Patrice Gerard at the Hilltop YMCA / photo: Norton Gusky

The first thing Patrice Gerard and his Hilltop YMCA coworker Nic Jaramillo had to do for their youth was to create structure. In a community that doesn’t have many planned afterschool opportunities, a structured environment would also be a safe environment.

“The amount of youth is disproportionately large compared to adults. There’s no outlet,” says Gerard, who, along with Jaramillo, are the only two fulltime employees at the site.

What they wound up creating are programs that productively harness the energy of the 30-50 teens who spend time at the Y each day. From garden plots to mural projects, yoga classes to professional development, Hilltop teenagers are given space to learn about who they are and how they like to spend their time.

Gerard says, “We allow our kids to be kids. They can get up out of their seats and run around. We put all the resources on a shelf, and they can go up and get them. We trust them. We don’t treat them as liabilities.” For kids on the Hilltop, not being a liability is a novelty: the community is predominantly low-income African Americans with a growing Nepalese refugee population. Outside these walls, the kids are considered at-risk. But inside the Y, which has only been open for three years, the kids are “excited. They’re always engaged in something.”

One of the most outstanding projects the center offers is RoboKids. Using Hummingbird Kits (produced by BirdBrain Technologies at Carnegie Mellon University), kids learn how to make robots. This year’s group decided to focus their robots on the game Minecraft, which is an expansive world-building game. “It’s endless possibilities,” says Gerard. “We’re trying to get kids to collaborate and work together in their worlds—build farms or railroad tracks and be able to sustain their towns together.”

For the robots themselves, kids draw their initial designs; Gerard notes that most of the bots have block heads. The first thing they learn is LED lights for the eyes as that skill is “relatively easy to do. It doesn’t matter the age, honestly, they catch it really fast.” The more the kids learn, the more often they go back to their designs and look again at how they can grow and better their creations. Gerard mimics the process from the kids’ point of view: “oh, I didn’t know we had motors. I didn’t know I could create an arm. Now I want to create wheels. I didn’t know there was a distance sensor. Now I want to be able to tell when something is standing in front of it; it will speak or something.”

For the kids Gerard serves in the Hilltop, sometimes the virtual world is more empowering and rewarding than the real world. Gerard has only been in Pittsburgh since 2008, when he arrived to study computer science at the University of Pittsburgh. He came to the Y in 2012 as an AmeriCorps KEYS member. He says that while it’s hard for him to distinguish the nuances between neighborhoods within the Hilltop community, he knows that those divisions are very real for the kids he works with. As are the conflicts that happen between and within those divisions.

“They can talk about what they need to talk about,” says Gerard. “If there’s a shooting in the neighborhood, we’re not afraid to talk about it.” Gerard attributes part of the openness to the culture of respect the Y has built, but also the age of the staff. He says, “It hasn’t been that long since I graduated from high school. I think that helps.”

He also encourages kids to be accountable to one another. Gerard speaks fondly of an extroverted teen who decided he was going to make a harmonica out of popsicles and tape. The real mastery of the experience, though, was when he got to pair his creativity with his people skills to teach his peers how to make harmonicas as well. Gerard notes that this is part of the larger atmosphere at the site: “If they learn something, we tell them to pair up with another student who has maybe come late or is falling behind or a younger student.”

And, so far, so good. “They respect us. They like us. All their friends are here.”

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