What is a Youth Zone?

First let’s clear one misconception up. A Youth Zone, or Kid Zone, is not an after-school program. They may have an after-school piece to their program, or run programming during the usual hours that an after-school program would run, but the goals, content, and approach are very different. After-school programs by definition have the primary focus of providing a safe and secure environment beyond school hours. This leaves a wide range of interpretation. Many tend to be places where youth can go, eat a meal, play, and maybe some tutoring. Some are very specific and may have a STEM program, art program, or other similar directed activity. They tend to be a place the kids can go to everyday or occasionally depending on the family needs. They generally don’t go beyond those hours of operation or dive into the other aspects of that child’s life.

Youth Zones, also called Kid Zones, are a new concept in the mainstream world, even though some have been running for decades. Each one is unique in their own way because the model is based upon the needs of the area they are serving. Generally they are place-based, meaning they have a certain geographical area they serve, whether that be a certain number of blocks, neighborhood, or area of town. Their program is based upon the needs and challenges of each individual youth they are serving. This includes areas such as education, housing, nutrition, health, family situations, disabilities, social-emotional needs, and every other aspect of that child’s life. They wrap services, resources, and opportunities around each youth so they can reach their goals and are prepared to be successful in life. It’s called the “Deep Dive”.

Youth Zones are closer to a living, growing entity that adjusts and tailors itself to be whatever the youth need it to be. These Zones can house a variety of programs, resources, and opportunities. All of them include some degree of case-management. Some include educational alternatives to public school. Some have their own after school hours, while some utilize other local programs for that piece. The key point is that each individual youth is at the center of everything they do, in order to ensure that each one reaches success, both now and in their adult-life. It’s about the long journey, not a short sprint, and requires commitment and building relationships.

The Tri-State area actually has three Youth Zones that are currently up and running, with a third just getting starting. There is the Audubon Kid Zone (AKZ) in Henderson, KY which was started in 2016. Jacobsville Kid Zone (JKZ) on the north side of Evansville which launched in the summer of 2018. Then there is us, the Southside Stars Youth Zone (SSYZ), on the south side of Evansville, which officially launched the summer of 2018. We share the same basic core values and philosophies (youth-centric), although our actual programs look very different. This is because the areas we serve and the needs of the youth involved are different.

The Southside Stars Youth Zone (SSYZ) fulfills its mission through programming that occurs between 3-6:30pm, a summer program, an educational co-op, and on-call hours to families. This does not mean we are limited to those areas because as the youth grow, the program will grow to meet their needs. The type of programming, speakers, and activities are based upon the interests of our youth.

We keep to a low adult to youth ratio, 6-9 youth per every adult. We have found this to be crucial  with the Deep Dive approach. Below is a graphic of what our growth model looks like.

Our staff are consistently researching, collaborating, and working with a variety of other local entities in order to ensure the youth have access to the right opportunities and resources to achieve their goals. Staying up to date on new technologies, learning techniques, and emerging careers.

Below are some definitions and explanations of the other aspects our staff are responsible for.

Career Pathway Facilitator: Identification of the child’s passions and talents, then exposing them to all the careers in those areas. Facilitate career exploration through individuals in that field, exploitative play, research, and experience. Ensuring they have the skills, tools, opportunities, and support to achieve their chosen career goals whether that be college, trade, entrepreneur, or direct career.

Individualized Scholastic Pathing: This includes tutoring, programming, and the educational co-op. Based upon their current needs and their chosen career pathways, staff develop an individualized scholastic plan for each youth. We connect to resources and opportunities to ensure they not only succeed in the educational goals but experience it in ways that foster a life-long love of learning.

Portfolio Learning: This is a more student-led learning model. Where they learn concepts in a high view and break them down in a more hands-on, exploitative play and project based way. This increases their interest and deeper understanding of the material to instill the long term memory of the information. It also allows them to break down and understand more complex concepts in ways that make sense to them. This style of learning is being used in many of the top affluent schools.

Life Skills Learning: Preparing youth with the skills they will need to be successful, stable adults. These skills include: in-depth financial education, home economics, communication, leadership, community minded, social-emotional awareness and control, employment/ job hunting, and other similar skills we need on a day to day basis.

Post Zone Support System: Once a youth has entered college, trade, or career, staff will continue to follow them in a mentorship way for at least the first year. Transitioning from being a dependent to being an independent adult comes with it’s own challenges. Learning how to find the right resources, make positive decisions, and adjust to that first year is critical. We want to ensure they have continued support through the transition in order to succeed.

Family Facilitator: Connecting families to the right resources/ organizations/ programs to ensure a stable healthy environment and achieve family goals for sustainability. This includes areas such as housing, employment, food access, secondary education, and health.

To some, this seems like a tall order. You have to remember though, this is not a short 6 month or one year sprint. These youth are generally entering the program at an early age (under 10) and they will spend years in the youth zone. The program builds upon itself as they grow up in it. Also the family aspects vary from needing a lot of support, to minimal support, depending on their situation. We have youth who are behind academically in some areas and we have some who are ahead.

So this is the very condensed, short version of what a Youth Zone/ Kid-Zone is, and how the SSYZ works. I hope it gives you a better understanding of what we do, how we do it, and why places like this are so important to our communities, especially right now.

All of these Zones are free for the youth and families, which means they rely on volunteers, donations, grants, and other help. If you are wanting to give back, this is an excellent way to make a real difference in a life and a community.

I have worked in “servant” fields such as nursing/ education, and outreach, but for the first time I am starting to see a real, impactful, long-term change. Not just for the youth and families, but for the community they live in as well. It is truly humbling and amazing to watch.

About the author: Lisa Barnett