‘Youth in Focus’ empowers at-risk teens through fostering creativity

June 15, 2017 1:07 pm Last Updated: June 15, 2017 1:07 pm

High quality after-school and summer programs have been shown to help children behave better, receive higher grades, and achieve higher test scores in school than other children. Programs that teach a valuable skill are even more helpful, such as this Seattle, Washington organization that teaches youth both digital photography and traditional darkroom black and white photography.

The organization, Youth in Focus, aims to empower youth through photography and to encourage them to experience their world in new ways, as well as make positive choices in their lives. For 23 years, they have put cameras in the hands of low income, at-risk youth and placed them in a challenging environment surrounded by high quality, talented teachers and nurturing adult volunteer mentors, to create a strong community of support. Through photography, the students find their voice, identity, creativity, and gain new confidence in their worth and abilities.

We spoke with Ashley Mouldon, Administrative and Development Associate for Youth in Focus.

Q: What exactly does Youth in Focus do?

A: We work with youth ages 13-19 years old, who face a variety of challenges in their lives on a daily basis with problems such as discrimination and poverty. At Youth in Focus, we feel that we reach at-risk youth at a crucial time – at or before the 9th grade – because 90% of the majority of youth that drop out of high school do during that year. Studies have found that the majority of kids who drop out of high school do so because of financial pressures, or because they do not believe they can be successful. By attending our creative youth development photography program, students are able to become part of a community filled with support and resources to help them be successful.

Q: What is it that sets you apart as a model organization from other programs that serve an at-risk youth population? 

A: Youth in Focus began working with the Raikes Foundation (a non-profit that focuses on education) in 2010 to participate in the Youth Program Quality Initiative (an initiative that supports high quality student programs). Youth Program Quality Assessment (YPQA) scores for Youth in Focus, in the Spring of 2013 and 2014, were consistently higher than comparison scores for 1,262 other National Youth programs. Our scores were higher in all main categories and significantly higher in Supportive Environment and Youth Engagement. Through our recent student surveys­­­ of youth:

·       100% felt positive about their overall experience with the program and their teaching artist

·       95% felt their teaching artists and mentors listened to them and were open to their ideas

·       95% felt their experience helped them to learn about their own ideas

The President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities also recognized Youth in Focus as a model program in the year 2000, providing “life-changing activities” to youth with limited opportunities.  Our students have shown their work at the Seattle Art Museum, Henry Art Gallery, Frye Art Gallery, Benham Gallery and the Washington State Convention Center, among other local venues.

Q: If my kids became involved with one of your programs, would they have fun?

A: Absolutely! We believe that photography, both darkroom and digital, provides a valuable medium for youth to develop a sense of their own personal style and explore what is personally important to them and worth communicating through their art.  Through our classes youth gain a strong sense of what makes them unique and valuable.

Q: What would you want parents and other members of the community to know about Youth in Focus?

A: We strongly believe in the powerful potential of all youth and strive to provide a consistent, positive and empowering program for students of all backgrounds. Through photography, youth are able to connect with other students who they may never have gotten to meet and explore telling their personal stories through a camera lens.

Q: What is one of the challenges Youth in Focus faces?

A: One of our challenges in ensuring that we are recruiting youth far enough in advance for our quarterly classes. We have found that students are not always able to commit to joining our program too far in advance when they have school work, jobs and family obligations to attend to. To combat this challenge, we have multiple Youth Outreach Coordinators who meet students where they are—in schools, at community events—and connect with counselors to tell youth about our classes. We then follow up with all youth who have expressed interest and work with them on filling out the application and scheduling their interview.

Q: How does this work? How do students get involved?

A: Youth hear about our programs through all sorts of channels from our visits to schools and tabling events throughout the area to word of mouth from their friends and family members. Our Core Program is offered in eight-week quarters, and interested youth must fill out an application and attend an in-person interview so they can learn more about the classes and we can learn more about them. We also offer Summer Camps and teach Partner Programs throughout the area which are other ways youth can get involved.

Q: What is it that you feel students walk away with after having a Youth in Focus experience?

A: I think the best way to answer that is to ask the students:

“Youth in Focus has impacted my life in many different ways. This program taught me how to be more responsible, time-efficient, and a professional young adult. These are [skills] that are needed to be a successful and healthy person that everyone should be.” – Steven B., Youth in Focus student

“I feel like photography is something different I’m doing to express myself.” – Maria T., Youth in Focus student

“I take photographs because they allow me to keep moments and memories forever.” – Zion P., Youth in Focus student

Source: Interview with Ashley Mouldon, Youth in Focus and Nurturing Creativity: Youth in Focus by Seattle Met Magazine on Vimeo.