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Let's Team Up with Liz Bender, Operations Manager at Thomas Dunn Learning Center

On Friday, February 21, 2020, Jess McKay, Girls in the Lead Team Member, spoke with Liz Bender, Operations Manager at Thomas Dunn Learning Center about the work that she’s doing and ways to navigate St. Louis’ social impact space.


PICTURED- Liz and Raven, a youth council participant.


JESS MCKAY: In a nutshell, what does the Thomas Dunn Learning Center do?


LIZ BENDER: We have three program areas: adult education, youth education, and arts and the humanities (or arts and culture). Our primary adult program is HighSet which is the GED program, so we prepare people to take the test they need for their high school diploma. For youth, we have a couple of different programs under that. We have a youth council that meets and we have a youth drop-in center that is open three days a week that kids can go to. It is just a safe space for them to hang out after school. We do some other stuff throughout the year for youth too, including, a lot of summer camps. Then for arts and culture that really kind of varies. We have a couple of standing art classes that we do and a lot of partnerships-- which is kind of like our fourth program area-- all of the partnerships that we have with other organizations. So we partnered with 70 organizations last year to bring in types of programming. Some of them were full partnerships where maybe we helped with enrollment and marketing while they facilitated the class. While some of them are more-- they do everything and then they just come in and use our space. So its kind of varies between how involved we are on both sides. So we have lots of partnerships that we use to provide [services] beyond what we are capable of because we only have 4 full-time staff members.


JESS MCKAY: Great, thank you so much. Can you talk a little bit more about your role at Thomas Dunn?


LIZ BENDER: Yeah, so I am the operations manager. Since we are so small, that kind of covers a lot of things, but I manage all of the partnerships for the most part and people using our building and also I do a lot of strategic planning and data collection, and that kind of stuff on the back end. That's more related to the administrative side of everything. Beyond my role, we also have somebody who is doing development and grant writing. So I luckily don't have to do as much of that. And then we have program managers for the youth and HighSet. So I don't do direct work typically with any of the people that we have that are members here.


JESS MCKAY: That's awesome. It seems like you wear many hats there. That's really cool. What ways does Thomas Dunn Learning Center support girls? What sort of programming do you have for girls?


LIZ BENDER: So right now, we have partnerships with a couple of really great organizations. Lit shop is one. You're familiar with them. And Black Girls Do Stem. They also use our space. And then our youth council is open to girls 13 and up girls and boys… It’s a weekly meeting where they can learn leadership skills and do community service work and get really involved with their community. They could just come here and be members too. So we have a computer lab that they can use, they can use our classes, they can use our library, and they can request help with looking for… a summer job or those kinds of things too. And we do hire youth in the summer.


JESS MCKAY: That’s really cool and how many youth would you say you interact with per year?


LIZ BENDER: I'm on a first-name basis with most of the kids and the youth council, and a lot of the kids who use the place…[they] sign up with me and make their membership card and stuff with me. And then because they're middle school girls, of course, they always come in and [say] Hey, how are you doing? Let me give you a hug! What's going on? So yeah, so I would say not nothing super formal by any means. But I definitely get to know the girls.


JESS MCKAY: That's awesome. How many people are involved with the youth council?

LIZ BENDER: So we have about a dozen that are coming and going, but over the course of last year, we had 40 total that came at one point or another. So it just kind of really depends. With this neighborhood...I would say most of the kids walk here after school or from home. It can really weather dependent. That kind of thing. Really just kind of how many kids we get in the door is like, How cold is it? Is it snowing? Is it raining? Are they in trouble at home? That kind of thing. So their involvement can be kind of be dependent on a lot of stuff that we don't have control over.


JESS MCKAY: Cool. Yeah. I'm glad that this program exists. It seems really fun. What sort of activities does the youth council do?


LIZ BENDER: So they might have a guest speaker come in and talk to them. [We’ve had] Safe Connectionscome in and talk to them about healthy relationships. We've had people in different professions come in and talk about what they do. So they might have that kind of thing. They may be planning for an event (either for themselves or something that we’ve done). They've planned lock-ins. For the community, they planned a fundraiser for women's shelter where they did a car wash. They go on field trips and visit different places. They're planning a field trip right now to the Griot Museum, which covers a lot of African American History. So kind of learning more about the history of the city and the community and kind of learning their place in it, and how they can be leaders and advocates for their families, their friends, and for themselves.


JESS MCKAY: How do you recruit people for that?


LIZ BENDER: The Teens?


JESS MCKAY: Yeah.


LIZ BENDER: We did a lot of outreach with teachers and schools-- that kind of thing. At the beginning of the school year and then we had a big open house. We got probably 12 or 15 kids that first day in the open house. Not all of them stuck around, but [some] ended up inviting their friends and then, you know, kids kind of hear about it through... a sibling...or a neighbor or somebody that will come from school.


JESS MCKAY: Yeah, that’s the best...coming together just having a snowball effect.


LIZ BENDER: For sure. And then we had a group come from the University of Missouri Extension program. [They] asked if we wanted to start doing some kind of a cooking class. So we said, we'll let them decide (the youth)...They came and did like a trial run where they said this is the kind of class that we can teach and you know, these are like the kind of meals and things we can teach you. We asked them, “Do you think you want to do this?” And they said, “Yes, we like this. We want to do it.” So they've (The University of Missouri Extension School) been coming since January--Like the beginning of January-ish. They come every week and do a healthy cooking class. It's mostly girls who show up. It's really gonna be fun.


