YMCA program lets teens find — and express — their potential

By Melissa Hirschl

It started with a vision six years ago. John Youngberg, the Tempe YMCA’s former chief financial officer, and Vinny Mirizio , the current executive director, shared a singular goal: motivating Tempe high school students to reach their full potential by putting compassion into action.

Together, they cooked up a winning recipe--sophomores and juniors would have the opportunity to partake in an extra-curricular program that would positively impact the community.

Through hands-on community improvement projects, team-building exercises, mentoring and job shadowing, the program would impart the teens with treasured leadership skills that hopefully would last a lifetime.

The dream became a reality, and the flourishing program, Tempe Youth Leadership, today includes a diverse blend of 30 teens from Corona del Sol and four other  Tempe-district high schools: Marcos de Niza, Desert Vista, McClintock and Tempe.

According to organizers, this mixture is what makes the program so attractive--the students have an opportunity to meet participants from other schools who have divergent backgrounds and interests. They also have a chance to gain an abundance of enrichment opportunities by helping beautify the community.

To support new friendships, participants are placed in a general class as opposed to being grouped with just members of their home schools.

Coordinating the Tempe Youth Leadership program since last year is Natalie Barela, a Corona del Sol graduate who also oversees the after-school enrichment program and teen center.

“What we want to do,” she says, “is expand the teens’ awareness of local issues and community needs.  We want to make them aware of what’s going on in the community so that they can make a significant difference.

“A huge part of our goal is to have them analyze issues, identify solutions and develop action plans.” 

Organizers of Tempe Youth Leadership are keenly aware that many high school students are already inundated in time intensive activities such as sports, dance or theater.

“We’re looking for the kind of kid that may not be involved in any of these activities,” says Barela, “and has the potential to be swayed in either direction. We want to give them an opportunity to make something of themselves and go into a positive direction.”

The dynamics of the program are naturally tailored to meet the challenges of a teen’s time commitments, so there is one main event a month, rotating in venue and purpose. For example, the teens recently spent a weekend at Chauncey Ranch near Prescott, where they faced a high-ropes challenge, played paintball and engaged in other team building exercises.

Hatten Hall in downtown Tempe is the next place the groups will meet at for a stimulating four-hour workshop called Creating a Difference.

“It will focus on making a difference in your personal life as well as the community,” says Barela. “The teens will learn the skills and values necessary to develop their own leadership style. They will then put them to use by planning a group community service project.”

Confidence building is another virtue that is woven throughout the program. To meet that end, the students are in charge of implementing, facilitating and organizing their own group projects. Leaders supply plenty of ideas and opportunities for thought, but ultimately it is the teens who chart the course of the projects, Barela says.

One current group’s project was to paint the YMCA preschool with a mural of the YMCA core values--caring, honesty, respect and responsibility. Another group is considering renovations to Chauncey Ranch before next summer..

“These young people have so many wonderful ideas,” says Barela. “This program gives them the opportunity to make a difference in their own unique way. They are very motivated and a lot of fun to be around.”

Mentoring in general is an essential tool for developing talents and abilities. For that reason it is also a meaningful compartment of the TYL program. The teens are given three choices of people to shadow for the day. Examples could be the county attorney, a congressman, police chief or senator.

Class projects are also an integral part of the program. Each year approximately 400 volunteers choose a neighborhood, park or school in Tempe that needs to be renovated.

The TYL class is given a section of the renovation to take care of each year, and all 30 students participate. Last year’s project involved painting a home and cleaning up a yard; this year’s effort will focus on improving the aesthetics of a local park.

Students who are interested in becoming part of TYL must first write an essay on why they want to be a leader in the community. Interviews with committee members from Tempe Leadership and the Tempe Y are the next and last hurdle.

“We want to find out why they really want to be in the program,” says Barela. “We’ve had incidences where they just want to beef up their college resumes, and that’s not what we want--we want the sincere kids.”

The Tempe Youth Leadership program is open to current sophomores and juniors attending high schools in the Tempe Union High School District.

Students can be in the program only for a year;  interviews are held in November. The program starts in January and ends in May with a graduation ceremony.

Information: (480) 730-4520.