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State-funded Teen REACH Makes Difference For Illinois Kids, Advocates Say

Teen REACH: Children in T-shirts, some smiling, stand in woods

Teen REACH

Students in the Flora, Ill., Teen REACH after-school program take part in a variety of recreational activities, as well as service learning projects, clubs and life skills classes.

Deena Mosbarger remembers the 11-year-old who had trouble managing his anger in her after-school program in Flora, Ill.

When he acted up, staff members redirected him, and a staff member became his mentor, said Mosbarger, special projects coordinator at the Clay County Health Department, which sponsors the Teen REACH after-school program in Flora. The program also offered positive rewards, with students gaining good-behavior points that allowed them to go on field trips.

Now age 14, the student is “thinking through his decisions and finding different ways to handle circumstances that cause him to become angry,” Mosbarger said.

Another student in the program was flunking middle school.

“He was just going to give up,” she said. But homework help and adult mentoring turned him around, she said.

She believes the benefits of after-school programs like Teen REACH are invaluable.

Teen REACH (Teen Responsibility, Education, Achievement, Caring and Hope) is a state-funded after-school program in Illinois, one of the few states that budgets funds for this purpose.

The program serves kids considered “at risk” at 150 sites in Illinois, said Susan Stanton, network lead for ACT Now, a Chicago-based coalition of Illinois groups devoted to increasing after-school access. Most of the kids served by the program are ages 11 to 17.

Teen REACH began in 1998 as a violence prevention program but now has become a comprehensive youth development program.

“It’s a full-range program covering many different service areas,” Stanton said, including life skills, recreation, service learning and avoiding risky behavior. 

Wide variety of activities

Teen REACH is funded at $14.5 million this year through the Illinois Department of Human Services. (Funds dried up in 2015 when Illinois underwent a budget crisis, but three-fourths has now been restored.)

Factors that put kids at risk are not just poverty or the proximity of gangs, Mosbarger said.

Circumstances may include being a child in single-parent families who have academic difficulties, truancy or behavior issues or any child who doesn’t have a parent home in the afternoon. Kids may be in the foster care system or have an incarcerated parent, she said.

Teen REACH in Flora serves 40 young people in a building right across the street from Flora High School. Students may be found selling snacks to each other as part of the program’s Business Club — counting money, taking inventory and learning math in the process. They may job shadow professionals in Flora or visit nearby college campuses. Older kids mentor the younger ones and community members mentor the older ones. 

The various clubs include a book club and a bike club, which is working up to a 28-mile ride.

The after-school program has a community band that holds two performances a year.

Each student spends one hour a week in a life skills class, which covers subjects ranging from avoiding addiction to how to do laundry and change a car tire, Mosbarger said.

Evaluations show that 98% of kids in the program for at least nine months  are promoted to the next grade or graduate.

Across the state, providers of Teen REACH programs range from youth service organizations such as the Boys & Girls Clubs to museums, school districts and county health departments, Stanton said.

Health departments in Illinois are required to do a community needs assessments every five years, Mosbarger said, looking at the social determinant of health. Not only do behaviors such as smoking predict poorer health, but so does socioeconomic status, she said.

“We know that what occurs when young determines future health,” she said.

For that reason, some county health departments operate Teen REACH programs.

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