I got hooked on after school programs in 1992 while working as an art teacher in Hartford, CT.
The old, rundown brick-faced school sat in the middle of an urban jungle. The hallways were dingy, there was no grass, only a cement parking lot that was used for “recess,” and many of the bathroom stalls were missing doors. It lacked promise to say the least.
My immediate thoughts when I started this job were of sadness. Where was the equity in all of this? Despite previously working with children, this was my first experience working in an urban school setting and my heart was open and ready for a new challenge. I saw some good teachers and I also witnessed teachers that seemed to lack the dynamism necessary to give these children an opportunity to really see what they were capable of. Most of my students lived a life I had no idea existed outside of the movies. I wanted to help in any way possible and I jumped right in. I was ready to make a difference.
I thought I would change the world.
After a semester, I was promoted to Program Director overseeing enrichment programming and staff much older than myself. A community garden was built and the students planted seeds and learned where their food came from. Classes in computer technology, music, cooking, basketball, art, and dance rounded out the afternoons. Progress was made slowly. Students were thriving. But it still didn’t feel like it was enough.
Often times there were students left at school beyond 6pm and no one came to pick them up. Did the parents forget? Were they running late? Was there something more important? Often times students were so tired at school that it was hard for them to concentrate because something happened the night before in their home or because of unruly gang activity in their apartment complex that kept them awake. There were students struggling to complete their homework because they didn’t speak English well. There were kids that were hungry or showed up in dirty clothes and unbathed. During the brutal months of a typical New England winter, many students didn’t have hats, or scarves, or a jacket warm enough to protect their being.
It broke my heart and opened it wider than ever, all at the same time.
One night one of my students was picked up by the police for stealing food to feed him and his 6-month old baby sister because his mom was a heroin addict and prostitute and never came home the night before. On a human level I know I would have done the same thing he did to survive and I knew this kid was resilient. I quickly learned that wasn’t fair to try to instill my values (Do Not Steal) on him. Like many of my students in the program, they were growing up too fast and dealing with incomprehensible obstacles yet I was determined to provide any support they needed despite my limited capacity.
I am grateful on a daily basis to be able to do work I am passionate about and to do it in collaboration with other “hope dealers” that inspire me and keep the dream alive.
I definitely wasn’t trained on any level to do this work but I knew I could somehow, some way, make a difference. I wanted to change everything, fix it, make it better, and mostly change the way the world was. I wanted to give these beautiful children the opportunity to engage and thrive. A chance. Fairness. Equity. Respect. Love. Opportunity. I did what I thought was right.
I loved them and I told them I loved them. I hugged every single child every day. I bought warm jackets and mittens, I asked everyone I knew for donations of any kind. I had my talented musician friends come in and teach classes. I gave extra snacks out whenever possible. I gave kids safe rides home even though it was against the “rules” and I gave the boy who couldn’t sit still at his desk a leadership position in the program. We painted every garbage can in every classroom with brilliant colors and designs. Flowers grew in the garden. We had Double Dutch tournaments in the parking lot. We had effective partnerships with community agencies to tutor our students.
We learned and we had fun.
As time went on and I moved across the country to California, I continued to do the work I knew and loved the most and got a job in an after school program. I fell in love all over again with my work, my students, the families, and the community I now belonged to. But I still didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up. It was a job – an important job that I loved, but still a job. I wondered what the next step would be in my life.
It wasn’t until my early 30s that I attended my first professional learning conference. It was at this event that I realized there were other people like me, people that were doing amazing work, people that were truly living the cause. I was lit up with inspiration, ideas, vulnerability, humility, and possibilities. I was moved. I realized I was a part of something much bigger than my program and myself. I was part of a movement.
This event changed the trajectory of my life.
Hmmmm, get people out of their schools, their workplace, and bring them to an inspiring place where they can learn, network, share, grow, and get tools and resources to go back and implement. Empower them. Make a bigger difference. It is not a new concept but it was a revelation for me at the time and one that changed my story from a job to a career.
The world needs good people – we all know this. What if we gave caring adults all the tools and training they needed, equipped them with the means of resources and experiences to inspire youth, inspire learning, and inspire change. What if this was a supported belief by every educator at every level? What if we believed in them and supported them so that they too could do whatever it takes? I have had many jobs where there are so many nonsensical rules around supporting the success of children. It really doesn’t have to be so difficult.
When it comes to the well being of our children and youth, I have always felt a sense of urgency. Maybe it’s because no one encouraged me to discover my potential growing up and maybe it is because I have worked with thousands of children and youth that still haven’t tapped into their potential.
Although my roles have shifted over the past 23 years – site supervisor, counselor, teacher, program director, regional lead, and CEO, my WHY remains the same and is connected to the core and heart of hope and possibilities for ALL children and youth. I am grateful on a daily basis to be able to do work I am passionate about and to do it in collaboration with other “hope dealers” that inspire me and keep the dream alive.
When it comes to the well being of our children and youth, I have always felt a sense of urgency.
ALL kids deserve to be around caring adults that will inspire them to explore their learning style and discover their future. Out-of-school time programs are more than a safe place to go. They are a place to give kids HOPE. As change agents, we have the unique opportunity to inspire children and youth to allow them investigate who they are, discover all of life’s possibilities, to build friendships, to learn in an experiential way, to dream and set goals. We are the bridge that expands the horizon of meaningful possibilities, opening doors of exploration, and fulfilling the dreams of their future.
I was on a mission in 1992 when I started my love affair with after school and I am still on a mission now. It starts with me, with you, with us. It starts now. Give hope.
For breakfast I had a potent cup of James Coffee with almond milk and a slice of cantaloupe.
Author Profile: @tiaquinn
Editor’s Note: With school back in session, we wanted to re-publish this important piece from March 2015 by the Founder of BOOST Collaborative. We encourage you to take some time over the next week and write down your WHY.
Need inspiration? Watch this video! Stick it somewhere safe and read it often – it may come in handy!