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Honoring Our Youth (HOY)

Honoring Our Youth (HOY) is a program of Steepletown Neighborhood Services that helps out-of-school Grand Rapids youth, ages 14-21, conquer employment and education obstacles. Often labeled as “dropouts” or “nobodies” by others, the youth are provided GED, employment, and mentoring services at HOY to get back on track and restore their belief in their own potential.
Michigan Nightlight: In your view, what makes your program innovative, effective or remarkable?
Steepletown Neighborhood Services Youth Advocate Emilio Zamarripa: The success of the HOY program is based on many different factors. However, what is most remarkable is the relationships the HOY program has established with Grand Rapids youth, especially within the west side community. A large majority of our program participants are referred to us from past youth programs, their families, or other community agencies. These students come into the program expressing feelings of disengagement and doubt.
To better assist the participants as to where they are in life, the HOY program utilizes the Recovery Assessment Scale [a 41-question self-evaluation tool] to measure each participant’s motivation, belief in oneself, and hope. A team of evaluators assesses the scale’s results and reports this data back to HOY staff.
Especially at a young age, when we fall short of reaching our accomplishments, discouragement will flourish -- that can be a massive barrier to overcome.

In partnership with the Aquinas College chapter of the Students in Free Enterprise student organization, HOY youth attend weekly fitness sessions at the David D. Hunting YMCA of Greater Grand Rapids -- meeting with Aquinas College students to increase physical activity, health, and teamwork. Activities include basketball, volleyball, weight training, cardio exercises, rock climbing, and more.
Most significant is the thought process following these activities. Many HOY program youth express that one day they hope to be in an undergraduate program like Students in Free Enterprise and work with students facing the same situations that they face.
What was the best lesson learned in the past year?
To be quite honest, the best lesson learned in the past year has been that the HOY program does marvelous things. This program surpasses the expectation of our funders to serve a certain number of youth. HOY gives these young people an opportunity to self-reflect on who they are and what they want to be. Especially at a young age, when we fall short of reaching our accomplishments, discouragement will flourish -- that can be a massive barrier to overcome.
For example, one participant faced a similar barrier after failing in school. This young man came to Steepletown with little interest in the program. He only wanted to complete his GED and then take the next steps on his own. While taking one of his GED tests, he rushed through it to leave the testing site. His youth advocate asked why he didn’t take his time, like he had done on his practice test, where he scored exceptionally well. His response was that he saw someone familiar coming into take a GED test, and did not want to be seen. He reported feelings of shame for having to get a GED rather than a high school diploma. After further discussion with his youth advocate, he gained a better understanding of what opportunities he has after completion of a GED.
After constant follow up with this student, his involvement in the program gradually increased. He attended various workshops (like resume building, interviewing and public speaking) and volunteered his time and energy to raise awareness of what the program has to offer for other young people who hadn’t finished high school. At HOY’s bi-annual GED graduation, this young man insisted on taking a picture with his youth advocates and GED instructor, because, as he stated, “I really, really, couldn’t have done it without you guys.”
What was the hardest lesson learned in the past year?
To say that we’ve done all we could for someone is a bold statement.
But in the past year, we’ve come to accept that we won’t be able to help everyone reach their highest goals. The HOY program has yet to deny any youth who met the requirements of our funders' access to our services -- for any reason. Unfortunately, sometimes youth fail themselves in acting in their best interest.
As an example, one participant completed his GED and planned to go onto Grand Rapids Community College. After
What differentiates the HOY program is that it has always made it a priority to better serve the needs and wants of students that are labeled a “drop-out” or a “nobody.”
everything seemed to be in place, including acceptance to the college and financial aid, he and a friend were caught robbing a gas station. He is now in jail for the next five to ten years. His poor decision is not a reflection of the program, but it proved difficult for HOY staff to question whether they had done all they could for him.
The HOY program is structured extremely well to assist students to succeed academically and vocationally, but this still doesn’t change the fact that there is always room for improvement. HOY evaluates itself on a regular basis to ensure participant achievement.
What really differentiates this program?
What differentiates the HOY program is that it has always made it a priority to better serve the needs and wants of students that are labeled a “drop-out” or a “nobody.” These are exactly the young people living in “make-it-or-break-it” situations and are in dire need of support. So, while these young people are scrutinized for their shortcomings by their peers and sometimes themselves, the HOY program works diligently to instill faith.
Recently, a number of other community agencies made requests to serve more in-school youth, and therefore less out-of-school youth. Reasoning for this was that it’s harder to work with students who don’t want to receive help when it’s offered.
And without a doubt, this is true. But the fact of the matter is that these out of-school youth are those that need the most support
What are the keys to success for your program?
The success of the HOY Program is based primarily on four key concepts.
The first is relationships. Time and time again, we see students willing to give up on themselves due to lack of support. The HOY program aims to cultivate healthy, working relationships with youth to influence them in positive ways so that they can better reach their potential and success.
Then there is consistency. After establishing these relationships, our consistent follow-up with the program youth generates a sense of structure and mobility in their lives. The HOY program continues to research more advanced methods of increasing youth performance in both school and careers.
Development is another key. Imperfections are everywhere, and we continue to learn from both our mistakes and successes. HOY staff and students evaluate program quality on many levels, through anonymous bi-weekly surveys from both staff and students, with hopes of fostering more effective approaches to the work we do.
Flexibility is the final key -- the HOY program works around the schedules and lives of our youth to best serve them. Program participants come into Steepletown with vast backgrounds and they come in at very different points of their lives. By working alongside participants, rather than trying to push them, the HOY program produces outcomes that well-exceed the participants’ expectations for themselves.
How does race or diversity affect the work of your program?
HOY program participants are multi-cultured. Program staff members have been selected to work with these students based on their own cultural competency and their own ability to relate to or understand the real-life situations these youth face.
The HOY program emphasizes the importance of communication for both personal and professional growth, and our participants communicate. They have frequent conversations that our GED education coordinator facilitates in order for us to grasp a better understanding of how different the youths’ upbringings have been and the impact that those differences have had on their lives up to this point.
We do find that students who have stern beliefs solely based on their race or nationality can change their views based on these conversations. 
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