Museums Fling Open Doors to Youth Programs

Bill Alexander
March 1, 1998


The fabled cloistered, mossy, cobwebby world of museums has given way at a steadily growing clip to youth-friendly programs and projects in glitzy, action settings that have become hot attractions for youth workers with limitless imaginations; and foundations, businesses and professional associations concerned with alternative ways to energize youth.

The youth workers and foundations want to become involved in the kids’ education and career choices and community-based youth organizations are eager to channel low-income neighborhood youth into nontraditional venues.

Museum executives in at least 45 states, the District of Columbia and 22 countries are opening up their institutions by partnering with youth-serving organizations and school districts who reach deep into inner-city neighborhoods, rural areas and other neighborhoods unfamiliar with grand marble staircases and docents to recruit youngsters for hands-on educational and mentoring opportunities.

“We are no longer a quiet, daunting place,” notes Steve Hamp, president of Dearborn’s Henry Ford Museum & Greenfield Village. “We are now full of noise, activity and ragged-edge experiments. The kids are finding power in us and we are finding power in them.”

The number of museum workers now categorized as youth workers is ascendant largely because of the proliferation of youth outreach programs pouring forth from the 385-member Association of Youth Museums (AYM) founded in 1962, and the $7.1-million YouthALIVE initiative established in 1991 by the New York-based DeWitt Wallace-Reader’s Digest Fund in partnership with the Association of Science-Technology Centers.

“The growth is phenomenal,” says Washington, D.C.-based AYM Executive Director Janet Rice Elman.

Large Numbers Impacted

Nearly 4,000 youth, ages 10 to 17, participate in a YouthALIVE-funded program every year, and an additional 3,000 youngsters annually take part in non-YouthALIVE activities at museums supported by the initiative. Outreach programs in AYM-member children’s museums are currently being made available to over 3 million persons.

With some 56 percent of all participants female and two-thirds of the total number African American, each YouthALIVE site has community partnerships that help recruit youngsters for work-based learning programs that will lead to employment either at the museum or within the community. Museum partners include the local school district, social service agencies, and a host of community-based youth-serving organizations such as the Boys & Girls Clubs, the Opportunities Industrialization Centers, and ASPIRA, which works with Puerto Rican and other Latino teens. A number of institutions, such as the Children’s Museum of Maine (Portland), have partnered with VISTA for hands-on learning and activities.

“We have a youth advisory council and youth advisors at each site,” says the always friendly-but-firm DeAnna Beane, project director of the D.C.-based YouthALIVE, “because it is important they have input.”

Elman says she is now formulating a questionnaire that will zero in on how many of her members have youth advisors involved in policy matters.

Timothy’s Sanctuary

Here in Dearborn, at one of YouthALIVE’s 59 sites, in the largest indoor/outdoor museum in the world, a youth, once abandoned by his heroin-addicted parents, found sanctuary.

Timothy Palloni, a three-year veteran of YouthALIVE and a former gang member who grew up in a low-income Detroit neighborhood, became the engaging, dimpled star of a five-minute “Smile and Nod” proper greeting video for new student-participants and department heads at the sprawling and quirkily different 81-acre museum.

“I begged Stacy (youth worker Stacy Nekula Gresell) to get into the program,” recalls Palloni.

He contrived to work extra hours at several museum placements, or work stations, so that he would qualify for as many free hot meals as possible. His secret, although eventually discovered, was safe because his school grades and attendance improved substantially as he applied himself, thriving in an atmosphere of caring mentors and tutors.

Then, last year, two car thefts in one night bounced him out of both school and YouthALIVE as he spent seven months in the Wayne County prison system.
“It broke our hearts,” said Gresell, “he had defied all the odds.”

In February, Timothy, now 18, suddenly reappeared, seemingly determined to shake hands and smile and nod at each and every one of the museum’s 1,200 employees. He asked for Gresell’s help. He got it. Tutoring for a GED was one of the first priorities.
Beane said succinctly: “For most of these kids, we represent their total support system.”

Employment Secured

But for every miss or near-miss in the museum’s 15-hours-per-week school-credit program, there are solid hits. Eighteen-year-old Jason Delcore, who learned welding in the museum’s auto shop, is now employed full time at a nearby garage. And Michael Vliet, also 18, benefiting from three years of mentoring and tutoring was the first in his family to complete high school in several generations and enter college.

All Henry Ford participants attend schools within the neighboring Wayne-Westland School District. Says A-average senior Sorinthea Bonilla, like Palloni a former gang member: “Without this program I probably wouldn’t be in school.”

With YouthALIVE’s emphasis on targeting at least 50 percent of its student-participants from low-income communities for museum placements that feature work-based learning, goal-setting, and educational planning, Gresell, who does all of the recruiting, expressed no worries about meeting her goal because “all of our students are from low-income, dysfunctional families.”

Gresell, in her three years at the helm of the seven-year-old program, can boast of higher grade point averages, markedly improved school attendance, several honor roll achievers, and a high retention rate of students who return to the program year after year to learn about welding; car, truck and tractor repair; agriculture; fabric, period fashion and design; writing; electrician training; and horse grooming and blacksmithing — all under the tutelage of experienced mentors. Some of the student-participants have been hired as full-time museum workers.

Says Beane of the museum’s somewhat odd assortment of learning activities: “Ford’s offerings are very different from the other museums, but we’ve found that young people love to be competent in a unique field.”

