Spotlight on Youth Development: Jorge Perez

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By West Cook YMCA

In the classic elementary school science experiment, sun, soil and water come together in just the right proportion to successfully grow beans in a cup.

"So too," explains Jorge Perez, Vice President for Youth Development for Y-USA, "do the YMCA's dimensions of youth development—achievement, relationship and belonging—create the right environment for kids to grow up and become productive members of society."

 Perez, a leading authority on youth development issues, points out that, "nation-wide, the YMCA is an important institution in child development.

"The organization is active in 10,000 neighborhoods and serves 9 million children every year," he said.

 Perez knows the large scale impact of the YMCA really comes down to families—families who come to the YMCA and who keep coming back due to the positive effects they see on their children. He sees the individual growth of each child as the focal point of the YMCA's youth development programming.

"The clinical definition of youth development is that it's a social-emotional, cognitive and physical process that all youth experience from birth to career.

"Here at the Y, we've determined that there are three dimensions to youth development that significantly impact children: achievement, relationship and belonging. This is what everyone wants for their kids. You can have one or two pieces but without the third, the journey unravels," Perez said.

Throughout its local centers, the YMCA strives to make sure that achievement, relationship and belonging are keys to all our youth programming, from the preschool and after school programs to sports and activities for teens, Perez explains.

Staff training is an important part of helping children achieve success in their activities. Perez notes that all Y staff are trained to create the space where achieving these milestones can happen. Using the example of the Y's popular learn to swim program, he explains that training effective staff goes well beyond finding a teen coach with good swimming skills.

"The achievement piece is easy to see: you want the kids to learn to swim.

"With belonging, we stress that it's important that each child feels he or she belongs in the class. You greet them by name and emphasize that each child is an important part of the group dynamic.

"Relationship building happens when children connect with one another.  The first few swim lessons might involve name games so that everyone gets to know each other. The ultimate product we're offering families is not a swim lesson. It's a youth development activity," Perez says.

"When parents pick up their children after a YMCA youth event or program, the questions they inevitably ask are: what did you learn, do you want to go back, and did you make friends? The children and their parents may not know it's happening, but everyone benefits from the Y's emphasis on youth development. Given the right environment, kids will grow up and take their meaningful places in society.

"In the spirit of ensuring that all youth programming—from day camps to preschool to after school to sports—helps families achieve these goals, the YMCA is launching a national toolkit for training. With an emphasis on hiring adults well-suited to working with children, the Y also trains its staff to focus on development and to create a space for staff to engage and connect with kids," Perez explains.

In his travels to YMCA camps and youth centers around the U.S., Perez sees these long-term goals play out.

"Whether it's a swim lesson, after school or camp, the ingredients are the same. Kids are learning, making friends and becoming part of a community through the Y.

"I just rode with an Uber driver in Minneapolis who had attended the local YMCA camp as a child. He showed me the wallet he made for his dad at the Y camp many years ago and now, after the death of his father, he carries that wallet every day. The YMCA program strengthened this man's relationship with his father.

"The YMCA is such a mainstay in this country and it impacts so many kids' lives," says Perez.

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