Weightlifting program gives teens a chance to ‘grow into something they want to be’ | local news – Natural Self Esteem

Teens Prem Henriquez and Kai Stewart make the same outspoken assessment of where they would be if they didn’t participate in a strength training and mentoring program for at-risk youth.

Prison.

Henriquez, 18, and Stewart, 17, were referred to the Bench Mark Program through Lancaster County’s juvenile parole system, but each said they aren’t there because they have to be.

“I feel free to be myself. I’m not trying to hide anything. Yes, I trust them,” said Henriquez of Millersville.

Possession of marijuana and other offenses that Henriquez refused to disclose landed him in the juvenile system.

For Stewart from Landisville, it was struggles and family troubles.

“I don’t have to be on guard when I’m here,” Stewart said.

The pair spoke about their involvement in the program on Wednesday afternoon between sessions that included a 135-pound bench press — easy by Stewart, more of a struggle for Henriquez — and a two-team quiz with half a dozen other participants on the difference between wishes and needs. (Clothes are a need. A new video game controller is a need, explains Witt Welch, the education coordinator.)

Bench Mark occupies the basement of a four-story brick building on East Liberty Street that was once home to the coffee and peanut roasting company El Capitan Products.

Barbells, dumbbells, a squat rack, a weight bench, and a punching bag share space in the windowless basement with a whiteboard for instruction.

Motivational posters hang on the walls. One reads: “Education is the most powerful weapon you can wield to change the world. – Nelson Mandela.

Another: learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. It is important not to stop asking. – Albert Einstein.

Founder Will Kiefer said the low-key atmosphere was intentional.

When participants are “at a point in their lives where they’re changing from who they used to be to something they want to be, … it’s nice to have a space where they can kind of retreat and.” trying out a new version of yourself,” said Kiefer.

ramp up programming

Bench Mark was born eight years ago out of Kiefer’s desire to give back to the community while he was graduating from Franklin & Marshall College.

The program has been building muscle since its meager beginnings when it was all pine.

It has about a dozen volunteer mentors and four full-time staff, two of whom joined last year: Sarah Billings, Operations Manager, and Ayanda McGill-Jefferson, Case Manager. Kiefer said more than 600 children were ministered to in one way or another.

In addition to working with the county’s youth system, Bench Mark has recently started satellite programs in Columbia and Conestoga Valley high schools.

Now it’s looking to make even more money with a two-year, $143,968 grant from the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquecy. The money will help pay for the salaries of Billings and McGill-Jefferson, both of whom have master’s degrees in social work, as well as education and supplies.

Kiefer, Billings and McGill-Jefferson recently spoke to LNP | LancasterOnline about the goals of the program with the scholarship.

Indeed, Bench Mark has several programs and does not limit its services to youth who are referred through the justice system.

Teenagers – up to their early 20s – are cordially invited to come to the so-called open fitness studio. They can lift weights, box, hang out with others, and interact with mentors who can help them with a resume or just talk about issues they may be having.

Weightlifting and boxing is about discipline and goals and connecting with a mentor, Kiefer said. And usually the kids think they really want to box, but they get tired quickly.

The state grant will help address the dozen children who, like Henriquez and Stewart, are participating in the more intensive strength-based skills program linked to the county’s juvenile court system.

“We’re going deeper into the services that we’re providing to the children that are already in our system,” said Kiefer.

In addition to physical fitness, the program includes personal finance, mindfulness, communication skills and individual goal setting, Kiefer said.

“All of our programs are designed around how to self-regulate, how to deal with whatever you’re feeling, and then ways to do that that aren’t violent,” Kiefer said.

McGill-Jefferson is developing a plan that will allow Bench Mark to serve participants’ juveniles through its various programs from the time they are transferred from juvenile probation, connecting them to outside services in a way that it was not previously possible, said Kiefer.

McGill-Jefferson, who played and coached basketball at McCaskey, worked as an intern in the county’s children and youth department before starting full-time for about a year and a half.

“I’ve worked a lot with politics and families in general (in the county). And when I found Bench Mark, I was intrigued by the fact that I would be hands-on with the kids myself, and that’s my goal,” McGill-Jefferson.

As for measuring success, Kiefer said he and Billings had started using metrics like recidivism, school attendance, truancy, community service hours at juvenile probation work.

“The difficult thing about prevention is that prevention isn’t like the programs I had in school that said, ‘Don’t do drugs, don’t do that.’ That actually doesn’t help in preventing kids who have high levels of trauma and whatnot,” Billings said, explaining that this approach can make the bad behavior more appealing.

Instead, she said, the goal is to build skills and engage participants and connect them with people who will hold them accountable for their goals.

“It’s pretty simple, but sometimes kids need that, and they need that connection to someone who’s like, ‘I’ll show up for you. And I’ll stay with you I’m not giving up on you,’ and I think we’re going to say a lot to our kids, ‘We’re not giving up,'” Billings said.

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