“Teens have so much potential, yet rarely do they get to use it,” says Jatin Mathur, a Naperville North High School senior. “Unlike other institutions and organizations, the Alive Center enables teens to do anything they want to.”
As the founder of Alive’s Science Exploration Club, Mathur should know. “For me personally, I finally get to use my knowledge not to ace a test, but to teach younger students something new about the world around them,” he said. “The opportunities provided by the Alive Center urge us teens to express our limitless potential, and that is its greatest gift.”
The Alive Center has come a long way since being started by Kandice Henning in 2015. It merged with NaperBridge, a program for teens led by teens, and moved to a 5,000-square-foot space on W. Fifth Avenue, just behind Naperville North.
At the beginning of March, satellite locations were opened — Alive at Eola at the Eola Community Center, Aurora, and Alive at Fry, based at the Fry Family YMCA on 95th Street, Naperville.
Director Jules Prokop has been involved from the start. Like Henning, she is a certified life coach.
“I come from a background in business consulting and entrepreneurship. I have a passion for working in the community,” Prokop said. “When I met Kandice, we instantly connected and she created a position for me.”
The Alive Center isn’t just another youth club. Its mission is to be teen-led and teen-driven, empowering the youth of today to become impassioned, resilient leaders of tomorrow.
“Where passion meets purpose, that’s where you come alive,” Prokop said. “We’re a discovery center where teens have fun, make new friends and discover what they like. They can try out new things while learning new skills.”
The Alive Center is open to all 6th to 12th graders from Naperville and surrounding areas who can drop in after school or during the day in the summer. Special needs kids and those with disabilities are equally welcome. All the programs are devised and run by teens with adult volunteers to coach and mentor them, plus there’s a robust internship program.
Retired teacher Joanne Sapadin finds volunteering at the Alive Center the perfect fit. After teaching English for 23 years at Naperville Central, she now manages the art room. It’s a job she does so well, she received the center’s Volunteer of the Year Award within her first few months.
“I’ve always enjoyed being around teenagers,” she said. “I like the informality there. Their core idea is that that the kids should feel comfortable and whether or not they realize it, they have something to offer.”
The center also has a lounge, fully-outfitted kitchen, fitness area and study spaces. A merchandise store helps teens hone their business skills and the facility is available for rent, when it is closed.
“Small businesses rent from us and we give back by showcasing them,” Prokop said. “For example, we have a chef who teaches classes, but who also cooks with our kids.” The Merry Tutor is a non-profit teen-led organization which works with children of all ages and hosts drop-in sessions every Tuesday and Wednesday.
In the STEM lab, teens can learn about robotics, engineering and science exploration, plus there’s a Girls Who Code class. The Alive media group runs a Humans of Naperville Instagram page and during the summer has its own show on NCTV. Fitness Fridays are tech free with teens invited to play ping pong, attend dance classes and take part in other physical activities.
Prokop said the world is a very different place than the one in which she grew up. Her own teenagers, like other children today, are surrounded by the tech revolution.
“Nowadays, after middle school, if you don’t participate in sports at junior high or high school, there’s not much left for them,” she said. “We’re about helping kids find their passion.”
The idea that the Alive Center only serves at-risk teens is a misnomer.
“We think all teens are at-risk with society pressures and stress,” Prokop said. “When you have a sense of passion, you tend to make better decisions.”
The center is a place where the pressure of getting good grades doesn’t matter. What makes it different from similar organizations is that the teens are involved every step of the way. The advisory board is made up of 28 youths who make all the decisions.
“ “They are sick of being told what to do by adults. They are smart and want to be heard,” Prokop said.
Many teens are simply lost in large school populations, she said.
“Some kids don’t feel comfortable in school Here they can just show up and try something new in a smaller environment. There’s no pressure here. We’re a new concept made for the modern world,” Prokop said.
Alongside all the fun, there’s a serious side to the work Alive does. It provides mentors for teens who simply want to talk.
“We have mental health awareness and suicide prevention events,” Prokop said. “If a teen needs help, we work with outside agencies. They feel they are being seen when they are here. Peer-to-peer work helps them feel safe, to be who they are.”
On April 25th, Alive Center will be presenting “What’s Next: The Multiple Pathways to your Purpose,” an event offering teens advice on what to do after they leave school, with keynote speaker Joe Chura, CEO and founder of Dealer Inspire.
“From a young age, children are told about college, but 64 per cent of high school students who go don’t even complete two years,” Prokop said. “A lot of them are funneled into college because that’s what they’re supposed to do. By helping them understand what they’d really like to do, what they’re really good at, they can plan the next steps. College doesn’t have to be the answer, but you need to know that there are other options and what those options are.”
As a non-profit, Alive Center relies on donations. If you would like to help, visit www.alivenaperville.com.
Hilary Decent moved to Naperville from England in 2007.