Devon Kennard got put to work the very first time he walked through the doors at New City Kids. There he was, rolling up his sleeves – literally.
“The first couple of days they kept asking to see my muscles,” Kennard laughed. “I kept having to break out my biceps and showing them. All the kids wanted to arm wrestle me. So I’m sitting there, and kind of letting go a little bit and letting them win. In the end, I ended up crushing them though.”
Kennard earned the nickname Samson, after the biblical figure.
“Because I’m so strong,” Kennard joked. “They say I’m the strongest guy on earth.”
The parallels are only somewhat of a stretch. No, the Giants linebacker is obviously not in the Bible. But to the 150 children at New City Kids, Kennard, like Samson, is a hero.
Each week this season, Kennard spends his day off volunteering at the Jersey City after-school academic and arts enrichment center. Open year round, NCK helps low income children from 1st to 8th grades get through their homework, learn a musical instrument and create a sense of community. Through its Teen Life Internship, New City Kids hires local high school students and pairs them with the younger kids as music teachers and tutors.
“We have upwards of 200 high school students who come out and try out for 50 positions each year for a total staff of about 100,” said New City Kids Operations Director Gabriel Stiritz. “For them, it’s a chance to earn money after school. For us, it’s a platform for college readiness, for leadership development and an opportunity to hear about faith and to invest in the lives of younger kids in their community.”
The Fairmount Avenue center in Jersey City is the original New City Kids location. In the 12 years since it opened, the program now has three Jersey City locations, a center in Paterson and even one all the way out in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Stiritz has been with the nonprofit organization for five years. He says having Kennard spend so much time with the kids is invaluable.
“They love when he sits at their tutoring table or gives them a high five and sits and reads with them,” Stiritz said. “For the high school students, it goes a little bit deeper. It’s about Devon’s story of where he grew up and going to college. Getting his master’s degree resonates deeply with them and can provide a pathway for them to see their own futures.”
New City Kids teaches its core curriculum slightly differently than your run-of-the-mill tutoring program. It incorporates elements like reading buddies and cultures raps. From the piano to the drums (which Kennard is learning), kids can learn to play all sorts of instruments. There’s also a rewards program that incentivizes kids to participate and try new things.
They challenge the kids. They make it fun but they also challenge the kids to learn and really set goals for themselves. You have to get your work done. It makes it a fun atmosphere but a competitive atmosphere where kids want to really do well and continue to see success. - Devon Kennard
The success is in the results. According to Stiritz, 100 percent of the high school students in the Teen Life Internship go on to graduate. Ninety percent of those students end up going to college. About a quarter of all current high school mentors were once students in the program themselves. Many of them have been working with the program for three to four years.
The progress of the program hasn’t gone unnoticed in the community. In October, the Teen Life Internship received a $20,000 donation from the Investors Foundation to employ even more teens in the future.
Kennard is excited about what the future holds for New City Kids and where his own involvement goes from here.
“I feed off of the kids’ energy,” Kennard said. “The things they’re doing here, the programs they have and how they’re really helping these kids take it to the next level is just awesome and I’m glad to be a part of it. I see a lot of things in the future.”