JESS MCKAY: Aside from the work that you do, what other really great girls empowerment programs do you see around St. Louis?


LIZ BENDER: That’s a good question. I know Girls on the Run just through reputation. I've heard really great things about them. I've seen them active in our park too from time to time. We partner with...Black Girls Do Stem in a sense. [They] are doing really awesome things. I'm on the board also of the Metro leadership League, which I don't know if you've connected with. They are small, they only operate inside of Live for Life Academy. They have expanded a grade level every year since they started. I think their lowest grade level is seventh grade. So this year, they have [programming for] 7th through 12th [grade students] and they have their first graduating class. It’s paid. it's an after-school mentorship program. That's once a week and they do check-in. It's like a small group thing. So there are a few girls, maybe three girls for one or two mentors. They’re grouped together, so that if one of the girls can’t make it, or one of the mentors can’t make it...there's still people there for them to meet with. Then they meet as a whole group for their grade level. And they also do leadership skills and community service. A lot of its kind of like various different projects that they do from year to year. And, yeah, they're doing really well. One of the girls just got a full-ride scholarship to Maryville.


JESS MCKAY: That’s awesome. So is it usually female mentors with female mentees?


LIZ BENDER: Yes, they're really all female mentors and female girls and the program.


JESS MCKAY: That’s awesome...Oh my god, so many cool things happening in St. Louis. I'm, I'm a transplant. So I feel like I've been slowly but surely learning how many awesome programs there are around St. Louis. I am glad to be connecting with you and Kelli [the founder of LitShop] and hopefully some other folks. So for people who are looking to start organizations focused on empowering girls and girls focused programming, what sort of suggestions or recommendations would you have for them?


LIZ BENDER:

Um, well, I think the biggest challenge in St. Louis city is the schooling system, and how it creates neighborhoods where you can have four square block neighborhoods, and have the kids in that small area go to a dozen different schools. So then you have to figure out, What is the what are you going to find in common with those girls? Are you going to meet them where they are at school? Are you going to meet them where they are, where they live? Are you going to try to get them to come to you?...just trying to figure out what strategies are going to take and then kind of develop your marketing plan around that. Because obviously, if you're embedded in a school, in one school, that's going to look a lot different than being neighborhood-based. And they both have their challenges because [like at] Live for Life, the kids can come from way far north city, or they can live down the street. So having an after-school program, then you have to figure out transportation home and have to operate within the timeframe of what the transportation...offered through the school. But then if they transfer schools, if they stop coming to school, if they're suspended from school, any of those kinds of things, that gets in the way of their participation as well. So whereas in our case, because we're trying to attract girls from the neighborhood, we can't just go to the neighborhood school and say, “send us your kids.”That's not going to get everybody...we have to extend our reach and then say, okay, we're gonna go door to door more. Are we just going to try to reach all the schools and see if anyone wants to refer kids that they know that maybe you live in this neighborhood? But a lot of times teachers, staff and administration don't know where the kids live. They just know that they live all over. So all of that is really a challenge.


JESS MCKAY: I remember you talking about that a little bit about that at the [Girls in the Lead] summit with physical activity and trying to host activities, outside outdoor activities for girls. [You mentioned] how complicated it is in St. Louis because of those issues. It's tough.


LIZ BENDER: Yeah, it's really crazy... Roosevelt High School is a Community High School. They do draw from a little bit further away just because they're the only Community High School in south city, but having programs embedded in that school would be cool because hopefully, all of those kids would be able to get home after-school, or they could come in at a different time or something. They’re neighborhood-based and it’s a school of a lot of high-needs kids. So, that’s probably a good opportunity for something to get started.


JESS MCKAY: Yeah, that's really cool. And when you say community school, does it follow a certain model?


LIZ BENDER: Zip Code. Oh, no. Meaning that you're enrolled because that's where you live.


JESS MCKAY: Okay. Oh, okay. Gotcha. Very cool. Alright, so, because Girls in the Lead is focused on involving girls and sports and increasing girls' participation in sports, we do have a few questions related to sports. They’re personal. The first one… How have sports impacted your life?


LIZ BENDER: So I didn't do competitive sports really that much growing up. My parents were not really into that. I did like swimming lessons, but I didn't compete. And then I did dance classes and palms throughout high school. So that was good just to get into the habit of an exercise routine and having good cardio and get good coordination and that kind of thing. it's still a passion of mine. I still love dance. So yeah.


JESS MCKAY: Yeah, that's really cool. Yeah, I was a swimmer most of my life and I feel like swimming is a weird sport, though, because, it does not really feel competitive but it kind of is. And yeah, in my family, we talked about it like competing against yourself. And that does make a lot of sense. And I feel it helped me a lot as an individual. So yeah, I can relate. The next one is, If you can play a game of soccer with any historical figure, who would it be?


LIZ BENDER: Oh my goodness. I have no idea. Maybe Ozzy Smith, because, he's athletic, but he's also a very inspirational person. I'm sure he would be fun and have a lot of cool things to say.


JESS MCKAY: Yeah, that's awesome. Cool. And the last question is, do you have a life slogan that guides you through your work?


LIZ BENDER: Everybody at my old work used to say teamwork makes the dream work...I don't know. That's a good question. I should have one.


JESS MCKAY: That's okay. I don't either. But I do like I do. Like teamwork makes the dream work. It's tough. like asking these questions, because I'm like, I don't have a response. These are tough.


We are so glad that we got to catch up with Liz Bender. Stay tuned for more blog updates throughout the month of March!



By: Jess McKay, GIL Team Member

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