An afterschool experience

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Sometimes I think of what my life would be like, or how it would have turned out, if I had not attended and ultimately become a teacher assistant with Project H.O.M.E.’s afterschool program, located at the Honickman Learning Center and Comcast Technology Labs.

My assumption is that I would have continued high school and then worked my way slowly through college. It would have been harder, I think, because I would not have benefited from the college visits and preparation for the SATs and the FAFSA application process that the center provided for me. In my opinion, one does not really understand what college is until actually attending. Books, tuition, computer fees, food, – everything adds up. But I got a taste of what to expect having gone to PH’s program.

Before attending PH’s program, my days were simply full of homework and watching television. There was never much of a reason for me to really venture outside and play with the children of my neighborhood; they were pretty much into the same routine.

If any of my peers did come outside, it was usually to either imitate their older siblings, who were not really good role models, or to hang out on the corners. To be honest, there was not that much for a young person to get involved in, not until afterschool programs and recreational centers became publicized by word of mouth.

I began attending PH’s program when it was at its first site at Saint Elizabeth’s Rectory. It was exciting because what we were moving into was so very impressive. A 38,000-square-foot building with a floor designated for teenagers.

When the afterschool program was at Saint Elizabeth, instructors Benjamin Harris and Jeff Wiesner were already beginning to mold the minds of my peers and me. They were not only teaching us how to work with digital video cameras, but formed connections with us and became our friends.

If there was anything bothering us or anything that we needed to vent about, Ben and Jeff were there. And I felt that I could be there for them as well.

Both Ben and Jeff spent a lot of time getting to know us, plus they were working on piecing together the North Philly Teens Magazine turned newspaper. When Ben asked in the summer of 2003 if anyone wanted to help him with the newspaper, I immediately volunteered. For the next week or so, Ben and I continued working on the newspaper, laying out the paper from pictures to advertisements.

It was strange at the time, but what amazed me was not the work that I was producing, but that I was working on an activity with an adult, and I enjoyed it. That connection continued to develop as we made our way to the Honickman Learning Center and Comcast Technology Labs in 2004.

By latching onto Ben, I began to open up more around my peers as well, even joking with them. I even knew what I wanted to be in life – a writer/graphic designer. I felt comfortable at this program; safe, even more than I felt at school.

As time progressed and the program seemed to be settling nicely into the HLC, Ben announced that he would be departing to pursue his love of photography. A lot of us were crushed when we heard this. Some of us even dropped out of the program altogether.

That’s how much of an impact Ben was making in our young lives. Soon after, the program manager, Jacqui Lipson, also departed. She was also someone who any program participants could go to if anything was troubling us.

Pretty soon I was looking at an entirely different program. Most of my friends left, feeling that without Ben or Jacqui, the program would never be the same. And for a short period of time it wasn’t. But some of the new instructors who arrived were actually awe-inspiring. They understood us just like Ben and Jacqui did. They listened to us when we had suggestions about certain projects such as, The North Philly Metropolis newspaper, or how we felt the program was not meeting our expectations.

What I believed was that since so many of the former staff were gone, it was my job to demonstrate to the new staff what Ben and Jacqui taught us. This is how I grew into more of a leadership role, both in the newspaper and the afterschool program. And then watching new instructors such as Steve Bozzone and Stephanie Renee be able to form these relationships with us, I began thinking about the idea of teaching some day.

That day actually came pretty quickly when the director of the HLC, Cindy Ferguson, approached me and asked if I would be interested in becoming a teacher assistant for the K-6 afterschool program. It took me only a day or so to think about the offer. I never saw myself as teaching younger kids and really wanted to assist the older kids on the teen floor.

When finally accepting the offer I was placed in a 2nd grade classroom, which made me slightly nervous since I had no experience with working with children. I did not engage with them as much, mainly because I was still trying to figure out how. Watching my co-workers didn’t always help since some of them screamed at their classes and were not connecting much with the children.

It was not until my class moved onto 3rd grade that I began loosening up slightly. I was assigned to the 3rd grade classrooms with my previous students and decided that I would begin to get to know them a little more. Often when they would arrive at the program, I would not just help them with their homework, but also ask them about their day. Surprisingly there were a few who had really opened up to me, and still do to this very day.

I’m not as involved with the afterschool program as much since I left four years ago, but it did have a great impact on me, and I continue to visit. The highlights of these visits would have to be the beaming faces of kids that I helped teach and who I tried to be there for, hopefully like Ben did with me. I think I made a lasting impression.

What other afterschool programs would you recommend we write about? Feel free to leave a comment or email us. Please share your own experiences as a participant, parent, or teacher.