“We don’t do basketball and ping-pong,” said George Stowell. “We bring kids in here to learn how to communicate and function in a business environment.”
Stowell is executive director of the Bridgeport Area Youth Ministry’s Industrial Youth Center Project, based in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Stowell had been involved in more traditional youth programs in the past. While the heavy emphasis on recreational activities certainly provided kids with “something to do, I felt there was more to do. I found we were just entertaining kids.”
A vocational teacher and a carpenter by trade, Stowell came to believe that many young people were missing the basic skills they needed to be successful, or even just to survive, in business. Whether it is computer skills or construction know-how, many young people today simply do not know where to begin, putting them at a disadvantage when they enter the job market.
Stowell’s desire to do more than offer games, coupled with the real need for kids to learn practical skills, led to the creation of the Industrial Youth Center.
“Our primary focus is entry-level skills for business,” says Stowell. Serving kids ages 14-19, the center is an educational environment that enables them to exercise their skills in a real business setting. Stowell said the youth taking part in the programs tend to be from low- to moderate-income homes and are predominantly black and Hispanic.
The center is housed in a formerly dilapidated World War I factory complex, which was renovated by the project’s teenagers and designed to accommodate the needs of technologically innovative programs.
Central to the Industrial Youth Center Project’s mission is Computer Genesis. Started with a donation of 200 computers from GE, the eight-week program teaches students the basics of both software and hardware. Upon graduation, the students receive their own computers. To date, close to 500 teens have gone through the course. Computers built as part of the course are either sold to raise funds for the program or are given away to worthy causes.
The center also gets kids working in the construction trades by renovating houses in rundown areas of Bridgeport, often in partnership with other organizations such as Habitat for Humanity—or on their own.
“I feel we’re a success all the time,” says Stowell of the interactions with the kids who take advantage of the center’s programs.
One such success, said Stowell, is Elliott. The young man came to Stowell’s office confined to a wheelchair by muscular dystrophy. Elliott entered the Computer Genesis course. After graduation, he began serving as a teaching assistant in the program. Today he is a teacher himself.
Stowell and the directors are not content with simply maintaining their current level of activity. While one building has been renovated in their complex, they look to renovate the remaining facilities, which will allow them to expand into other projects.
He hopes to train students in computer networking and Web design and then market their services to area agencies, churches, and organizations.
More ambitiously, Stowell wants to expand the center’s property to include multi-family housing. “I would like to see the young people renovate the properties, which we’d rent out and then let them manage.” This would provide not only a stronger source of income for the center, but go further in providing students with real-world business experience.
But for all the good Stowell sees happening in Bridgeport, he hopes others might step up to provide similar programs around the country.
“In 1997, Senator Chris Dodd [Democrat of Connecticut] visited. He said that there are needs like this all over the country. He’s right,” says Stowell, who insists that it is “absolutely” possible for the program to work in other cities and on even larger scales.
—Michael Quinn Sullivan