Unleashing the potential of St. Louis’ youth

Unleashing the potential of St. Louis’ youth

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One of St. Louis’ oldest nonprofits looks to unleash the potential of children, families and neighborhoods under a new name. The mission of Unleashing Potential remains the same as it was when the organization started in 1913 as the Good Shepherd Center. The organization believes all children can reach their magnificent potential and provides education and experiences to help close the opportunity gap.

“People often confuse Neighborhood Houses with housing or utility assistance, and we are all about youth development,” said Darlene Sowell, president and CEO of Unleashing Potential. “In this environment, we need more people to know who we are. The name change introduces us to new supporters and provides the opportunity to speak with government officials, foundations, corporations and civic leaders. We were notified by the secretary of state in late January of our new official name from Neighborhood Houses to Unleashing Potential.”

WHAT IS UNLEASHING POTENTIAL?

Unleashing Potential closes the opportunity gap for children and youth by building on their strengths. We create educational, empowering experiences through early childhood education, school-age services, summer enrichment camps and a teen job-readiness program.

We were founded by the United Church of Christ (UCC) and our church communities continue to provide awesome support. Although we are faith-based, we will not turn anyone down regardless of their faith, background or zip code — we serve all. Unleashing Potential helps young people realize the assets and attributes they already have. We provide them with the opportunities so they can shine and decide how to plan their lives, whether it be going to kindergarten, junior high or college.

HOW HAS THE ORGANIZATION CHANGED OVER THE YEARS?

We were started in 1913 as part of the settlement house movement and founded by a group of Eden seminarians. The movement was an establishment where social workers helped families in need. There were several buildings around the city, and we were considered pillars in those communities.

As the neighborhoods changed, it became apparent we needed to go where the children were, so we made a shift, particularly in our school-age services. Instead of children coming to us after school, we began to go to their schools.

WHICH PROGRAM DRAWS YOUR LARGEST CROWD?

Parents have an opportunity to send their children to afterschool programs, and we are the designated providers in those schools. We serve 1,100 kids a day, and the majority of them are from the aftercare program. We have 18 sites, with an average of 50 children per site. We are in four school districts: Saint Louis Public Schools, University City, Ferguson-Florissant and Riverview Gardens.

The aftercare programs are staffed by Unleashing Potential employees. They are trained and prepared in terms of literacy and the behavioral modification curriculum that we instill in our children. Our staff works in tandem with the principals and the teachers so we can concentrate on the additional help some children may need. The children are fed a hot meal after school and are given an opportunity to enjoy recreational activities.

We have the capacity to serve around 80 children in our early childhood education center and our teen programs support 20-40 youth per year. Last year we served approximately 350 children in our summer enrichment camps. We’ve really worked to develop a reputation of being a strong provider in the community.

BESIDES FUNDING, WHAT TYPES OF CHALLENGES DO YOU COME ACROSS?

I long for more parent engagement because it is so critical. Many of our parents may be working two jobs or have other issues, whether it be societal trauma or other determinants of health that prevent them from being all they can be for their kids.

Providing more opportunities for the kids is also a challenge – it’s something that always gnaws at me. I try to emphasize with our employees why the work we do is so critical because we are bridging the gap. For example, we may be the only way a child gets to go to the zoo or the Science Center.

WHAT TYPE OF OPPORTUNITIES ARE THERE FOR PARENTS AND YOUTH?

We have two parent events a month, most frequently in the early childhood education center. Topics are varied and include anything from financial literacy training to how to write a resume to how to eat healthy. It’s just as important to help make the family stronger. If the family is strong, the kids have a shot.

We also have a T-shirt screen printing business, Magnificent Creations. The social enterprise and comprehensive program has produced nearly 7,000 T-shirts over the last two years. It’s very possible you are wearing a T-shirt one of our kids made. The carefully designed program ensures our young men and women in high school are equipped with the skills needed to enter and succeed in the workforce. The teens work on character and professional development, as well as setting educational and career goals.

WHAT WOULD READERS BE SURPRISED TO LEARN?

I’ve been here nine years, and when I meet a new friend or potential supporter, they always have a puzzled look on their face when I tell them we serve 1,100 children a day. We’ve been around for 105 years and they say, ‘I’ve never heard about you.’ With our new name, we will finally break through the glass and allow the wider community to get a sense of what we do.

Advancing St. Louis highlights local leaders of small businesses and large corporations that are impacting the St. Louis region from a variety of industries. These leaders are Advancing St. Louis by inspiring change and starting conversations. Are you interested in having your story told? Contact Jennifer Mason, who coordinates marketing content, at jmason@stltoday.com.

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