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Building a community of youth leaders


Robert E. Ansley, president, Orlando Neighborhood Improvement Corp.

Challenge: Our apartment communities lacked opportunities for leadership development and programming for at-risk youth. In part as a result, they suffered from a high crime rate.

A group of young boys wearing red shirts and black pants watch another young boy wearing a half mask, black hat and black jacket leap into the air

In 1998, the Orlando Neighborhood Improvement Corp. (ONIC) recognized a need in the community: Many of the after-school programs simply didn't meet the needs of the city's at-risk youth. They provided little more than a babysitting service for young people—basically, just "roofs and walls." As a result, some of these same young people—many of whom lived in ONIC's multi-family rental communities—engaged in destructive behaviors such as petty crime.

Propelled by a belief that zip codes should not limit opportunity, the ONIC Resident Services Program sought partners to help develop alternate after-school options. These partnerships led to innovative youth programming that has created a haven for local youth, along with meaningful personal development.

Among these programs are Prodigy Cultural Arts Program, Sista2Sista, Sister Circles, tutoring workshops and anti-bullying initiatives. These programs were specifically designed to nurture life skills, leadership strengths and self-esteem, and to prevent destructive behaviors.

Prodigy Cultural Arts is a free, research-based, after-school program for at-risk youth age 7-17 that uses visual and performing arts to teach life skills such as effective communication, problem solving and anger management. First established in 2000 by the University Area Community Development Corp to serve seven counties in west central Florida, Prodigy has achieved a non-recidivism rate of 85-93 percent among youth diverted from the juvenile justice system, with an overall average of 89 percent.

A young child wearing all black holds the hand of another child wearing a white and pink dressResearch has shown that Prodigy graduates show improved ability to control their behavior and a significant decrease in anger, depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts and related physical symptoms. In terms of cost, Prodigy has proven to be among the lowest-cost prevention and diversion programs, at an average of $1,577 per youth.

ONIC became a host site for Prodigy in 2007, serving about 400 local young people on an annual basis. Emerging leaders from the ONIC program and others attend Florida's annual Children's Week, an annual celebration for child advocacy agencies, where the youth meet with legislative officials at the state capital and tour local colleges. It is a testament to the program's continued success that after "aging out" of the program, many young people remain involved through volunteering and community events.

Meanwhile, two other programs specifically target girls and young women: Sista2Sista provides a safe space for young women, with a goal of building confidence and self-esteem. It's also a pipeline for formal leadership development programs such as NeighborWorks America's Community Leadership Institute and Girls for a Change. Prime Time Sister Circles has a different focus; the 12-week, intensive support group is designed to reduce the major risk factors of poor nutrition, inactivity and unmanaged stress and African-American women.

We have witnessed remarkable positive changes in our youth community through these proactive approaches and others. Some youths have even become involved in community development work with ONIC as well as with organizations such as VISTA and AmeriCorps.

Youth programming has taught ONIC a great deal about how to best approach and engage residents in our area. Here are a few of these lessons:
  • Product vs. process: When implementing arts-related programs, it is easy to be concerned solely about the end result, the art itself. Inevitably, the production is not flawless and the pieces of art are not masterpieces. But no one is any less proud. The lesson is not in the product, but in the process it took to create it.

  • The value of life skills: We've learned that the incorporation of life skills coaching into other programming such as the arts is a valuable strategy for engaging parents and helping youth overcome destructive behaviors. Life skills include coping with aggression and bullying, using a non-judgmental approach.

  • Benefit of partnerships: The provision of affordable housing can gainfully be leveraged to create leadership development opportunities. As an affordable housing developer, ONIC was able to help Prodigy reach a more diverse audience of youth.

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