The History of Youth Development Network Building in Detroit, and Our Experience with Dr. Cassandra Montgomery

By: Sara Plachta Elliott

At the end of the summer, our team had a retreat (all virtual this year) and we had some courageous conversations about our earliest memories of race, as well as our journeys with youth development network building in Detroit. It was a powerful experience that resulted in tears for some of us, particularly as we reflected on how each of our individual journeys with this work intersected and how we impacted each other, sometimes in positive ways and sometimes in unintentionally harmful ways. The discussion was made all the more tender and vulnerable because it could not be done in person.

The conversation helped us identify our key priorities for this unusual year. The biggest priority we identified is getting back to basics and focusing on our local relationship building. A sense of community across the youth development sector is one of our greatest offerings.

At the end of the two day experience, Yvonne and I got an email from a youth development professional in our network asking us for their organization’s data because their Executive Director had passed away this summer.

If you have participated in this community of youth development professionals for a while, you might have met Dr. Cassandra Montgomery who was both the Program Director and then the Executive Director of People’s Community Services, which runs the Delray Community Center on Detroit’s southwest side. She was one of our most regular participants, and we were really saddened to learn of her passing. She had an extraordinary life.

People know YDRC because of quality or data or professional development, but our roots are in the neighborhood-based network-building done by the former staff of the Youth Development Alliance (Partnership for Youth and the Youth Development Initiative) and the Youth Development Commission that came before YDRC. We’ve kept some of that network building alive, but this summer we’ve really felt the loss of those deep and wide networks in Detroit neighborhoods.

My first memory of Dr. Montgomery was probably 7 years ago when she brought youth from the Delray Community Center to the Patton Recreation Center to present on the results of the small grant they received from Partnership for Youth. My last memory was being in her office, talking with her about how stretched for resources her program was but that they needed to keep the doors open for Delray youth who really needed somewhere to be when out-of-school. She gave me a tour before I left. The gym floor was buckled from a water leak, but youth were arriving afterschool to do homework and hang out.

While continuous quality improvement is at the heart of what we do, we’d like to be as known for relationship building and advocacy for youth. To youth, the caring adults and the safe spaces in their lives are their greatest resource, especially right now.

If you have a few dollars to spare, please make a donation in Dr. Montgomery’s honor to the Delray Community Center.


Give Merit:  Empowering Educated World Class Citizens & World Changers

Give Merit: Empowering Educated World Class Citizens & World Changers

Give Merit: Empowering Educated World Class Citizens & World Changers

By: Kristine Uyeda

Imagine, as a high school student, how it would feel to work with design industry professionals who took you seriously. Imagine sharpening your design thinking skills—ideation, planning, prototyping, iteration—all key skills that will drive your college success and that you’ll use for the rest of your life. Imagine digging deep into critical thinking and entrepreneurship with mentors. Imagine developing an idea and standing in front of over 200 people and pitching that idea without notes. Imagine interning with Detroit institutions like the Detroit Lions. Now imagine doing it with a cohort of your friends supported by committed, caring facilitators who’ll be with you all four years of high school. And each year, rising together to the challenge of a new, bigger project. What would it feel like to see yourself as an educated world-class citizen, a world changer?

The youth in Give Merit’s FATE program could tell you. Each workshop begins and ends with a jubilant affirmation: “I am an educated world class-citizen! I am a world changer!” High school youth from the Jalen Rose Leadership Academy in Detroit spend four years in a cohort that immerses them in an intensive hands-on blend of project-based learning, character development, career exposure, and mentorship. The program model emphasizes the value of education and its role in achieving long-term career and personal goals. 

It’s hard to hear the statistic that 1 in 4 Detroit high school students will not graduate on time. Give Merit wanted to change that for its students. Their very first cohort graduated all of its 22 students. Each cohort member that graduates from high school and is accepted into a college or university receives a $5,000 scholarship toward their continuing education. After high school, youth enter an alumni program.

