Helping At-Risk Middle and High School Students

Serving students from Kennett Square, Unionville and Avon Grove school districts, the Garage targets kids who need help identifying an academic and social comfort zone.

ROLE MODEL: Kristin Proto, the new executive director of the Garage in Kennett Square. (Photo by Jared Castaldi)
Inside the Garage Community & Youth Center, kids cover the walls in multiple colors—much like the shades of the young artists themselves. All, however, have a shot at changing their stripes on a permanent basis. “If they turn out to be the right color—the right person—then it works,” says Rosa Garza Moore, former director of the Kennett Square facility.

Mayra Zavala used to be a shy sixth-grader. She’s since matured into a vibrant young woman. “I want to become a strong leader who will work toward social justice,” says Zavala, who recently completed her freshman year at Elizabethtown College, where she’s pursuing a degree in political science and dual minors in international relations and Spanish.

Without hesitation, Zavala credits the Garage with helping to turn her life around. Thanks to its after-school academic and social support, mentoring, workshops and recreational activities, this unlikely spot has become an invaluable local resource. On a daily basis, some 60 students from the Kennett Square, Unionville and Avon Grove school districts congregate in this sanctuary, which used to hold nothing but old cars. “Now, it houses something more valuable: the lives of students,” says Moore, who recently left the center to pursue a nursing degree.

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“I want to become a strong leader who will work toward social justice,” says Zavala

The Garage aims to capture the kids who don’t participate at school—those who feel like they don’t belong, whose parents work, who would otherwise end up on the streets. More than half are Hispanic; the rest are black and biracial. The facility once catered almost exclusively to first-generation immigrant children who knew little or no English. Now, that population isn’t as transient, and the center caters to a bilingual second-generation crowd. “They’ve moved here, and they’re here to stay,” says Moore. “You can only hang out at the park for so long—then it becomes winter. These kids aren’t the ones hanging out on a corner; they’re at the senior center serving meals or planting trees with the Brandywine Conservancy.”

Another Garage in West Grove opened in 2011. Combined, the facilities serve 300 kids from sixth to 12th grade each week. Formerly the founding director of the Garage in West Grove, Kristin Proto is now the executive director for both centers. Patti Olenik founded the Kennett Square Garage 11 years ago, becoming its executive director. She continues her commitment in a part-time capacity. “[It’s] a safe place where they can still be kids,” says Proto.

Zavala’s two older sisters were Garage regulars, and she would often tag along. During high school, she worked its staff to develop activities and programs. With help from her peers, Zavala spearheaded a fashion-show fundraiser for two consecutive years. She also got involved with the Chester County Fund for Women & Girls and its Girls Advisory Board. “My involvement in GAB was an eye-opener,” she says. “It reinforced my passion for social justice.”

As is the case with many kids who enroll at the Garage, Zavala’s parents are migrant mushroom-farm workers. As a result, she was forced to navigate America’s culture and education system with little help. “Parental support is a critical component to the mental development of the student,” says Zavala. “The Garage fills that gap by helping me become proactive and determined to follow my intellectual and personal pursuits.”

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SCHOOL OF LIFE: The Garage’s Kristin Proto tutors local student Mark Herrera Lopez. (Photo by Jared Castaldi)
When Zavala’s father was diagnosed with a neck tumor, her parents’ limited grasp of English meant that she, at 14, had to translate at medical appointments and deal with insurance companies. “Essentially, I was assuming the role of an adult, and this role reversal happens way too often in migrant families,” she says.

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Fortunately, Zavala had help in the form of her two Garage mentors, Moore and Erika Conly. “I’ve learned to live based on hope and truth, and to wake up every morning with the objective of reaching my dreams while putting the virtues of attitude ahead of everything,” says Zavala.

Graduation is high on the gratification charts at the Garage. But so is seeing the rewards of all those daily one-on-one sessions—or when someone stops in simply to show off a dance move they learned in summer camp. The notes received are also telling: “One let me know that I was the first person who believed in her when no one else did,” Moore recounts. “Every staff member here has had that experience—the one where you just see a kid light up.”

Funding for the Garage comes from individual contributions, smaller family foundations, the United Way of Southern Chester County, local churches and businesses. Naturally, the Garage would love to grow its capacity and offer more programming. Officials have been raising funds to purchase a small bus to help with daily transportation and increase access to college tours, youth conferences, field trips and more.

All members of the Garage are enrolled students. Some arrive because a teacher has recommended a tutor or a counselor has suggested a mentor. Participants become connected. Some return later as volunteers. “Once they’re in, they’re in,” says Moore. “This is a relationship thing.”

Meals are served once a week. Of its clientele, 85 percent are on free or reduced lunch plans. There’s a huge TV, a billiards table, a sound room and a stage. “They live in a house with no books, so our organization has a library card,” says Moore. “We work hard to help kids learn to read, but we also want them to love to read. With writing, we teach them how to go from rap to journaling.”

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During her senior year at Kennett High School, the Garage staff guided Zavala through the college application process, editing essays, celebrating triumphs and offering encouragement during setbacks. “Receiving a rejection letter from my top choice was especially difficult,” she admits. 

Most in Zavala’s family didn’t quite get her disappointment. “After Rosa cried with me, she and I headed over to the bakery across the street. ‘Cake saves the day,’ she told me. But it wasn’t the cake that contributed to my strength and confidence. It was the empowerment

I received from those around me—especially from my Garage family.”


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