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Grand Rapids after-school program looks to create next generation of leaders

Grand Rapids Initiative for Leadership
Posted at 9:18 PM, May 24, 2023

GRAND RAIDS, Mich. — After-school programs can play a key role in reducing the rate of youth crime in communities.

Caitlin Cavanagh, an associate professor at Michigan State University’s School of Criminal Justice, studies adolescent development in the context of the criminal justice system.

She explains during adolescence, there are a number of biological changes that happen to the makeup of a teenager’s brain which makes it difficult for them to control their wants and needs.

“What that creates is this perfect storm in terms of adolescent risk taking, which can sometimes involve criminal activity,” said Cavanagh. “Kids are not good at thinking, ‘What's the consequence going to be?’ They're not good at stopping themselves from acting impulsively, [but] they're also really attuned to something that might get them a social reward, so that's why a lot of times we see youth crime taking place in groups or in pairs, or with peers generally.”

Cavanagh says after-school programs are beneficial because they provide youth with a positive alternative during a time in which many of their parents may be working.

“Generally, the research is supportive of after-school programs because it meets a number of [a] youth’s social and developmental needs while also occupying them during time that might otherwise be spent on less pro-social activities,” said Caitlin Cavanagh, an associate professor at Michigan State University’s School of Criminal Justice.

She notes the impacts go beyond an individual level tool.

“It’s better [for communities] to be proactive about preventing crime, in part because it's less expensive in terms of resources, but it's also less less draining on the community because the crime hasn't happened yet,” said Cavanagh.

Tyreece Guyton oversees the Grand Rapids Initiative for Leadership (GRIL).

It’s an after-school program that was founded in 2004 and provides leadership development and training for teenagers.

“We're trying to teach these leaders of today that they have the responsibility to influence their circle of influence, which means other teenagers that allow them to be the best that they can be as they're becoming the best,” said Tyreece, the organization’s chief operating officer.

Tyreece says over the course of nine months, GRIL participants take self-assessments, set goals for the next one-to-ten years, receive an adult mentor and more, then partner with other local organizations, like churches, to find opportunities where they can practice their skills.

Participants get counseling too and may even earn college credit.

Tyreece believes communities need to invest in more programs that enrich a kid’s life.

“I think it boils down to finding out the purpose of that child - What are they put on earth to do? And helping that child to understand that they do have a purpose, that they do belong, that they do matter, and how can I support them in that aspect,” said Tyreece.

More than 300 teenagers have graduated from GRIL.

Ministry Jordan, Zion Guyton and Alexandria Smith were part of the organization’s 2023 class.

“My end goal is to become a science teacher, a middle school science teacher in an underprivileged area,” said Smith. “My mission statement that I had for the year was to inspire self development within other… and having that mission statement, like knowing what I really want to do deeper than just teaching kids, I think really puts the glasses on and it really clears the way I want to live my life.”

All three said GRIL built confidence within themselves.

“It definitely taught me a lot about how do I lead personally and who I am as a person because I feel like I struggled with that for a long time,” said Jordan, who hopes to create listening spaces that promote understanding among people.

Zion, a graphic designer, wants to inspire individual’s creativity through self-expression.

He says after-school programs foster a space for kids to understand their potential.

“It can just give you some place that you can take away something other than just school,” said Zion. “I feel like a lot of times for school, it can be really stressful and a you don't take away as much because you have that stress of like grades and then parents and then whatever else going on in life.”

GRIL also offers opportunities for adults.

Click here to learn more.

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