Lights were out and a sign on the door read “closed,” but a few tiny fists still came knocking on the Lenfest Center’s doors during after-school hours on Jan. 27.
Kevin Oberst, the youth center’s full-time outreach coordinator, popped out of his office to break the news that programs were canceled for the day due to the snow-scare that faked out the city.
The 27-year-old Temple alumnus works to recruit volunteers, parents and students to the center at 10th and Pike streets in Hunting Park, a neighborhood that he says “holds a special place in my heart.”
Oberst, of Rochester, N.Y., found the center when he moved to Philly to volunteer with the nonprofit City Year. He’s now in his fifth year at the center, which provides a space for programs – educational, athletic and life-skills – to more than 200 kids and their families.
Between knocks, Oberst shares his experience working in the Hunting Park community.
What attracted you to working with kids?
My mom’s a director at a food cupboard in Rochester, so service has always been a part of my blueprint growing up. I was always talented working with kids and enjoy being around them because of the energy. I like the idea of a limitless potential. They have such bright futures and so much potential. I want to do the best I can to empower them to be the best they can be.
What does the Lenfest Center mean to members of the Hunting Park community?
We benefit as much from the community as the community benefits from us being here. It’s a symbiotic relationship. We’re here to leverage the assets the community already has. For the parents, kids and stakeholders in this community, what we offer is a space. It’s not just working on school work, but it’s about conflict resolution and leadership building. There are a lot of programs that we offer here to fill in the gaps that school misses.
Do you feel those gaps are exclusive to Hunting Park or do you also see them as a void in other neighborhoods?
I’d say there’s a void for it everywhere. Kids today are either over-scheduled or under-scheduled. There’s not a gentle balance where there’s good direct parent involvement that also gives time for parents to be with their kids and with their family. I think our center fills a need in the community as a resource for parents and children to grow and to interact in a safe environment.
Do you find yourself forming close bonds with the children you get to work with?
Yeah, definitely. That’s something that I really love about the center. I’m going on my fifth year of being involved with this center. Five years for an adult really isn’t that long, but in five years for a kid you can totally see a transformation and progress. You see yourself in a lot of the kids that are coming in and you see the struggles that you went through when you were young. At the same time though, I’m learning every single day from the things they teach me.
Can you think of a kid you work with that you really took under your wing to help foster their development?
There’s a student here who is very, very bright, but, like me, he always had to be the center of attention in the classroom. I’m working with him everyday. It puts the onus on you to make sure you’re a stronger individual for this person because you can’t give what you don’t have. I talk with his mom frequently about his growth and development and I want to tell her that I see a lot of myself in him. I am always looking out for him as one of my guys.
What difference in a child’s life can a positive interaction with a community leader have?
I may not be a teacher in a classroom, but we’re all educators. You take for granted the individual relationships and the individual conversations you have with kids, but you never know what the impact can be. There are things I remember from my childhood that hold a lot of weight in terms of interaction with an older person, but I’m sure at that point for them, they weren’t thinking of the gravity of it.
What has your experience been with the parents in this community?
I think in low-income communities the assumption is that there are no strong parents in these kids’ lives, but that’s been the complete opposite of what my experience has been in this neighborhood. The parents and adults in this community are amazing. They just have a lot of limited resources and there’s not a lot of good after-school programming that children can attend. We have a parent committee that is amazing at what they do. They’re so committed to their kids.
– Text and images by Edward Newton and Cara Stefchak.
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