Since Give Merit began their work in 2012, they’ve continued to lean into their values and vision. When the need arose to move programming online, it took a lot of planning and creativity. The shift was highly disruptive but staff at Give Merit were committed to making sure that youth continued to feel the deep level of connection that the program fostered. The organization focused on working week by week, making certain that youth were at the heart of their planning and that students felt supported, heard, and connected. Give Merit developed a priority map that centered youth, and each staff member was given responsibility for key pieces. Staff met and planned every week, evaluating, re-prioritizing, and iterating as needed to remain true to their vision.

Two key questions surfaced—how to keep capstone projects going in a virtual space and how to best utilize resources? 

Realizing that the landscape of their work and the needs of youth were shifting during COVID-19, the Give Merit team worked with a priority map. This ensured that youth remained supported, heard, and connected. Throughout, staff interrogated their choices: Is what we’re doing aligned with our mission? What can we do best? What services can we provide? What services shouldn’t we provide? What are others doing and how can we connect our families to them? As they reviewed each week, the team continued to adapt and shift to meet youth where they were.

The Give Merit staff and youth began rethinking their capstone projects. The trajectory which was scaffolded from 9th to 12th grade—design skill-building, idea development, event creation, internship—managed to retain its structure, even though it looked different in a virtual space. This year, the cohorts storyboarded a commercial idea, created a product collection and website splash page, designed a virtual event, and made a video and PowerPoint presentation to the Detroit Lions organization, along with senior advising and college transition team members. 

Even though it has been a challenging transition, it has also been a time of reflection and deep thinking. “This time is allowing us to think through some really vital systems and processes that will only make future programming stronger,” shared Kuhu Saha, Give Merit’s Executive Director.

We look forward to seeing Give Merit’s youth thrive as educated world-class citizens, as world changers.


What have been some takeaways from this experience?

  • Take it one day at a time. Thinking too far ahead will take your focus away from the work.
  • Don’t be afraid to interrogate your ideas:  Is what we’re doing aligned with our mission? What can our organization do best? What services should we not provide? What services are others providing and how can we connect our youth and families to those?


Want to know more?

Give Merit envisions a world where every child is valued and has opportunities to be successful in life. A world where a child’s FATE is determined by their character and not judgments based on their skin color or socioeconomic background.

To learn more about Give Merit or to support their work through volunteering or donations, visit their website, and follow them on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.


Our thanks to Give Merit Executive Director, Kuhu Saha, for taking the time to share their experience with us.


Center for Success Takes Literacy Online

Center for Success Takes Literacy Online

Center for Success Takes Literacy Online

By: Kristine Uyeda

How do you take a proven youth literacy program into a digital platform and make it equitable, impactful, and sustainable?

Over the course of the school year, Center for Success provides structured after school programming for elementary and middle school students. Youth have access to transportation from partner schools, nourishing meals, high-quality enrichment activities, and participate in one-on-one individualized literacy mentoring designed for each youth’s unique needs. In addition to their onsite programs in Detroit and Pontiac, Center for Success also supports youth at five Brilliant Detroit locations and the Downtown Boxing Gym.

Andrea Meyer, Executive Director at Center for Success, had never been in a leadership role where she faced the kinds of decisions that now confronted her and the Board of Directors in the wake of COVID-19. The Board, understandably, wanted to preserve the long-term financial viability of the organization. Their first impulse was to pause programming and lay off staff. This wasn’t an option in Andrea’s mind—neither for the families they served, nor the program staff. So she went to work on creating a new path forward.

The two pressing issues were: what would it look like to re-envision and execute programs virtually, and where would the funding come from to continue operations. Andrea didn’t position herself as the authority figure who had all the insight. She employed an inclusive process and went to staff to see how they felt about continuing and what they wanted to contribute to the process. She asked, “What do you know about your students, what do you know about yourself, and how can we translate that into a digital platform.” She was blown away. Staff came up with inspiring ideas and were completely committed to navigating this next step with her.

The process of rebuilding for online learning was anchored by two beliefs: that learning can happen anywhere and that they were going to model what it looks like to be a lifelong learner. As staff dug in and began developing ideas, a program with a variety of offerings emerged. Simple activities like Riddle of the Day and Read Aloud Storytime were augmented by more structured experiences like science activities, homework help, and Mommy and Me Yoga which has featured themes like animal shapes. Center for Success also worked with their volunteer literacy mentors to train them on Zoom. The organization researched accessible online reading sites so that youth and mentors could continue their work together. By tapping into their partner organizations, like Accelerate4Kids, they are able to loan iPads to families who wouldn’t otherwise have access to necessary technology.

