“Most of our teenagers don’t have access, they’re not able to go on vacations — so we want the YMCA to be a vacation for them.”
These words from Victor Nicholson, the executive director of Christian mission at the YMCA of Greater Charlotte in Charlotte, North Carolina, get to the heart of why the organization created “Level Up,” a program that gives access to safe, engaging enrichment activities for teenagers in the community.
During the summer, teenagers in at-risk environments can experience a lack of access to quality programs and services. The Charlotte Y aimed to address that need in 2016 when it started Level Up.
“We wanted to provide a safe place for teenagers where they can spend time with their friends and build relationships,” said Nicholson. “When it started, we hosted teens at our facilities Friday and Saturday evenings, and our teenagers had full access to our facilities, including the gym, pool and weight room.”
Since 2016, the program has grown due to a partnership with the City of Charlotte. Level Up now runs Monday through Saturday from 8 p.m. to 11 p.m., sees as many as 135 teens at each of the five branches hosting the program on a peak night, and provides free meals.
The program also incorporates activities beyond access to the gym and weight room. “This year, because of our partnership with the city, we have the opportunity to provide enrichment activities,” explained Nicholson. “We have someone from a local museum who will come and teach our teenagers how to design and create a mural, and developers from around the city will teach them how to build a 12-by-12-foot playhouse.”
Level Up also helps teens prepare for their future. “We have guest speakers who come in and share how they were able to make it into the industry they’re currently in, what it took to get there,” said Nicholson. “They’re coming to share new ideas with our teenagers and expose them to new industries.”
In the spirit of introducing new ideas, the Charlotte Y also has local police officers stop by to hang out with the teens and play games with them. According to Nicholson, these interactions have had a positive influence on several teens. “When teenagers are able to see police officers are also the guys who play basketball with them, it paints law enforcement in a new light and shifts that narrative of ‘us versus them,’” he said.
Exposure to enriching activities, new ideas and a hope for a promising future was the top priority of Level Up, and will continue to be the guiding principle of the program moving forward.
“When they go back to school and that question is asked, ‘What did you do this summer?’ they’ll be able to say they built a playhouse, created their own podcast or produced music,” said Nicholson. “We want to make sure we’re investing in our teenagers and that they have something to talk about when they return to school.”