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Afterschool Spotlight: YWCA New Britain - House of Teens

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Afterschool Spotlight: YWCA New Britain - House of Teens

Adapted from our November 2018 issue brief Promoting Civic Engagement Through Afterschool, developed in partnership with the Asia Society Center for Global Education.

Civic engagement starts with our nation’s young people. The afterschool field is an essential partner in ensuring that all children have the ability to participate in relevant, experiential civic engagement opportunities. As 3 in 4 superintendents agree that preparing students for engaged citizenship is a challenge for their district, afterschool and summer learning programs are critical partners in strengthening student civic engagement and helping them become informed, involved, and conscientious individuals.

In 2007, a needs assessment highlighted a concern about the obesity rate of Latina teens in New Britain, Connecticut, many of whom who were not passing physical education (PE) classes and therefore faced potential delays in graduating. The Community Health Center responded by forging a partnership with YWCA New Britain to implement an obesity prevention project. The Healthy Tomorrow for Teens Program found its home at YWCA New Britain as an afterschool PE credit recovery program that taught healthy eating and physical activity and engaged Latina teens in a leadership-training project called Photovoice. With the continued support of community partners, the program evolved into a full afterschool program with the establishment of the YWCA House of Teens Center.

While there have been some improvements, according to the 2016-2017 New Britain District School Profile only 38 percent of 10th graders meet the Health Standard in Physical Education. The House of Teens program works to improve those numbers by tracking participants’ attendance, earned credits, and high school graduation rates.

Designed with a comprehensive approach to healthy living in mind, YWCA’s House of Teens program engages high school girls aged 13 to 19 in activities intended to equip them with the knowledge, skills, and confidence to address barriers to health in their neighborhood, speak out to generate change, and lead overall healthy lifestyles.  Afternoons begin with scheduled time for academic mentoring, followed by structured enrichment activities that focus on fitness and wellness or life skills development, with the potential for earning school PE credits. Stress management, career and college preparation, and nutrition advice from mentors from the Community Health Center are just a few examples of the many classes offered. On Fridays, youth are in charge of planning and running activities for the day.

Moreover, as the program provides teen girls with access to health services, it also prepares them to play a role in influencing the social, civic, and communal factors of good health by equipping them with the tools to become health promotion advocates. Program staff foster a supportive environment, and within the safety and comfort of this “home away from home,” young girls are encouraged to make personal strides, building the confidence and independence that shapes them into leaders. As teen girls build on their knowledge of well-being and achieve personal health goals through enrichment classes, they also have the opportunity to exercise their advocacy skills and act as leaders in their community. For example, teens can participate in the decision-making process by joining the House of Teens advisory board, which plans YWCA community events and projects aimed at strengthening neighborhood ties.

Teens are also able to connect health and fitness to leadership and character through Photovoice, a yearly capstone project where girls explore their neighborhoods using digital cameras to capture barriers to health, such as neighborhood blight and lack of child-friendly public spaces. The photos are the basis for critical dialogue; girls in the program collectively reflect on and identify issues of concern, then develop solutions to mitigate those problems. They create photo-based presentations to share their recommendations and advocate for policy change.

Girls in the program have presented their proposals to local policymakers, school administrators, health providers, and community members. One Photovoice project capturing closed local swimming pools and littered, graffiti-filled parks initiated beautification efforts in their community that included the installation of new splash pads and field turf. Moreover, girls in the program report gaining confidence and leadership skills in their small-group discussions and personal reflections. House of Teens girls also express a desire for more opportunities to engage in the community and make their voice heard.

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