CASTing a warm light over the future: UrbanZone program helps youth see what might be ahead

How far can one cast a warm light?

At CAST—College Academic Success Team—that light is intended to encompass a future and make a profound difference in the lives of seven Kalamazoo students. 

“Our babies need help and support,” says Sonja Roseman, MSW, MBA, clinical director for the Synergy Health Center and director of UrbanZone. She is the founder of CAST. 

UrbanZone, Roseman explains, is a youth-centered afterschool and summer program for teens, established by Valarie Cunningham in 2014. It is located at 625 Harrison Street in Kalamazoo.

“Through UrbanZone, multiple programs were born, including CAST,” Roseman says. “When schools started closing everywhere during the COVID pandemic, we quickly realized that families in Kalamazoo’s Northside needed support. Kids needed help accessing learning online—many of these families don’t have Internet at home, and some don’t even have computers. And many of the kids don’t have the parental support to succeed.”

That unmet need fostered the creation of a learning hub. With donations of computers and laptops from Schupan Recycling in Kalamazoo, UrbanZone provided a space for kids in the 9th to 12th grade age group in the Kalamazoo County school district to participate in online learning. 

“We ran that through the 2021 school year,” Roseman says. “In the summer, we had programs in cooking, art, social learning—but as the school year began, and with school structures changing because of the pandemic, these programs didn’t seem to fit anymore. We had to change to a focus on specific programs, and we realized we needed additional support along with prep for college.”

With the Kalamazoo Promise offering free tuition to public colleges and universities in Michigan for Kalamazoo students, Roseman wanted to ensure that every eligible child was aware and taking full advantage of that promise. 

“For some of these kids, no one in their family has ever attended college, so they have no role models,” she says. “So we created two new programs.”

The first, Roseman says, was the Mind Health Ambassadors program. The year-long program trains youth to develop an awareness of their own mental health so that they might become ambassadors of mental health for others. Twenty-one students signed up to meet weekly for videos, lectures, and group work, earning an award of $500 at the conclusion of the program. 

“They learn mindfulness techniques, creative expression through journaling, practice yoga, and other relaxation techniques,” Roseman says. “The kids learn how to recognize feelings so that they can recognize someone in a mental health crisis and know how to get them help.”

The second program, CAST, Roseman says, focuses more on academics. 

“Now that schools are back in session, we could see kids getting frustrated,” she says. Missing in-person school days, kids were falling behind. “I developed CAST to strengthen a growth mindset and to help the students envision what they want their academics to look like, to think about their careers—whether in the workforce, the military, or continuing on in college or in the trades.”

The new program will be offered in two phases, the first beginning in January 2022 until June 2022, with 20 once-weekly meetings of an hour-and-a-half each. The second phase begins in June and continues through the end of the year. It encompasses lectures, videos, group work, and concludes with a field trip of the students’ choosing. Every participant completing the program earns a $100 prize after the first phase and $250 upon completing the second. 

“Phase One will be tearing up and tilling the ground, learning what the students are thinking and why,” Roseman says. “We will be building self-esteem and instilling leadership skills, brainstorming ideas about where to volunteer so that students can network, build relationships and learn about teamwork. They will be learning financial literacy. They will be learning how to study and prep for exams. They will also be taking Myer-Briggs personality assessments to identify strengths and weaknesses.”

Phase Two will have more of an eye to the future, with speakers—often college freshmen themselves—from colleges and universities talking to students about their experiences, answering questions, and leading campus tours. Tutors from Western Michigan University’s Health and Human Services department, WMU’s Homer Stryker M.D. School of Medicine, Kalamazoo Valley Community College, and others will assist and encourage participants in their work. 

“We are also getting assistance from KYDNET—that’s the Kalamazoo Youth Development Network—with tools for social-emotional learning,” Roseman says. “They help us teach kids how to navigate the waters of systemic racism, to understand what it is. These are often kids who see racism as normal because it is a daily part of their lives; it’s all they know. We will help them identify trauma and provide counseling services. Racism is challenging enough for adults, let alone for kids.”

The first seven students to enroll have been asked to share why they are interested in the program. In response to a question on the application, “How do you feel you would benefit from being a member of CAST?” responses included:
  • I want to be able to bridge relationships and navigate on my own as I become older.
  • I would benefit from being a member of CAST because I have a lot to learn about various things like school and others. I want to use this as a way to meet new people and to use it to learn more about ways to help my future.
  • As a freshman in high school, I like to take any opportunity I can to enhance my high school experience. I believe becoming a member of CAST will help me improve in the basic skills any student should learn to reach their potential.
  • It will look good when applying to colleges.
  • I think I will discover new things about myself and school.
  • I want to develop organizational skills, peer development.
  • I challenge myself to try new things and I have never done anything like this before, so I thought I’d check it out.
  • I think it will help me learn more about myself, my goals, and interests. 

To learn more about CAST, which is free to participants, visit The Synergy Health Center – CAST or email Sonja Roseman at to register.


Read more articles by Zinta Aistars.

Zinta Aistars is the creative director of Z Word, LLC. She is the producer and host of the weekly radio show, Art Beat, on WMUK.