Other Programs

In addition to the Henry Ford Museum, the YouthALIVE (Youth Achievement through Learning Involvement & Employment) program is up and running at the Miami Museum of Science, the Imaginarium of Racine, Wisc., the Chicago Botanic Garden, The Science Museum of Minnesota (St. Paul), and the Children’s Museum of Manhattan.

Several institutions, such as Philadelphia’s Please Touch Museum, are AYM members who also serve as a YouthALIVE site. In addition, many create and find funding for their own programs. At the Please Touch Museum, for example, youth workers have worked closely with the city’s family court system to develop, on a one-Sunday-a-month basis, a fully functional hands-on activity for babies through teenagers as they have court-supervised visits with their parents in the large auditorium-like waiting area at the Family Court building in downtown Philadelphia. At the Miami Museum of Science, youth worker Jennifer Schooley and her staff raised $100,000 from corporations and foundations for their GirlsR.I.S.E. science program.

Schooley says her program grabs the imagination of entering seventh- and eighth-graders by challenging them immediately to become computer literate. “They love it,” she says. Schooley singles out Fernande Saintilus, 17, one of five siblings in a single-parent household in Miami’s “Little Haiti” section of town as a prime example of what their YouthALIVE program can do.

Saintilus, who has been in the program for five years, served for two years as the national program’s Youth Advisory Board president. “I cherish all that I have learned in the program and know it will help me succeed in the future,” she said recently after receiving an acceptance letter from Florida International University, where she will enroll this fall and major in nursing. Saintilus was one of Schooley’s computer whiz kids “who took off.”

While she held intern and “floor staff” positions and participated in summer activities, Saintilus also worked through the years as a cashier and sales clerk in the museum’s gift shop for “a little more” than minimum wage.

As in Miami, many of the other sites serve over 100 YouthALIVE participants, retaining many, after proper instruction, as paid primary floor staff, or “explainers,” during public hours. San Francisco’s Exploratorium, for example, uses over 100 community partners as recruiters for this program. Agencies such as the Chinatown Youth Center will refer youth to the museum where they interact with staff and familiarize themselves with the setting.

Almost all the YouthALIVE sites tap into summer youth employment programs, sponsored by the Labor Department, whereby they place their school-year participants into a situation that makes their ties to the museum year-round.

“The idea,” declares Beane, “is how to keep a group of people connected and energetic when the grant runs out.”

The Pay’s the Thing

Beane is now in the phase II element of YouthALIVE, where she has placed an emphasis on giving the student-participants a stipend to live on “because they need it and it helps them to become independent.” The difficulty is that YouthALIVE only offers $25,000 yearly grants (“barely enough to pay a staffer,” she says). It is up to the museum to come up with other funds to operate the program. We wish to make these permanent programs, “ says Beane, “so we’re counting on the museums discovering — as they have — that young people are good workers, and full of energy and new ideas.”

But stipends vary. At Henry Ford Museum, for example, nominal amounts are given every six weeks based on attendance — they go from $20 to the maximum $60. Lynn Kleiman Malinoff, a coordinator for the federal Safe and Drug Free Schools & Communities, was instrumental in getting a $15,000 annual grant for the museum’s YouthALIVE program. She works closely with the museum’s Stacey Gresell. The draw for the program is that for every 240 hours, the student-participant can earn one-and-a-half school credit hours each semester. Also, come summer, the youth jobs program kicks in.

“We have to do more to get some money in the youngster’s pockets while they’re applying themselves to job-learning skills,” says Beane.

She is glad the controversial phase I is over that saw so-called “leader institutions” such as the giant Children’s Museum of Indianapolis draw down $300,000 multi-year grants to train personnel from the soon-to-become network of participating museums. Most of these institutions dropped out of the program after the grant money was gone.

“The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis said they already had an extensive outreach program so they pulled out,” said Beane, who clearly desired that the largest children’s museum in the world (not to mention its links to the gigantic same-city Lilly Endowment) continue to be a part of YouthALIVE. It is, however, an AYM member.

But she is hopeful at what she sees: “These institutions are being responsive to the needs of children and teenagers — and each party is seeing one another in a new light.”
Henry Ford Museum’s Hamp, who recounted as the “most inspiring moment” in his professional career the sight of Michael Vliet receiving his diploma and YouthALIVE certificate at a private ceremony in the Henry Ford ballroom, said: “We should always be open for expansion. We’re committed to this program. It would be foolish to let it go.”


DeAnna B. Beane

YouthALIVE Project Director

1025 Vermont Ave., NW, Ste. 500

Washington, DC 20005

(202) 783-7200

Janet Rice Elman

Executive Director

Association of Youth Museums

1775 K St., NW, Ste. 595

Washington, DC 20006

(202) 466-4144

Stacy Nekula Gresell

YouthALIVE Project Director

Henry Ford Museum & Greenfield Village

20900 Oakwood Blvd

Dearborn, MI 48121

(313) 271-1620

Steve Hamp


Henry Ford Museum & Greenfield Village

20900 Oakwood Blvd

Dearborn, MI 48121

(313) 271-1620

Ed Pauly

Evaluation Officer

DeWitt Wallace-Reader’s Digest Fund

Two Park Ave., 23rd Fl.

New York, NY 10016

(212) 251-9700

Fernande Saintilus

YouthALIVE Participant

Miami Museum of Science

3280 South Miami Ave.

Miami, FL 33129

(305) 856-5953

Alexander, Bill. "Museums Fling Open Doors to Youth Programs." Youth Today, March/April 1998, p. 1.

©2000 Youth Today. Reprinted with permission from Youth Today. All rights reserved.