The Collegian
Friday, February 23, 2024

Volunteering at the Youth Life Foundation of Richmond helps get students out of the 'bubble,' they say

<p>Heather Gardiner, with her Youth Life mentee Nichelle, 9.&nbsp;</p>

Heather Gardiner, with her Youth Life mentee Nichelle, 9. 

“At the University of Richmond, we find ourselves in a suburban bubble, which can easily blind us to the diversity, segregation and socioeconomic divides within the Richmond community,” senior Campbell McDonald said.

McDonald got involved with The Youth Life Foundation of Richmond at the Highland Park/Northminster center last year through one of her classes in the Jepson School for Leadership Studies, Justice and Civil Society. YLFR has shown her a different side of Richmond, McDonald said. 

YLFR runs Learning Centers throughout Richmond that aim to develop leaders by making a long-term investment in children from at-risk communities. 

By supporting the students academically, developing character at a young age, raising expectations and investing in their lives through the relationship as mentors, the volunteers empower children to rise above their circumstances and become leaders, said Katharine Hunt, the director of operations for YLFR

Several students on campus volunteer at YLFR, form relationships with the kids in the program and become hooked. Senior Heather Gardiner began volunteering at YLFR during the fall of her freshman year. As Gardiner continues to volunteer, she has seen how consistent mentoring of the same students each week has impacted the kids in the program, she said. 

“The main focus of Youth Life is consistency, which many of these children lack in their lives, and I think for them to just have a constant support is very beneficial,” Gardiner said. 

Through joining YLFR, Gardiner has been able to get out of the Richmond bubble, and it has taught her to be grateful for the opportunities and life that she has, Gardiner said. 

Heather Goodlett, ‘94, founded Youth Life Foundation of Richmond in 2002. From the inception of this foundation, its relationship with UR students began to form. 

In the first years of the program, there were few mentors from UR, but in 2008 when the Center for Civic Engagement launched the Build-It program, which centered on the program's Highland Park center, YLFR became an official partner of the school. 

The following year, UR began sending volunteers to the Delmont site as well. Within five years, there were more than 100 UR students volunteering at YLFR every semester, Hunt said. 

The partnership between CCE and YLFR continues to grow strong. Along with the CCE, students from UR have volunteered at YLFR through the Jepson School, summer internships, the Spanish in the Community class, sports teams, various sororities and numerous other programs. 

Five years ago, students on campus launched the Youth Life Mentoring Organization to recruit and support mentors as the foundation continues to grow. 

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YLFR has programs for students in kindergarten through high school. The four elementary sites work with children in kindergarten through fifth grade. 

“At the sites, the mentors and teachers offer academic assistance by creating goals based on each child’s individual academic weaknesses," Amber Smith, the director of Delmont Learning Center, said. "We also collaborate with parents to choose character and spiritual goals for each child as well. Our goal is to have one-on-one mentoring for each child every afternoon.” 

The middle-school and high-school programs differ from the elementary ones. All three of the programs include after-school mentoring on Mondays and Tuesdays, but on Wednesdays, the children in the middle-school program return to the elementary program and serve as mentors, Hunt said.

On Wednesdays, the students in the high-school program participate in various community service and community engagement activities. Finally, on Thursdays, the middle-school students participate in different six-week long electives, which can include a range of activities from sports to foreign languages, and the high school students do “PHP” (post-high school prep). This is a time for them to work on individualized goals and prepare for the future through the program Jobs for Life. 

As a Youth Life mentor, McDonald has been able to see these divides firsthand and address the social issues of educational injustice, she said. 

“Experiencing Richmond outside of the university bubble has transformed my experience because it has given me a greater understanding of the city of Richmond and how someone living just a mile away can feel a world apart,” McDonald said.

Contact contributor Julia Muro at

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