By Sam Johnson—
As a child growing up in the California neighborhood, it was hard to imagine
myself in a world beyond 9th Street. West Louisville was the only area of town generations of my family had ever known. I love the west-end and
the good people who reside there, but even as a child, I despised certain conditions, violence, and the effects poverty had on my community. Fortunately, I had access to people and programs that without a
doubt, changed the trajectory of my life.
Like many youth in low-income neighborhoods, my family had to navigate numerous challenges, including my mother’s illness and disability, alcoholism, poverty, and homelessness. Considering the challenges we were facing and my mother’s limited income; the out of school time programs
offered at the California Community Center, Parkland Boys and Girls Club, and the YMCA provided me with a necessary daily escape that was completely free. The hours I spent in those facilities kept me out of
trouble, provided me with alternatives to the streets and negative influences, and allowed me to be surrounded by like-minded positive friends, mentors
Some of my favorite childhood memories are playing in the Muhammad Ali Football League with the California Park Jets and taking camping trips to the YMCA’s Camp Piomingo. My first experience traveling outside of Louisville and staying in a hotel was while playing little league football. At Camp Piomingo, I remember nervously propelling down a 50-foot tower and riding a horse for the first time.
Those childhood experiences may be underwhelming to most people, but they were life-changing events for me. They increased my confidence, and I became more optimistic about my future. The exposure to new places and new experiences convinced me that the world is, in fact, bigger than the neighborhood and even the city I was growing up in. My eyes were opened to the opportunity I had to create a better life for myself. All the while, my coaches, and mentors were continuously encouraging me to work hard, make smart decisions, and they stressed the importance of education. As a young man, out of school time programs gave me hope!
Today, the view out of my office window at the corner of 16th and West Broadway, is simply surreal. It is awe-inspiring because I remember walking these very streets as a child. As the new Director of Youth Development and Education at the Louisville Urban League, I am proud to lead our out of school time programs, serving hundreds of students each week and providing youth with pathways to becoming successful academically, personally, and socially.
I am blessed with the privilege of paying forward the experiences that were given to me by creating and providing engaging programming for the youth in our community. Our primary focus is education as an essential means of empowering our youth with the knowledge, skills, and self-confidence to be
successful in school and life. We offer various youth programs to reach elementary, middle and high school students.
Street Academy and Project Ready are two of our longest running youth education programs. Street Academy is an educational enhancement program that provides academic enrichment, increased social/behavioral skills, and cultural enrichment for fourth and fifth-grade male students in five different Jefferson County Public Schools. Street Academy instruction emphasizes a direct reading curriculum model with literacy enhancements. Additionally, students engage in martial arts and chess instruction to increase discipline and self-resiliency skills.
Project Ready prepares students for a successful transition from high school to college. The program focuses on college and career exploration, academic enrichment and leadership development. Students that participate in Project Ready graduate from high school “college-ready” and are equipped with the life skills and tools that support success in college and beyond.
Two of our newer youth program offerings are G.L.O.W. (Girls League of the West) and L.Y.R.I.C.S. (Louisville Youth Resisting Injustice & Changing Systems). G.L.O.W. provides workshops geared towards empowering black girls in middle school to motivate, liberate and celebrate themselves. L.Y.R.I.C.S. provides a space for high school students to discuss the relationships between elements of hip-hop culture and social justice, and how various social sciences have historically affected communities of color.
In addition to offering various program options, The Louisville Urban League demonstrates its commitment to the success of our youth by continuously educating and training our staff to ensure that we are providing relevant, effective, high-quality support. We participate in Metro United Way’s BLOCS system, which provides training and learning opportunities for youth workers. They also evaluate our programs and identify any gaps in service, to ensure program quality.
So many of our youth need inspiration and hope. They feel the odds of being successful are stacked against them, and the genuine support they crave is limited or non-existent. As a young man growing up in West Louisville, I felt the same way, until I began to participate in out of school time programs. And it doesn’t take much time to see the benefits of your child participating in youth programs; just 30 hours of quality out of school time programming has a direct correlation to success in school and high school graduation. Considering that students are only in school 20% of their lives, it is crucial that learning continues outside of the classroom. Out of School time programs provide that learning opportunity, as well as help our youth build skills, acquire passions, and take on responsibilities for changing their worlds as they grow, learn and develop. I am living proof!
Sam Johnson is the Director of the Youth Development and Education at the Louisville Urban League. For more information on the Louisville Urban League, its programs and services, visit www.lul.org.