Providing youth with a sense of belonging, community



In my last column, I highlighted some of the different ways that afterschool programs support our current and future workforce. Since then, I’ve been thinking a lot about the role youth programs play in creating a sense of community and belonging for participants.

Recently, a YouthQuest student shared that one of his favorite things about the afterschool program is the daily check-in with staff and fellow classmates. Specifically, he said he liked being able to share his accomplishments and talk through any challenges he might be facing.

These students regularly go on field trips and participate in hands-on activities that are designed to excite and engage them. And still, for some, the best part is just being asked about their day.

That’s huge. At the Flint & Genesee Chamber of Commerce, we offer a variety of programs that prepare students in grades K-12 for academic and professional success. However, we can only be effective in this work if our students believe in themselves and feel that they matter.

This is why YouthQuest – which requires employees to undergo at least 45 hours of professional development each year – places a major focus on social and emotional learning during training. Staff members learn how to support the “whole child,” which goes beyond academics and includes managing emotions and maintaining positive relationships.

Having a positive relationship with an adult can have a major impact on a child or teen. In fact, research shows that youth who have mentors are more likely to go on to enroll in college, volunteer, hold leaderships positions and become mentors themselves.

Students might find these mentors in the form of teachers, coaches or afterschool program employees. But a person doesn’t have to be an educational professional to make a difference. Locally, there are many opportunities for individuals to mentor and help build a sense of a community for youth. Some examples include:

Joining the Big Brothers Big Sister of Flint & Genesee County. Adult “Bigs” are paired with “Littles,” who live in Genesee County and need someone who can help them realize their fullest potential.

Sharing a meal with a teenager at Flint’s Southwestern Classical Academy. Volunteers offer emotional support and encouragement by meeting with students for lunch on a weekly basis.

Teaching a hobby at Whaley’s Children Center. Volunteer skills coaches are encouraged to share their time and passion for subjects like crafts and soccer.

Talking with students about their business plans at the YQ Biz expo on Saturday, May 4. Held at the Flint Farmers’ Market, the event gives YouthQuest students a chance to connect with community members while showcasing their entrepreneurial skills.

These are just a few of many ways that we can positively impact the lives of area children and teens. I encourage you to visit for additional volunteer opportunities and to learn more about the Chamber’s youth programs.

Kristina Johnston is the COO of the Flint & Genesee Chamber of Commerce.

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