Two months into my position as the director of The Galaxy youth center, I held my first "Youth Council" meeting. Just imagine five middle school and three high school kids sitting silently in a circle around the Pagliai's pizza I ordered to help "break the ice." I feared that I was going to have to jump on tables to pull them from their silence and inspire conversation. With the knowledge that getting Youth Council members to even attend meetings in the past had been a struggle, I was hard-pressed to make a stunning first impression on these kids, give them reason to want to stay involved, and instill in them the message that they are essential to The Galaxy's success. Amazingly, something cliqued. Following introductions, I broke out a wipe-board for brainstorming. Within fifteen minutes, they filled it with ideas I had never even imagined. Eighth graders had my wheels spinning and by the end of the meeting, they were telling me that it would be necessary to meet every week, not twice a month! This was a definite turning point. After a difficult summer of professional and personal navigation, and a couple of discouraging weeks, I couldn't stop smiling. I am reinvigorated by their enthusiasm, ideas, and willingness to give The Galaxy their time and energy, and once again, reminded why I am here, and whom I am here to serve.
It is incredibly hard for me to imagine what it was like for Delphia, the former Grinnell Corps fellow, to walk into this space, white-walled and furniture-less, without an office, computer or Internet access: virtually directionless. While Delphia had to literally get this place on its feet, I had the privilege of picking up where she left off, turning on a computer full of "contacts," entering into relationships with kids, the community and board members already built on the foundation of respect. Despite this difference, however, her first report written one year ago speaks to a lot of what I've felt in the last two months. It is "extremely difficult to work in a situation where success has no measure.where there is no clear idea of what success may be." Although I came into the directorship with a definitive starting place, the concept of "success" remains just as abstract. Yes, the word takes on new meaning in The Galaxy's second year - It encompasses bigger, better things: more of everything from events and fundraisers to grants and greater attendance. But "success" is still hard to measure at the end of the day. Was the second event that I held this summer a success with only 37 middle school kids present? It definitely was, in light of the fact that the first event I offered this summer drew none. The challenge of this job lies in the idea that there is always more that I can do, things that I miss in the process of learning, and the possibility that any given event, interaction, or moment could have been better had I approached it from a different angle. Within the environs of a work in progress, everything is relative. But with a new focus on securing what is already established, building, expanding, and most importantly, preparing the community to take The Galaxy on as their project, this position provides me with an absurd amount of daily challenge, frustration, and most important, daily sense of reward and accomplishment.
As we approach the first of October, it becomes increasingly difficult to write about June and July - actually, its just difficult to write period in light of all that's changed at The Galaxy since I began working my way through everything *new*. At this point, the weeks I spent figuring out the office computer and programs, creating new files, meeting board members, attending my first meetings, getting to know some of the regulars, organizing my first events, etc. seem hardly mentionable since I've settled (or somewhat settled) into a daily groove. Rather than detail single events that stand out in my mind, such as the 4th of July (which was a great success!) I want to delve into the forward motion I feel now.
Before I talk about progress, I suppose I should back up. The month of August opened my eyes to The Galaxy's need for a new beginning. Rather than re-create particular events that so clearly pointed toward this need, I'll stress the potency of the negative energy I began to feel circulating through the space. In its first open year, the primary goal was to get The Galaxy up and running, strike interest, draw groups of kids here for "open hours," and hold events. The Galaxy was hugely successful in this respect. In its second year of operation, with a strong focus on preparing the community to invest themselves in The Galaxy, it seems crucial to me that we revisit our original mission: to provide a safe, welcoming, and educational space for kids in grades 5-12.
Over the course of the summer, it became clear that we were not operating in accordance with our mission statement; That we were hosting "youth" much older than 18 on a regular basis, favoring the needs of one group of kids over the needs of an entire youth community, and failing to require responsibility and ownership within the walls of our youth center. The only way I thought we could move forward was to first stop, step back, and reassess our mission and our role in this community. How could I re-structure The Galaxy to create that envisioned safe space, and encourage all youth members of the Grinnell community to understand it as their resource? One of the hardest things I did this summer was close The Galaxy for this purpose. On August 10th, I hung a sign on the doors that read "closed for restructuring." Two months later, I'm still working through the process of reconciliation with the kids who were seriously impacted by my decision. And although the repercussions of closed doors have been extraordinarily trying, I am sure that The Galaxy is moving forward, incorporating more members of the community, addressing and dealing with the issues that would have kept it from success in the very near future.
On September 16th, I completed a mailing to 1300 hundred kids in our community. For the first time, every parent/guardian of a middle or high school student received a letter home from The Galaxy, in which I detailed our move toward a "Membership System." Within 4 days, over 100 kids registered to receive the benefits that accompany membership, along with their Galaxy I.D. card. I don't believe that a youth center like The Galaxy can succeed without the support of its clientele: the youth of the community. Therefore, the board of directors and I have implemented a system whereby kids are encouraged to take ownership over a resource directed specifically toward their needs. This is not a method of excluding kids - everyone in grades 5-12, at the Middle School, High School, New Horizons Alternative High School has been asked to register. This, is, however a way of involving kids at the next level, inviting them to become a part of The Galaxy, to invest themselves in its future.
Since I re-opened on September 20th, I have received a lot of positive feedback. It was no surprise that the first 5th Quarter drew 112 kids, but what did surprise me was the number of high school kids (who I had never before seen at The Galaxy) who brought their registration card to the door - talk about feedback! The middle school event I held the next night drew close to 120 kids - we had a great 5th and 6th grade turnout, and 60 new middle school members by the end of the night. In addition, I have received a lot of positive response from parents, and what's more important, communication that they want to get involved. Parents are not only sending in registration materials, they are calling to volunteer! Though I know this is just the beginning of a process, it feels incredibly good to have figured out a path toward bettering what The Galaxy offers the youth of Grinnell. I've learned along the way that change is all about patience, self-trust, trust of others, and communication.
Right now I'm working on getting the after-school Homework Help program up and running.to date, I've only had a few kids come in for tutoring, so its once again all about timing and advertising! I am incredibly lucky, however, to have 3 Federal Work Study students and several college student volunteers available for kids when they do come pouring through the doors! Several months ago, when the membership system began to materialize as an idea, I wrote a proposal to the Board requesting that we hire Nancy Gause to work with me part time. She and I have since held several "open forums" for kids wanting to speak out about change, are working toward bringing "Circle" back to The Galaxy full-time, brainstorm on grants and fundraisers, and focus on restorative methods of mediation and conflict resolution. I'm also scheduled to attend the Peace Institute's "Basic Mediation Training" on scholarship, which I'm really excited about.
News of the month: Earlier this summer I wrote a grant proposal to the Ahrens Foundation requesting a Jukebox for The Galaxy, and we've just received our new "Saturn II" (a very fitting name and style within the whole Galaxy theme!). The kids are really excited about this addition, despite the fact that at the moment, it seems to have a mind of its own. Other new additions since I began: new air hockey table, three vending machines, and a magnetic poetry wall. Additions to come: big screen T.V., refurbished computer lab, alternative library, art corner, and more! As a newly avid reader of The Chronicle of Philanthropy, I've realized that funding for The Galaxy is definitely 'out there' - we just have to ask for it.