Several years ago, Valarie Cunningham started dreaming about a safe place for urban youth. As Executive Director of at Greater Faith Ministries (GFM), The Synergy Center, Cunningham saw a gap in the services offered for minority youth in the community. She wanted a place for teens to feel empowered through opportunity and academic and social-emotional support.
She also wanted a space that was conveniently located, and found one at 625 Harrison, right on the edge of both the Northside and Eastside neighborhoods.
“Not only would this be a safe place,” says Cunningham, a longtime area mental health professional, “it would be a place where kids could get educational support, including a computer lab, culinary arts classes, and arts and performance opportunities.”
Now three years old, UrbanZone has been offering twice-weekly after-school programs and summer intensives for high school youth throughout the city. It's also taken the program to youth at the juvenile home and group homes. The well-equipped site on Harrison includes a commercial kitchen, computer lab and recording studio and space for community gathering.
“One of our goals is to help their grades increase,” says Cunningham, and this is done through available tutoring and homework help. Though the center does not have official numbers regarding academic success yet, they have been working closely with Kalamazoo Youth Development Network
on goals for social-emotional learning and have observed growth in participating youth. “We can see they are more optimistic. They are making more decisions,” says Cunningham, who is pleased with the program’s success so far.
In addition to the academic focus, UrbanZone seeks to offer health and wellness support, entrepreneurial opportunities, and arts explorations, particularly in the performing arts. Youth also take frequent field trips and host guest speakers. “These opportunities increase their optimism and show them there are other choices,” says Cunningham.
UrbanZone opened its doors on 625 Harrison, conveniently located between the North and East sides, three years ago.
The afterschool program, which is open through school or counselor referral, runs Mondays and Wednesdays from 3 to 6 p.m.
With visiting chefs as teachers, UrbanZone runs culinary arts classes throughout the year. A popular Talent Show and Open Mic takes place monthly. Typically close to 50 youth attend to showcase their talents.
“Music is a good way of expression, a good way of healing,” says Cunningham about the recording studio. “I wanted to give kids an opportunity to be able to be creative and to express themselves in a way that would have a positive outcome.”
This summer, UrbanZone will begin six-week morning and afternoon programs starting June 24. All programs are free of charge. These camps include an engineering class that will allow participants to take an even deeper dive into learning to use the equipment and software and to learn the language of the recording world; Speak it Forward, a spoken word workshop; a culinary camp; a math workshop; and Refocus, which is a session that focuses on dream building and vision boards.
“This helps youth focus on one of their visions and make an action plan to help it come to pass,” says Cunningham.
For more information on the afterschool program and summer sessions, please visit here