YEP – Youth Empowerment Program – exists to provide a space for teens to develop self-esteem, social skills, and leadership talents and to introduce them to new experiences and opportunities.
“Who are you?” is the question that Charlotte, the project leader, poses to each teen. “If you can’t name it – others will do it for you.” With that question in mind, she challenges each person to explore what makes them unique. They are encouraged to recognize and name their pain, to think about the tension between being themselves versus fitting in, and to question culture’s message that how they look on the outside is all that matters. In the leadership classes during the school year, the teens begin to process these questions through self-expression in dance, song, poetry, writing, and photography.
E’nire’ion, a 17-year-old YEP, is finding out who he is. His wise parents and an older brother have taught him compassion, the true meaning of life and the importance of working hard in school. But YEP has taught him to trust and to begin to open up about his own pain, working through his anger and negative behavior. Now he’s ready and willing to help others with their pain. His genuine smile brightens the room. “When I light up, they lighten up with me.” In the summer he shares that smile with children in CATCH Camp, part of YEP’s Summer Work Experience.
The Summer Work Experience provides teens four-day work weeks in an area of their choosing – urban farming, rehabbing houses, mentoring neighborhood children in the neighborhood CATCH Camp, or doing lawn care. This is another way each person explores the “Who are You?” question. A city boy who loves to rap chooses to work on the farm, learning a new language about planting, weeding, cultivating, harvesting, and composting. Three females choose rehabbing and are soon finding studs, using hammers, putting up drywall and taking out windows. Some choose the lawn care program and Nelson Neighborhood benefits while kids are learning about weed whacking, grass cutting and edging. Some choose to work at Catch Camp and they learn to look at life with the eyes of a child.
Part of the “Who are you?” process is having dreams about the future. Field trips are taken to big cities like Chicago and to museums and universities. Teens are introduced to the possibility of continuing their education and to different careers and employment opportunities. Keyvon was one of those teens. He graduated from Muskegon High School and then enrolled in Western University as a freshman. His dream was to become a hip hop and praise dancer. Initially, he was discouraged because most of the dance at Western was classical and he didn’t even make the dance team. But with encouragement, he kept pursuing his dream and found one professor who was a specialist in hip hop. He is now on a hip hop dance team!
The teens are frequently reminded that their dreams aren’t only for themselves, but also for their neighbors, for their community. They are encouraged to be a positive influence wherever they are planted. One boy recommended a younger friend of his to the YEP program. The YEP class was already full. But this boy pleaded, “But, Miss Charlotte, this program saved my life and I want my friend to have this also!” He was welcomed in.
At the end of this four-year adventure, each teen has wrestled with the question, “Who are you?” and is better able to engage and impact the world as their journey continues.