When you go to The Garage Community & Youth Center website, you just can tell it is so: there’s a feeling of family at this place—of really getting involved with the youth who pass through its doors. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons that this community center is having such success with its youthful participants. At any rate, we liked what we saw, so we gave them a small grant! We spoke with Executive Director Kristin Proto to learn more about the work of The Garage Community & Youth Center:
Kars4Kids: So, a long time ago, The Garage was a garage. What happened next?
Kristin Proto: The Garage was started in 2001 when a local businessman and youth pastor envisioned its roof sheltering something far more valuable than vehicles. The renovated building became a place where teens find the resources, support, and encouragement needed to reach their potential. By 2010 the Kennett Square Garage was serving over 300 students a week, with more than 100 finding rides from the Avon Grove School District. With the help of our many partners, we located another vacant garage in West Grove, raised funds in the community, and opened our second facility in the fall of 2011.
Both Garages are open, free of charge, to middle and high school students in Kennett Square and West Grove five days a week for academic tutoring, adult/student mentoring, community service opportunities, relationship-building, access to a computer lab, recreation, and a wide variety of enrichment programs. Approximately 450-500 students participate in our programs throughout the year.
Kars4Kids: How large is your current building? How many kids are you able to accommodate?
Kristin Proto: The Kennett Square Garage is about 5,000 sq. ft. and our West Grove location is about 4,000 sq. ft. Each center typically serves an average of 40 students daily and 500 different students come through our doors each year for academic, emotional, and social support.
Kars4Kids: What is the procedure to be accepted into your Academic Program?
Kristin Proto: The Garage accepts every student who enters our doors, as long as they are enrolled in school. Students and parents must sign a permission/release form and all of our programs are free of charge. We operate as open entry and open exit, so a student can join our programs at any point throughout the year. Once a student is enrolled, we encourage them to participate in all of our programs and enrichment activities, including but not limited to the Academic Program.
Kars4Kids: Can you tell us about a child whose academic performance changed as a result of this program?
Kristin Proto: Some students are far more mature than their peers, students like Solaris. At fourteen years old, and entering her freshman year of high school, Solaris’ confidence and leadership is obvious. Solaris began attending The Garage at the start of the 2018-2019 school year, and at the onset, there were a few bumps in the relationship that she had with other Garage students and staff.
Her demeanor made it difficult for her to hear and accept any feedback on her actions or behaviors. Her emotions would quickly erupt into anger and yelling. After several months, Solaris was meeting regularly with Garage staff members to discuss ways to identify and communicate her emotions in more constructive ways.
Solaris is a constant presence in The Garage, and is here anytime the doors are open. She attends Girls Program, loves the IHOP (Important Hour of Progress) presentations, and greatly benefits from the self-care workshops. Solaris trusts several staff at The Garage, but her favorite staff member is Rachel, who helps her navigate the struggles and stresses of middle school, life, and relationships.
Before coming to the Garage, Solaris struggled with doing her school work and focusing when studying. The Garage’s daily homework hour provides Solaris with tutors and peers that keep her focused and help her with challenging schoolwork. She quickly made a core group of friends at The Garage that are honest, encouraging, and keep her focused. The confidence she gained throughout the school year helped her to achieve high honors by the end of the academic year.
Solaris’ success this year made it possible for her to be the youngest participant in The Garage’s Career Compass summer internship program. Solaris interned with the New Garden Township, digitizing all of their files. She learned about the role of local municipalities, the process for residents to get permits, etc., and learned valuable workplace skills and how to work as a team with coworkers.
We are proud of the progress that Solaris has made in just one year at The Garage and we are excited to see Solaris continue to develop into a leader in our community.
Kars4Kids: What kinds of activities do you offer in your Boys Program? What is it you hope to achieve with this program?
Kristin Proto: Boys Program activities vary from year to year and by theme or need. Depending on the group of boys that we have each year and the gaps that staff identify, the program has different goals. Last year, the Boys Program encouraged our young men to identify their core morals and values and to stand up for what they believe rather than just “going with the flow”. Our Boys Program Coordinator recognized that as young, minority males, our boys were more often victims and followers, rather than leaders among their peers. They boys kicked off the year at a retreat center and shared some of their personal stories and experiences with each other. Throughout the year, they identified positive role models and how their behaviors can model those whom they admire.
Kars4Kids: Garage Career Compass is such a great name. Can you tell us a bit about that?
Kristin Proto: Career Compass is a paid -summer internship program through The Garage which places high school students at local businesses based on their career passions and interests. The purpose is to provide our youth with their first professional employment opportunity and motivate them to pursue a career and post-secondary education. The program acts as a guide or “compass” helping to direct students into their professional lives. For many of our students, they are expected to work in order to contribute financially towards their households. The Career Compass program fills our students’ need to work throughout the summer while also investing in the future careers and professional aspirations.
Kars4Kids: Have you been around long enough to see kids come back and tell you how they are and where they are today, because of The Garage?
Kristin Proto: Yes! The Garage has served Kennett Square for 18 years and West Grove for 8 years. We currently have two alumni on our Board of Directors and dozens of alumni who volunteer with our students each year. Each spring we host an alumni dinner at both centers, where all alumni are invited back to visit, eat a meal, and share their experiences. Here is an example of advice that one alumni shared with students this past May:
“Ask for help. You are not alone. If it wasn’t for staff at The Garage, I would not have gone to college. My parents didn’t know the process at all. But Everything is possible, especially with support at The Garage. Not everyone has that. I see other communities like where I live now in Delaware, they don’t have a Garage and the support system that we have here. We are very fortunate to have The Garage.”
Kars4Kids: The distinction between what is offered by your Boys and Girls programs is interesting. For the boys, it seems to be about fostering leadership, while for the girls it is encouraging them to make positive decisions. What does this say about girls today?
Kristin Proto: Each year the program Boys and Girls programs focus changes based on the student population and the needs or opportunities that our Program Coordinators identify through the relationships they build with our students. While last year the focus for boys was leadership, the 2019-2020 school year will focus on “Emotions/Toxic Masculinity”. Girls Program this year has the theme of “Trying New things” over “Making Positive Decisions”. These are always great programs which allow our students to grow and mature in a variety of ways, and we are excited to see what this year will bring!
Kars4Kids: Tell us about MAPS, what it means, why it’s important.
Kristin Proto: MAPS stands for Motivating and Advancing Powerful Students. It is our college and career exploration program, which pairs college/educational tours and presentations with one-on-one counseling for students as they determine what path they would like to pursue after high school. Students have access to a Garage staff member, our Graduate Coordinator, who meets with them weekly to help them keep on track for transitioning to post-secondary adult life. Monthly college tours are offered, as well as a week-long spring break college tour, regular professional career presentations and tours, and general support and resource connections.
Kars4Kids: What’s next for The Garage Community and Youth Center?
Kristin Proto: Everything is on the table! We are currently focused on increasing student frequency and guidance for post-secondary planning and workforce developments. Our ideal vision is that when youth graduate from The Garage, they are prepared to make wise decisions about their lives, and are hopeful for their futures.