The results? Facebook and Instagram, where they post enrichment videos, have expanded their reach considerably. Meals are still available for pick-up at some sites and in other cases from partner organizations with more accessible locations. The Center for Success has retained almost all of their youth despite the move online. Staff reached out to teachers to get access to the homework assignments from partner schools and are supporting youth’s home learning. Parents who’ve listened in on mentoring sessions have gained tips that will help them work with their children. And youth are asking to attend more than just their regular literacy mentoring sessions, so the staff is working to give youth more access. Because staff hours are not completely utilized by virtual programming, the organization is supporting staff professional development through a variety of activities.

Taking stock of lessons learned, Andrea Meyer emphasized how important is has been to be continually looking at what’s working, and understanding safety, student voice, leadership—all things that feel innate now because of the Assess, Plan, Improve process Center for Success learned with through the Youth Development Resource Center. She sees opportunities to deepen some of the experiences they’ve created for youth. Andrea envisions the enrichment videos continuing once youth are able to return to onsite programming—but instead of staff creating these videos, she wants youth to take the lead. Youth and their mentors are growing seeds from seed kits that the Center for Success put together. This parallel project is an opportunity for learning and relationship building as youth and their mentors share the process. Andrea hopes to develop some additional projects that could take place throughout the year and help youth and mentors learn together through shared experience.

Perhaps one of the biggest aha! moment occurred around parent engagement. A clear interest in and need for parent workshops surfaced as a result of the online mentoring. Staff are already thinking about ways to provide resources and skills to parents so they feel confident in supporting their young readers at home.

And what about the funding? Andrea went to funders with a game plan for continuing to provide high-quality programming online. Funders worked with her to open up funding for organizational costs to support programs, and to extend the timeline for expending grant funds when the Center for Success received second round CARES Act PPP funds. Because they had a clear and compelling vision of how they were going to continue to serve their youth and families, the Center for Success was even able to engage two new funders.

To be sure, this has been a big lift for the organization. Throughout the process they’ve remained focused on their mission without overlooking the needs of staff. Melanie Wiggins, Lead Literacy Instructor, shared, “We’re doing so much but the message has always been ‘take care of yourself and your family first.’ There is a safe space among the staff to be open about where you’re at and what you’re feeling. To really be seen and heard and valued as staff? That’s been huge.”

Thinking about what’s next, Andrea noted, “There’s so much to learn from this, but we’re going to come back stronger. Yes, this is a hard thing, but we do the hard things so we can make sure we do the right thing for our families.”


What have been some takeaways from this experience?

  • Do what you know
  • Trust your staff and empower them to shape change alongside leadership
  • Going to funders with a plan makes it easier for them to say yes
  • Volunteers are committed to youth and will adapt to new tools
  • Listen to what youth and families really need—in some cases, this might mean backing off


Want to know more?

Center for Success unites literacy and community to empower students in the journey of education.

To learn more about Center for Success or to support their work through volunteering or donations, visit their website, and follow them on Facebook or Instagram.

Our thanks to Center for Success team members: Andrea Meyer, Executive Director, Anna Rosevear, Program Director, and Melanie Wiggins, Lead Literacy Instructor, for taking the time to share their experiences with us.


Thriving Through Change—How Developing K.I.D.S. Went from Serving up to 196 Youth Each Week to Reaching an Audience of 35,000

Thriving Through Change—How Developing K.I.D.S. Went from Serving up to 196 Youth Each Week to Reaching an Audience of 35,000

Thriving Through Change—How Developing K.I.D.S. Went from Serving up to 196 Youth Each Week to Reaching an Audience of 35,000

By: Kristine Uyeda

On an ordinary day, you might have found Developing K.I.D.S (Kingdoms In Different Stages) programming running in local community buildings or schools. Youth from ages 5-18 would gather after school for a variety of supportive activities—homework help, social-emotional lessons, science and art activities, help completing essays for college applications, peer discussions, and healthy meals. Participants helped out at meal times and shared the responsibility of caring for Mr. Benny, an adorable, fluffy rabbit housed at one of the sites. You would have heard a lot of laughter and earnest conversation between youth and the staff.

