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Honoring Our Youth: A Starting Point to Success

Yesenia Romero participates in the Honoring Our Youth Program.

Alejandra Padilla is a part of the Honoring Our Youth program.

When Yesenia Romero looked into getting her GED in hopes of applying for the Deferred Action program, she found few organizations willing to help because she did not have a state ID.
 
Through a referral from someone at her church, Romero found an open door and a relaxed atmosphere at Steepletown Neighborhood Services on Grand Rapids’ West Side (671 Davis NW). The organization's helpful and friendly staff connected her with the resources to travel to Detroit to get her passport, even paying her bus fare. They also enrolled her in its Honoring Our Youth program, which provides free GED assistance to eligible young adults who, for one reason or another, did not complete high school.
 
Romero, first introduced to Steepletown through its Peace Club in elementary school, started with the test prep and tutoring services last fall, received her passport in December, and has successfully passed four of the GED tests. She is studying hard for her fifth and final test, math, which she hopes to take this week.
 
"They listen to you and give you advice," she says of Steepletown's staff. "They're more like friends. They motivate you and support you, which is really nice…They didn’t turn me away like other places did."
 
Romero exemplifies the many obstacles facing the youth who seek services at Steepletown. The 25-year-old resident lives in the neighborhood and quit school in ninth grade to help her dad with her siblings after her mom left. Now married, Romero also has five children of her own, ages 2 to 9. Her parents brought her to America at age 4, and she has lived without a valid form of identification until recently.
 
"It had been nine years since I’d been in school," she says. "I was really nervous and like, 'what if I don’t catch on?' I had been wanting to get my GED. Not having a state ID really closed a lot of doors."
 
A safe haven from the storms of life, Steepletown's Founding Director Dick Bulkowski likes to think of it as a place that turns hope into opportunity and opens the doors to education, possibility, and second chances. Many youth show up carrying invisible scars, weighed down by feelings of fear, failure, and frustration. Here, they are treated with dignity and respect, and challenged to rise above their present circumstances.
  
Steepletown offers a variety of programs aimed at youth development and employment, family well-being, and community engagement, but its GED program is one of the most popular.
 
In some instances, these youth simply need access to test-prep services. They take the GED and pass, and get on with life. For many others, the process can span up to a year and include a lot of encouragement and follow up from their youth advocate and other staff.
 
"In some cases, it takes a lot of pushing," says Emilio Zamarripa, a HOY youth advocate. "They’ve been told they can't, so we help to instill a positive mindset."
 
For the 2011-12 program year, there were 217 youth who registered and 51 completed the GED. Steepletown expects to serve 300 youth this year, and hopes at least 60 complete their GED, Bulkowski says. It may sound like a minimal number, but considering Grand Rapids Public Schools graduates less than half who start as freshmen, that is 51 youth who successfully take a second chance, allowing them to apply for community college, technical training, or the military.
 
Many are referred by other youth programs, community agencies, or their families or churches, but they each have a unique story. Once they learn to trust the staffers, they begin to peel back the layers of their often tumultuous lives. Most come with a variety of issues that led them down the wrong path or prevented them from finishing school, Bulkowski says. These include poverty and abusive parents, teen pregnancy or juvenile delinquency, behavioral and anger issues, and problems with drugs and alcohol.
 
"It's not enough to get a GED," Bulkowski says. "A lot of these kids have a lot of garbage from their past. There are a lot of barriers to moving forward."
 
Melanie Straub, education coordinator, oversees the computer and learning lab, and provides assistance to students who need it. One of the perks of the HOY program is the flexibility, she says.
 
Steepletown offers open enrollment year-round and attempts to eliminate the barriers to education some students face, such as childcare and transportation. Staffers understand things come up and life happens. Many participants have jobs and children. As of April 1, participants can take advantage of drop-in childcare. They can show up when it fits their schedule, work with tutors or in small groups, and practice and prepare for the five GED tests at their own pace. A lot of it involves independent study and online curriculum, Straub says. Students are assigned a youth advocate, but everyone there works to build their self-esteem, remove obstacles to success, and make sure they stay the course and pass the test. In many ways, the youth advocates also serve the role of counselor, cheerleader, and parental figure. 
 
"We interject ourselves into their life," she says. "We really get every walk of life. I tell students it can take two weeks, a matter of months, or up to a year. It depends on how long it's been since they were in school, how far they made it, and how well they were doing."
 
Since they also get a voucher to take the GED test for free at Beckwith Adult Education, Straub monitors their progress and score on each practice test to make sure they are ready for the real one.
 
"(Our public schools are) failing a certain population of students," says Straub, a Grand Valley State University education graduate. "This was an opportunity to give these students that chance back."
   
As they look for work, they can get help with résumé writing and practice interviews. The goal is to give the youth the confidence and tools to become gainfully employed and contributing members of society. They are encouraged to participate in workshops and small groups to gain financial, social and life skills, and learn the work habits necessary to keep a job once they find one, Zamarripa said.

Some HOY participants find work with Steepletown's summer employment programs or its West Side Garage Store. Others are placed in internships or other work experiences out in the community, Bulkowski says.
 
“It takes a layer at a time for them to feel more confident in their abilities,” Zamarripa says. "They are 19 and 20, but act in various childish ways. It can be challenging at times, but we do our best to keep them here."
 
Zamarripa joined the organization a couple of years ago after interning there as part of his bachelor’s degree in social work at Grand Valley State University. He wants others to be more aware of the realities of the neighborhood.
 
"It's surprising to hear people not accept or understand the barriers these young people face," he said. "When you have so much against you and you're not aware of the resources, it almost does seem impossible."
 
Alejandra Padilla, 19, learned about Steepletown’s GED services after volunteering at Plaza Comunitaria, also located in the center. She left her family in Texas a few months ago to move in with her uncle's family in Grand Rapids to escape an abusive relationship. 
 
Padilla has not completed any of the GED tests, but she is close to starting them and visits Steepletown four days a week to study. Her goal is to attend college and be a role model for her four-year-old sister. Padilla has big ambitions, and is currently debating whether to attend cosmetology school or become a pediatrician or special education teacher.
 
Every June and December, Steepletown also has a graduation ceremony -- complete with caps, gowns, food, photos, and all the pomp and circumstance of a regular ceremony -- for participants who successfully pass the GED. 


 
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