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Transforming Teens

Service work, foreign travel help youth develop as leaders

When teens act out, the usual route is to punish them, but a Kalamazoo organization is taking a different approach: mentor them and grow them as leaders through service, including a trip to Africa.
Inner City Youth for Change is a nonprofit organization that “equips and empowers teens to lead and to serve in their schools, communities and around the world,” according to Director Jeaninne Butler-Sytsema.

Inner City Youth for Change was started in 2009 as a program of the Kalamazoo Deacons Conference, a faith-based organization that helps those in need. Butler-Sytsema says the program, originally called Urban Youth for Africa, was founded by then-KDC Executive Director Terri Sieplinga, who wanted to increase the ranks of young volunteers of color doing service work.

In 2017, KDC decided to end Urban Youth for Africa because it was not able to fund the program anymore. Butler-Sytsema, who was serving on the KDC board and had seen firsthand just how much the program had impacted kids’ lives, decided to continue the program herself and gave it its new name.

Butler-Sytsema, a Chicago native, says she has always had a heart for working with youth, especially those living in poverty.

“I lived in the ghetto area of the west side of Chicago, so I know what poverty looks like, feels like,” says Butler-Sytsema. “I’ve always had the heart for young people and wanting to make a difference in their lives. I think I tend to see them in a different light than they see themselves, or than other people see them. I see who they truly are.”

Youth plan own projects

Every two years Butler-Sytsema recruits six to 10 high school juniors from Kalamazoo Public Schools. Many are referred to the program by school faculty, but kids can also apply to join it.

Each new “class” is immediately thrown into planning its own community service projects. Butler-Sytsema says she believes that putting the kids in charge of the projects pushes them in their leadership abilities. The service projects cover a wide range of activities, including clothing and food drives, a prom for residents of a retirement home, and fun days with the Kalamazoo Public Safety Department to foster positive relationships between officers and kids in the community.

Inner City Youth for Change has “family dinners” for its members twice a month, where they share a meal together, build relationships with each other and plan the activities they will be doing.

Mercy Brown, 19, participated in the program from 2019-2021 and says the community service her team did pushed her to care more about her community and showed her that she can give back, even if it’s only in small ways. Brown came up with the idea for her team to do a clothing drive for the homeless in Kalamazoo and says leading the planning and execution of the event was a new and fulfilling experience for her.

“It definitely shaped me into wanting to do more for the community,” Brown says. “It made me want to really be invested with everything that I do and put forth a hundred percent. I just want to help everyone that I can help.”

Service trips to Africa

Each class’s two years together culminates in an all-expense-paid trip paid for by private donations to do service work in Africa. The last three trips have been to the West African country of Sierra Leone. According to Butler-Systema, the trips are different every time. The organizations that host the youths set up the opportunities for the group to do numerous service projects as well have learning experiences. The teams have painted community centers, cleaned up trash and watched over children.

The most recent Inner City Youth class was composed of Kalamazoo Public Schools students who were eligible to have their college tuition paid for through The Kalamazoo Promise, which spurred the group to band together and raise money to pay the college tuition of a young man they met while in Africa. They held several successful fundraisers, and now the new class wants to continue these efforts, funding a second person’s tuition.

‘He is not the same kid’

Butler-Systema has countless testimonies about the effects on team members of the trips to Africa. She recalls one member who had a history of behavioral issues at school. When the boy’s team arrived at the location where it was to do service work, he continually ignored Jeannine’s instructions. Instead of reacting in anger, she pulled him aside to talk.

“I didn’t know what I was going to say to him,” says Butler-Systema. “I didn’t know what I was going to do, but we got away from everybody and I just cradled his face. I said, ‘I’m out of tricks. I don’t know what else to do. I don’t know how to help. Please help me help you, because I don’t know what else to do anymore.’ And he looked at me with these big, old brown eyes and apologized, and in that moment he was a completely different person. I think that he was expecting for me to yell at him, to kick him out, because that’s what had been happening in his life.”

Butler-Systema says that when the boy went back to school, the school’s assistant principal told her of the great change he had seen in the boy.

“He said to me, ‘What happened? He is not the same kid. He is just not the same,’” she says. “He successfully graduated and wasn’t kicked out of school anymore when he got back.”

New perspectives

Butler-Sytsema says she believes Inner City Youth changes kids because it gives them a new perspective on their lives.

“Our philosophy is to build on strengths,” she says. “We don’t look at what they are bad at. We look at what they can do.

“We also focus on giving, and getting away from looking at ourselves. … They are giving and learning that they have the capacity to do so. I think it has such an impact because they have never experienced giving. Now they can understand and see that they can give as they are. One kid told me, ‘It feels good to give.’”

Brown says her involvement in Inner City Youth has transformed her as well. “I feel like it matured me, and it made me just feel grateful for everything that I do have.”

While in Africa, she says,“we got to see how hard everything was, but how they were so happy and they just cherished everything they had. It made me want to cherish what I had. It taught me to live in the moment and make the best out of everything that comes my way.”

Maggie Drew

Maggie interviewed the owners of two very different but equally interesting Kalamazoo businesses for this issue. She met with Tim and Tracy Lynn Kowalski, owners of Bio-Kleen, to talk about this company whose products have gained a national reputation for being among the best and most environmentally safe cleaners on the market. “What I loved about Tim’s story of success was he just listened to what the people around him wanted or needed and he made it,” says Maggie. “It was also really great to see that someone at his level of success really cares about giving back to people.” Maggie also interviewed Adam Weiner about his LEGO store, Bricks and Minifigs, which opens in Kalamazoo later this month and will sell new as well as used LEGO products. “Adam’s personal LEGO collection is very impressive,” she says. “I was intrigued by the community of people who love LEGO and the intricate details in all the sets.” Maggie, who graduated from Western Michigan University in April, worked at Encore as an intern during her senior year.

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