“Teens need to be able to walk in and feel they fit in,” says Simmons of her input on the design, furnishings and layout of the new teen center. “The new location will permit teens without rides home [from the original teen center on the Benton Harbor High School campus] to be accommodated.” Simmons, who is currently in her sophomore year at Lake Michigan College, is well aware of the important role that the center and the KLCC fellowship play in preparing youth for leadership. “I was nothing like I am now as far as my organizational skills and other things. Liji has been there along the way … I have him and the Kellogg leadership program to thank for that.” Simmons also works part time at Whirlpool. “She’s grown up a lot, she’s amazing,” says Hanny. They hope to be up and running by the spring.

KLCC Bridge
May 2008, Volume V, Issue 4, pages 3-4

The growth and development of KLCC youth fellows in partnership with adult fellows has been a boon to partners on either side of the equation. In KLCC communities around the country, youth fellows have been pivotal to the advancement of community-focused change work, providing leadership by deed and by example. In Benton Harbor, Mich., the commitment of a few good men has had personal as well as community benefits.

According to the 2000 census, 3,767 households in the city included children and youth under the age of 18. Of those, 42 percent were female-headed without an adult male present. KLCC Project Lead Gentry Phillips and Director of Youth Programs Liji Hanny have been a steady male presence in the Benton Harbor fellowship’s program. It is easy to see why so many young people in their community look to Hanny and Phillips to fill the space left by absentee fathers.

“You don’t realize how much you mean to them until they are about to go away to school or something,” Hanny says. “To be honest, our fellowship was made so strong because of that connection.”

The positive impact of concerned male role models in the lives of youth cannot be overstated. In African American communities like Benton Harbor, the need for more men who are willing to engage with youth is especially acute. Before coming to KLCC, Phillips worked for several years with the Boys and Girls Club of Benton Harbor (BGCBH), the host site, and has seen this reality firsthand. Passport to Manhood is a BGCBH program designed for young men to learn responsibility in relationships around such aspects as sound money management and adherence to a strong work ethic. “There is a lack of male role models in the home in our community,” Phillips says. “Female role models are seen differently.” Despite the dedicated efforts of female heads of households, when it comes to young men, Phillips says male role models can be especially effective.

“Our community is like many others in lower socioeconomic areas [that lack] the traditional nuclear family,” Phillips says. “Liji is a man they see everyday who is responsible, has a family of his own and is genuine. We feel like we’ve just scratched the surface of engaging men with young men.”

Young males are not the only beneficiaries of interaction with responsible adult male figures. Hanny sees the benefit for young women as well. “Young ladies know how they should be treated by men because of how we treat them,” he says.

While Hanny and Philips enjoy a convivial relationship with the KLCC youth and other youth at BGCBH, they also realize the serious nature of the responsibility they’ve assumed in these roles. “Once you get the attention of our young people, there’s a certain amount of pressure that goes along with it because [many of] our young people have been disappointed so often,” Hanny says. “They tend to expect adults, in particular male figures, to say one thing and do another.”

With unwavering support from their adult partners, KLCC youth fellows successfully launched a new technology center at the Club a couple of years ago, giving local youth a chance to learn an array of high-tech skills in a safe and congenial environment where youth and adults are on hand to help them learn; they partnered with another nearby community to coordinate a holiday gift-giving drive for U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan; they organized a community-wide HIV/AIDS awareness campaign; and led efforts to launch BGCBH’s Youth in Government initiative, among other programs.

Under the auspices of the Youth in Government program, two KLCC youth fellows, Trenton Bowens and Samantha Gunter, now have official offices at City Hall where they are working to increase youth civic involvement as well as planning events for the entire community, including but not limited to youth. Currently, one of the biggest issues in the community is the multimillion-dollar Harbor Shores Development Project, proposed as a 530-acre, mixed-use real estate development that includes a Jack Nicklaus signature golf course on the site of the city’s historic Jean Klock Park. Gunter is fiercely committed to ensuring that the community is not exploited in the project’s development. “We are for development; [however,] we want youth to use their voices to get the best deal out of it. We want a better recreation center, better schools, a better community,” she says.

This past year, several KLCC youth fellows who had been with the BGCBH since their freshman year of high school or even longer graduated and headed off to college, leaving behind a strong legacy of community involvement and personal relationships that are much more than casual. For the men these youth have left behind, the transition has been a challenge, requiring a good deal of reevaluation and readjustment. Although the work continues unabated, for Hanny the adjustment has been much harder than expected.

“It’s so heartbreaking, it’s like the empty nest syndrome, because we opened up and gave so much of ourselves.” Hanny credits the relationship-building that occurred through KLCC as being the driving force behind the openness he and his colleagues experienced in their community change work. “The relationships were good before this, and many of the techniques, like circles, that we learned from other sites gave us that place to go that everybody could just express themselves without being judged. It helped us get through some rough times.”

James Gunter, a youth fellow who is now attending Lansing Community College about two-and-a-half hours away, reflects upon his relationship with the Benton Harbor KLCC fellowship and the male leads in the group. Although he grew up in a dual-parent household, he appreciates the impact that Hanny’s and Phillips’ presence has on BGCBH.

“The effect on young black males [is similar to] that of the father they don’t have,” Gunter says. “To think that a person who has no obligation to you cares enough to go that extra mile for you is great,” he says. Gunter’s commitment to the BGCBH remains high. He continues to respond to requests for help editing videos, making flyers or whatever is needed as he pursues his dream of majoring in biology and eventually becoming a cardiologist.

As far as the future of the KLCC fellowship goes, Hanny knows it’s time to move on and rebuild. “I’m trying to get folks to open up about it so we can move on. We did a lot of bonding and building trust and everybody wants that dynamic back. We just have to accept that it’s gonna be different and make space for others. It’s just been a wonderful ride.”

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