By Letesha Nelson, GCC chief executive officer and executive director
Ha! They may not know how it happened, but I know it is no accident that Shayla and Kiara have become more confident. Because I know the Goodman staff who have been here for them the last several years. And they’re pretty brilliant.
I had the privilege of sitting down and talking with both girls last week. They are alike in so many ways. High school seniors. Bright. Motivated. Ambitious. Open. Funny. Social. Leaders. Excited about their futures.
They always had the potential to be pretty exceptional humans, and they both come from families who want the best for them. But like every kid, having adults (other than your own parents) who see your potential, listen to you, and cheer you on as you figure out who you are and all you are capable of — that can be life changing.
Sociologists talk about our need for a “third place.” For adults, our first and second places are often home and work — for young people, home and school. And that third place is not just a place, it’s where the people you share it with give you a deep sense of belonging.
Clearly, for both Kiara and Shayla, the Goodman Community Center has become their third place.
And it’s no wonder. When you hear them describe how Goodman staff have made them feel, helped them grow and provided rich new experiences and needed resources — who wouldn’t feel at home and keep coming back for more?
“We know every student comes here with unique gifts and needs. Like Kiara and Shayla. We’re here for them as they navigate all things teen — school, college applications, first jobs and relationships with family, friends and co-workers,” Shantrice Solis, GCC assistant director of youth and career development, explained.
Kiara used to walk into a room and stir up drama
But that didn’t last long, because Solis was all about getting to know her. Really know her.
“We had lots of open and very honest conversations. We’d often just sit downstairs and talk about life,” she explained.
And once there was respect and trust between them, Solis addressed the drama and calmly told Kiara, “The drama? Yah, you need to stop.”
And, according to Solis, “Kiara did a 180. She’s a different person today.”
Once the drama stopped, Kiara jumped in and took advantage of all kinds of things at Goodman. She started working in catering for TEENworks and as an aide in our preschool classrooms.
“I like working with kids. They are learning so many positive things. You can just see how it’s going to make their life better,” Kiara said.
Kiara also decided she didn’t want to blow off school anymore, so she turned to Goodman staff.
“They helped me a lot with school. My sophomore and junior year I was struggling. After COVID, getting back to school in person was kind of hard for me. I’d never go to class,” she shared.
She described how our staff helped her catch up.
“If I need help with a subject, they have a tutor come in to help me. They help me balance work and school, too,” she said. “Last week I had a bunch of homework, so they said, ‘Let’s get your homework done and then you can go to work.’”
Today, Kiara is pretty self-motivated. She wants to be a pediatric nurse, so staff are helping her find a college that’s a good fit (she’ll likely start at a two-year campus) and helping her complete college and scholarship applications.
“Staff have grown to be my second family. If I ever need people to talk to, I know I can talk to them about anything,” Kiara told me. “And I like that you see people from different cultures at Goodman. I love how diverse it is here. Not many people from my race have some place to feel welcomed. I’ve seen kids grow from the way they were in sixth or seventh grade, and they become a better person. And they’re still growing.”
When I asked her what she thought of the staff at Goodman, she quickly said, “They’re lovely.”
Surprised, I asked her, “Did you just respond, ‘Lovely?’”
She smiled and said, “Yes. I’ve never seen a staff here angry. Even the middle school staff, when the kids act crazy, they still keep their patience. They don’t get angry.”
Then she told me something that made me so so proud of our staff. She said, “At school, it’s like, ‘If you’re like us, we can hang out.’ But at Goodman, everyone includes everybody. It’s like, ‘You may be weird, but you can still come hang out with us.’”
I have a feeling there are lots more kids who think of Goodman as their third place.
Shayla came ready to work
Shayla came to Goodman bent on creating a life for herself. She’s thinking she’d like to be a chef or a traveling nurse.
“I love helping people and would love to work with the elderly,” Shayla smiled and said. Then she added, “I think they’re cute.”
“Shayla was a bit guarded when I first met her, but also sweet, smart, independent, hard-working, helpful and sometimes sarcastic,” according to Solis. “She has tons of gifts, but her being here helped her have focus and get ready for college. And I’ve watched her become much more true to herself.”
Goodman was a great option for Shayla because she figured even if she earned a scholarship, she knew she still needed to save for college.
“TEENworks is great. I get to earn money and credits toward graduation. And they help me with my homework, which is good because my mom works night shift so she can’t always help me. They help me be more organized, too. Now I’m more on top of my school stuff. I used to say ‘I’ll do that later,’ and sigh ... and it never got done. Now I just get it done,” Shayla said.
“Goodman gives me a lot of motivation, too. I was taking a (certified nursing aide) class and it was so hard I wanted to quit. But they reminded me, ‘This is what you love, Shayla. You’ll get through it — you can do hard things.’ And I did.”
Shayla knows she can go to Goodman staff for practical things, too.
“They’ll get me bus passes if I don’t have the cash. They helped me with my resume. And they got me scrubs so I could go to labs at the university. That took a little pressure off my mom, too. She can’t always afford everything.”
“At school, it’s like, ‘If you’re like us, we can hang out.’ But at Goodman, everyone includes everybody. It’s like, ‘You may be weird, but you can still come hang out with us.’”
Now they’re both picturing themselves in college
During spring break last year, Shayla, Kiara and five other students went on a tour of historically Black colleges and universities with Goodman staff. Their faces lit up as they talked about it. Kiara pulled out her phone to share photos from their trip. Shayla admitted she’d never been outside of Wisconsin before. Kiara and Shayla loved it so much, they are helping organize next spring’s tour.
“Shayla and I both want to go again. We’ll go to the best places from last year and find some different ones, too. We want to help them explore Nashville, Atlanta, Selma, Montgomery — and help other kids experience what we did,” Kiara said.
I love that they came back already thinking about how they can help the next class have an even better trip. To me, that says they feel like they belong, and they want that for other kids, too.
What Shayla and Kiara want you to know
Before we wrapped up, I asked both girls, if there was anything else they wanted people to know.
Right away, Kiara looked at me and said, “Yes. I would say if you want to see kids in your community thrive to be as great as you know they can, don’t give up on them. Push them to their limits. Encourage them to be the greatness they are. Give them the resources they need to be better. If you never had that, don’t let that be something that stops you from helping the future generation.”
Then she smiled, adding, “Getting the help when I needed it most helped me be who I am today.”
Shayla had things to say, also. “The people who work here are genuine and help us a lot, but it’s fun, too. They take you on field trips. We’re going to the Schuster’s Haunted Forest and corn maze for Halloween. Everyone says its super scary.”
Just plain fun is an important part of being someone’s third place. As I talked with the girls, it was so clear these girls feel loved, they are appreciated for who they are and are encouraged to work hard for what they want. And there’s a lot of joy in the midst of it all.
Want to help ensure Goodman will be there like this for more kids?
Your gift to support the Goodman Community Center — no matter the size — will help us give the gift of belonging to young people like Kiara and Shayla. In fact, every Goodman program, for little ones to older adults, creates a welcoming place — a third place — where everyone can flourish.
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