In the face of COVID-19, Kim Johnson, Founder, President, and CEO of Developing K.I.D.S. and her staff faced the challenge of translating a deeply engaged, face-to-face program model into one that could be delivered remotely and equitably. The process began with reflection on mission and organizational priorities. From there, Kim considered how to shift in ways that kept everyone safe and leveraged the strength of her team. Once a framework that supported high-quality youth development practices was identified, involving the team and stakeholders was key.

“Staff, parents and youth weighed in and co-created the design. We continuously engage youth and parents in facilitation, brainstorming, reflection and evaluation in a virtual format,” says Kim Johnson. In addition, the organization immediately reached out to funders and major donors, communicating their plans for pivoting and foreseeable challenges.

To create an inclusive program, Developing K.I.D.S. created a virtual model using a variety of platforms that are most accessible for youth and families without internet service at home. Kim and her Program Director, Tenecha (Toy) Bland, also considered the talents and skills of each team member. “This was a time to build on those talents and strengths while providing space for the team to grow in new areas.  Communication, patience and scaffolding have been key components of this process,” Kim relates.

The attention to staff development has paid off. Toy observes, ”They are all emerging as greater leaders.  They are taking greater initiative to provide better programming.  They are compassionate about the families that we serve.  They check on us to make sure that we are OK during all of this.”

Each day, Developing K.I.D.S. posts a number of engaging videos, opportunities for homework help, and check-in sessions on their Facebook page and other social media outlets. They maintain a weekly calendar, as well as provide reminders of upcoming sessions to keep youth and families aware of available programming. Here’s a STEM video on creating invisible ink with Youth Services Coordinator, Tyrone Bean. You’ll find links to the website and social media at the end of this story, if you’d like to see more.

Even with the exponential growth in their social media audience—their posts now have a reach of over 35,000–maintaining youth and caregiver relationships continues to be a priority. Once in-person programming was suspended, staff immediately began weekly youth/caregiver check-ins by phone, Facetime, video conferencing, or even TikTok. As needs have been identified, and processes refined, the team has become even more intentional with outreach. Now, each youth has an individual action plan in place. Developing K.I.D.S. is also committed  to the emotional well-being of staff. They take their team’s emotional needs into consideration through individual check-ins, twice weekly staff video conferences, and self-care time requests.

To support program quality and team growth, Toy leads professional development and training for her staff virtually. She says, “We still use the Youth Program Quality Assessment (YPQA) tool. I pull one item from the YPQA and provide training on that during our team meetings.  It’s a lot of listening for me and making program adjustments to stay innovative.” This practice, along with stakeholder feedback, enables the organization to utilize the Plan, Assess, Improve model to continuously improve program quality.

While it has not been without challenge, Developing K.I.D.S. has worked diligently to create high-quality youth development programming that can be equitably accessed through social media, to maintain youth and caregiver relationships, and to develop staff engagement and leadership—while caring for the social-emotional needs of all involved.


What have been some takeaways from this experience?

  • Conversations about quality practices and professional development are critical
  • Engaging youth can be as simple as creating a challenge and a hashtag
  • Be prepared to accommodate a learning curve—staff may need more time to prepare and deliver programming
  • Update human resource policies to include working from home
  • Having strong systems and tools in place can ease the challenge of working remotely:  direct deposit for payroll, bill pay systems, communication systems like Zoom and RingCentral for video conferencing, Google document sharing for collaborative work and document storage


Want to know more?

The mission of Developing K.I.D.S. is to strengthen urban communities by guiding youth in their mental, physical and educational growth; helping to strengthen and empower young adults; and providing opportunities for all to become strong contributors to their community.

To learn more about Developing K.I.D.S., or to support their work through volunteering or donations, visit their website, and follow them on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.


Our thanks to Developing K.I.D.S. team members Kim Johnson, Founder, President, and CEO, Tenecha (Toy) Bland, Program Director, and Tyrone Bean, Youth Services Coordinator for taking the time to share their experiences with us.