Ernest is a recent graduate of the University of Pennsylvania (where he's volunteered with 12+ from the start!) and passionate fan for the 76ers and all Philly sports. Ask him to beat-box or about his quest to watch all released animated Disney/Pixar films. Ernest is the inaugural Fellow at Hill-Freedman World Academy. In this post, Ernest breaks down the formation of a PLUS Center.

Building a PLUS Center

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When I stepped into the Hill-Freedman PLUS Center for the first time, there really wasn’t much to look at: a big old desk, an empty filing cabinet, a dirty mirror with paint chipping off its frame. As part of the new 12+ team, I knew we had big shoes to fill – the PLUS Centers at Kensington and Penn Treaty oozed a sense of welcome and warmth that filled you and made you feel safe and happy…and ours was just a big empty square. That being said, I couldn’t help but feel a bit of affection for the room, knowing that it would be my home for the next year. That affection quickly turned into excitement as we began our task of transforming Room 112 into more than a room.

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We started with the basics: tables, chairs, a computer, and a ficus that we named Raymond. Then came the subtle but crucial touches: hanging plants in front of our door to greet the students, painstakingly cutting out blocky letters spelling out the 12+ motto, and pulling dozens and dozens of staples out of walls so students wouldn’t accidentally prick themselves. Next came the fun bits: Bananagrams, UNO, Apples to Apples, and of course, the essential chess board.

Thanks to a very effective mass email, we soon started receiving boxes and envelopes full of free stuff from colleges all around the country. Pens, pencils, pennants, posters, sunglasses, flash drives, giant flags, puzzles, tattoos, even a customized set of stationary (it’s just too bad none of us are also named Allison S.); you name it, we probably have it. The colorful pennants, which we strung up around the room, quickly became my favorite part of the center.

Best of all were the gifts we received from generous 12+ donors, many of whom we’ve never met yet spent the time and money to make sure the Hill-Freedman Center has everything it needs – thank you so much! Every time we get a new box, it feels like Christmas came early. At this point, the Center was starting to look great, but even after all this shopping and decorating, the space still lacked something…

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In the first few weeks, the only students we would see were the ones that were looking for the guidance counselor (we are in her old room).  “No, Ms. W is in room 225, sorry. By the way, we’re 12+, an education nonprofit partnering with Hill-Freedman…” and they would already be gone. This was rather discouraging at first, but once word got out that we had games and comfy chairs, the floodgates were opened.

Lunches quickly became a flurry of activity, filled with laughter, fierce competition, and many side-conversations about college. It was through these conversations I learned how eager many of the students are for college (“I have a list of 15 schools to show you!”) while others are just beginning their search.  To be honest, I was initially quite nervous about being able to connect with students, but I was relieved to find my life experience was well suited to answer their questions, like: “Can you show me how to build a resume?”, “Do you want to hear about the 3D printer I built?”, and “Do you like Pokemon?” In case you were wondering, the answer is yes to all three.

As a naturally shy person, getting to know the teachers and staff seemed even more daunting. Things were awkward at first, but I’ve found that offering help when opportunities arise to be particularly effective. Some were planned, like providing them with breakfast before school one morning, while others were spontaneous, like taking a break from printing to help the principal build office chairs. In turn, the teachers and staff have been more than gracious in helping us learn the ropes and forgiving us when we make mistakes – we are so fortunate to have their support!

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As I sit in our beautiful Center, I’m pleasantly surprised to see how much it has evolved. The change has been so gradual that it wasn’t until I took this moment to reflect on it that I’ve really noticed the difference. The desk is still here, covered with PLUS passes and odds and ends that students have left behind, as is the filing cabinet, now filled with free college t-shirts and other goodies to be eventually shared with the students. Even the old mirror is still around – I often catch students checking their hair with it on their way out of the Center. At the same time, I also can’t help but imagine how it will continue to evolve. There are still plenty of empty spaces on the wall to be filled with photos of students of the month, posters highlighting career paths, and hopefully someday, college acceptance letters. As for us, new regulations will need to be learned, students will need to be pursued, and complications will inevitably arise but through it all the HFWA team will continue to build this Center, little by little.

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