Recently, Swarthmore College’s Project Blueprints Program was awarded a federal grant of $880,000 to continue their work with Chester youth.
Started three years ago, Blueprints is a joint project run by Swarthmore College and the Crozer Wellness Center that works on mentoring twenty to thirty Chester students through an enriching academic and cultural program throughout their high school years.
The original idea came from Assistant Dean and Director of the BCC Timothy Sams, and a workshop he held in March 2006 at Youth Empowerment Conference at Widener University. At the workshop, where he addressed a group of middle-school students, Sams asked the question, “At the end, you don’t feel like you have a blueprint for your life. If someone helped you craft a blueprint for your life, would you follow it?” The answer came back: an overwhelming “Yes”.
Katie Blackburn, the Director of Youth Development Programs at the Crozer Wellness Center, who partnered with Sams on the project, explained, “The idea for this project sprung from the comments of the young men in the workshop, that they needed caring adults to provide them with a road map to guide them away from the pitfalls that many young people get caught in.”
So, in 2006, Sams and Blackburn began applying for a federal grant to actualize their idea. Their initial grant of $750,000 allowed them to take a group of middle school students and help them with five main objectives: “Academic Enrichment, Cultural Enrichment, Community Service, Personal Development & Life Skills, and Career Exploration & College Preparation.” At its heart, the program aimed to give “blueprints” and guidance for these middle school students, mentoring them through middle school, high school, and—ultimately—college.
Charmaine Giles ’10, a former head coordinator of the program, described the objective of the program as being “to enrich the students with cultural and academic pedagogy that would help [them].”
“Originally, in order to be a part of the grant the kids had to be ‘problem children.’ The goal was to prove that by helping the ‘worst of the worst’ in Chester, we could help them all,” she said.
Sams and Blackburn both provide the logistical and administrative backbone of Blueprints, while student coordinators—like Bridget Boakye ‘12, Cecily Bumbray ‘12, Leah Guthrie ‘12, and Gloria Mensah ’12—provide for the on-the-ground activities with the projects’ children. Along with other volunteers and members of the BCC community, they are peer mentors and role models for the kids.
This year, after grant-writing help from Blackburn and Swarthmore staff members, the federal Office of Minority Health re-awarded Blueprints with another grant of $800,000 to take on more kids, with more ambitious ideas in tow.
This new grant gives the program the ability to expand its focus on an additional ten more students and more enriching programs. Cecily Bumbray ’12, one of the current head coordinators of Blueprints, explained, “Re-applying for the grant gave us the opportunity to re-organize the program to better serve the needs of our kids … Receiving as much money as we did has allowed us to think outside the box and not have to worry about how to fund new activities and ideas, which is wonderful.”
New ideas for expanding the program include a new academic curriculum for Tuesdays and Wednesdays, visits to Chester’s College Access Center once a week, field trips to Swarthmore College every other week, and a 4-week summer program this year. This new college-focused part of the program is particularly relevant, as Swarthmore mentors help current sophomores in the program navigate through classes, SATs, and the like.
In terms of the ongoing success of the program, Sams highlighted the program’s achievements in helping these students move on from one grade to the other. Sams elaborated, “Many students [in the program] were among the most academically challenged in their school and we could say with certainty they were among the most behaviorally challenged, but our students passed. None of our students are getting into trouble anymore.”
Furthermore, he elaborated that this program also helped these students feel empowered. Anecdotally, according to Sams, students in the program have told Sams that their self-esteem has increased and that they now consider themselves leaders with important messages to contribute to society.
Even with the successes that Blueprints has accomplished, the program’s ambitious goals will lead to challenges. In terms of sustainability, one of the most pressing challenges is consistent student leadership with the program. With 3 out of the 4 current head coordinators, including Bumbray, going abroad next semester, Giles and Bumbray both expressed concerns about the need to recruit capable replacements who are willing to commit the time and energy for these new project ideas.
In terms of student participants, retention rates have been somewhat low. Sams suggested that some students have prioritized other concerns, like finding a job, pursuing athletics, and other extracurricular activities, over Blueprints.
Nonetheless, Project Blueprints is still excited to take on these new responsibilities. “I was excited to take on this role [head coordinator] because these kids have so much potential. Being able to see them progress and to be a part of that is just a beautiful experience,” Bumbray said.
Moreover, the entire Swarthmore community and its network of support can claim responsibility as much as those directly involved in the program. Sams said, “This is Swarthmore’s program, not just the BCC’s. The entire institution should be proud of it … This is a program that sits central to our social justice mission, and the success of these kids is in part due to their looking at Swarthmore students, not just black Swarthmore students, across the campus.”