NEW ROCHELLE, New York — Wynter Parham, 29, is surrounded by teens in the kitchen at the Boys and Girls Club as she takes everyone’s cupcakes out of the oven and decorates them. The teens laugh and joke watching her squeeze out the fondant icing in circles.
A man in his mid-40s walks in without introducing himself. He locates Parham and asks to volunteer, saying he wants to help kids and has a mathematics degree. Parham says yes without hesitation.
“I never had a man with a mathematics degree walk into the club eager to work with my kids. I could not pass up that opportunity,” Parham said, as she continued decorating.
She started out herself as a volunteer with the 5- to 10-year-olds in September 2015, when her son, a club member, seemed bored. She began some new programs, paying for them herself, despite some internal opposition from the club. She was hired four months later.
“Historically, volunteers have been pioneers and mavericks, often starting things in protest to the establishment,” said Susan J. Ellis, president of Energize, Inc., an international training and publishing firm specializing in volunteerism.
Parham officially became a staff member in January 2016, was promoted to assistant teen coordinator in September, then to teen director nine months later.
“It all started with food,” Parham said.
She used her home cooking to connect with the teens, especially those who were hesitant to open up to her. She cooked family-style meals every Friday night, realizing many of the teens did not get home-cooked meals or know how to cook. The majority of them came from single-parent homes. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 27.3 percent of children in Westchester County live in a single-parent home.
Then Parham listened to them. They told her about the struggles they faced in their community and personal lives. As the teen director, she let them stay at the club on Friday nights till midnight so they could have a safe space to hang out and not get into trouble on the streets.
Club member Elijah Robinson, 18, says everything he needs is at the club. He credits Parham for helping him keep his focus while in school. He recently graduated from high school despite being told he was a lost cause by his school principal. Previously, he would frequently skip his classes and showed no interest in his schoolwork, he said.
Being a survivor of sexual assault as a teen herself and of domestic violence, Parham was prompted to change what was taught at the club. She wanted to teach the teens how to interact with the opposite sex in a healthy way.
“Every Boys and Girls Club is different, and we cater to those who have dealt with a lot of death,” she said. “Many of the teens know someone who has been killed by gun violence, domestic violence and who has been sexually assaulted; and one teen was raped last summer in a park close to the club.”
Parham added, “There is great potential for a lot of these teens but sometimes they get lost along the way.”
Making a difference
When Parham was promoted from volunteer to assistant teen coordinator, she started a date smart program. It’s a preventive and healing class where the teens learn how to spot signs of danger, she said. It also teaches them how to have respect for and boundaries with each other.
Because they were not interested in the national curriculum, she said, she began creating and updating more programs, such as “Real Ladies,” “Boys To Men” and “Healthy Habits,” by brainstorming and listening to the teens.
The organization says staff at the New Rochelle club are a great example of how trained staff identify the needs of their community, and use or update national curriculum.
But despite verbal support from Boys & Girls Club of America, Parham pays for her own programs.
Nathaniel Adams, director of operations of the Boys and Girls Club of New Rochelle, confirmed that her programs were not a part of the national curriculum budget and thus could not receive funding. But, with her program's’ success, the local board has agreed to add them to their budget later in the year so she will have the financial support to continue.
“Staff members at the club are discouraged from using their own funds for program implementation, and this has continued to be reinforced in recent years with local staff at the Boys & Girls Clubs of New Rochelle,” Boys and Girls Club of America said.
But if volunteers are at the cutting edge of change by doing things first, they will be the ones paying for the things that require cash, Ellis said.
“It matters if Parham is doing this because she wants to, rolling up her sleeves and opening her purse because she sees a need not being met, or has tried to advocate for it to no avail, and is simply doing it because she believes it matters,” she said.
Parham says other youth leaders at her location opposed her ideas at the start. They did not understand the need to change programs that were successful for the last 10 years, she said.
“I’m not saying that the national curriculum has not been successful, but how you teach it, facilitate it and adapt to change is more important,” she said.
Ellis and the Boys & Girls Club agree that volunteers can bring about innovative and unique opportunities for young people. A volunteer does not equal amateur, and training for volunteers working with children should depend on what is being offered to the kids, Ellis said.
After every 12-week session, Parham gives the teens forms to critique her and the programs.
“The date smart program was the most successful, receiving 61 evaluations from a class size that started with 15 kids,” she said.
Who can be a good volunteer
It takes a special kind of person to work with teens because teens decide who they gravitate to, Parham said.
She believes any program can be created and led to success by knowing what to provide and allowing the youth to feel comfortable. Asking the schools, community centers and churches on how to cater to their youth are a great way to get started, she said.
Parham advises potential youth leaders to look within themselves to determine if they have the discipline and patience to work with the youth.
“Everything isn’t on my time, but on their time and how I can benefit them while they’re with me,” she said.