An Amazing Partnership

By Rebecca Kirk

2015 – 2016.  What an incredible year of learning and growing.  By April of 2015 we had realized that our space at 1324 Lake Drive was not adequately serving our mission to provide support for self-directed, engaged learning to teens regardless of their ability to pay.  Though we were able to offer some tuition subsidies, a large part of our finances were required to pay rent. We looked high and low for a more affordable space in which the teens could feel free to express themselves creatively without always needing to be mindful of our professional office building neighbors’ desire for quiet, but to no avail.

By summer, some of the teens were meeting with us weekly in area parks to explore the outdoors together and to develop their leadership skills as a Teen Advisory Council for the development of Open Doors, allowing it to become even more youth-directed.

Meanwhile, Maddie, Jacob and I spent many hours exploring foundations for grant possibilities and also ways of collaborating with other teen-centered organizations.  Without having located space nor funding by September, this small, dedicated group of teens and families agreed to meet temporarily in the basement classroom of my home.

One morning in late September, on a whim, I drove to The Geek Group to explore the possibility of affordable meeting space in their large building on west Leonard.  With no appointment, I was miraculously able to immediately obtain an audience with Chris Boden, founding member and President of the organization.  After listening to my story of Open Doors’ mission and principles, along with our current situation, Chris instantly recognized Open doors as the educational arm that had been an unfulfilled piece of The Geek Group’s mission since their beginning, 20+ years ago.  On the spot, he offered Open Doors the option of becoming The Geek Group’s education department and me, this education department’s director.  I must say I was rather bowled over.

We began transitioning into the space at The Geek Group almost immediately and officially became a part of the organization on January 1, 2016.  The longer we are here the more I realize how right Chris was regarding the alignment of our missions.  The Geek Group was established to support and encourage people to learn and express what they are passionate about, regardless of their financial situation.  They do that primarily for adults.  Now we are here to offer that to teens.  Open Doors is indeed extremely fortunate to be an integral part of this unique organization. Please explore The Geek Group’s website and like them on Facebook. And then stop by on a Saturday at noon for a free tour of the building and see what mad science you yourself can be up to!

I’m also very grateful that our teens were willing to make this huge transition with us. It was a valuable, real-life learning experience for all, requiring adaptability, creativity, and the development of social/emotional skills as we interfaced with this new culture.

Beginning in January, the stability of our new location allowed superb opportunities for learning.  Within this stable environment, with the input of the Teen Advisory Council, new learning adventures began to emerge.  These included Cooking Club, Big History, Kinder Being, Career Exploration, and Art Studio.  Independent projects developed, such as Animation Exploration, Giant Skateboard Creation, and Dirt Bike Maintenance, while tutoring was employed in learning Algebra and Biology.  The teen-directed year-end trip to Chicago was a crowning jewel to our year of learning and exploring new horizons.

Our adoption into The Geek Group has provided accommodations, overhead, incredible physical and human resources, and tremendous encouragement to pursue our mission.  This has freed us to more fully develop our program offerings, structure, and advisory role. As a result we have seen remarkable learning happening with our teens including:

  • Teens learning and fully engaged together in what they wanted to learn
  • A visible increase in social/emotional intelligence, and
  • Critical thinking skills
  • A huge increase in self-confidence and ability to openly express their thoughts and ideas.

In addition, instead of paying rent, we were able to use Open Doors funds to hire Jacob Sabourin full time as assistant director and to send him to Massachusetts for the annual Liberated Learners Conference resulting in empowering professional development.

Thank you so much to Chris Boden and The Geek Group for providing all your support which made this possible.

The Future of Open Doors

Written by Jacob Sabourin & Madison Werley

Open Doors is facing some changes in the near future. Big, exciting, and perhaps overwhelming changes.

At the end of Spring Session this year, our lease at the Carlton Building was up, and it was time to make a decision whether or not to renew it. After much discussion we decided to start the search for a fresh space for Open Doors to call home. In the midst of our search, we received disappointing news: a grant we had been hoping to receive had been declined. Our financial situation was looking bleak.

The same day, Rebecca received an email from the Neutral Zone, a teen center in Ann Arbor. Their video below left us with goosebumps, and we realized Open Doors had the opportunity to serve teens in ways we had yet to fully realize.

So we visited the Neutral Zone, and witnessed their Youth-Driven Spaces model in action. We saw the incredible and impressive things the teens there are up to, and their pre-established model inspired us to develop a similar culture that would work for our own teen members. We spent the next few weeks working alongside our current teens to devise a plan for the future of Open Doors. Our conditions?

  • Be inclusive of teens of all backgrounds, whether they attend school or not.
  • Keep our mission of improving the lives of self-directed teens in Grand Rapids.
  • Give our members the power to create innovative programs of their own choosing.
  • Allow teens and adult staff to work together to make decisions on behalf of Open Doors.

We believe these changes will benefit the Grand Rapids community in ways heretofore unimaginable. By extending our services into after-school hours and flinging wide the doors to teens of all backgrounds, we will give them a safe, empowering place to call their own. We will be providing a youth community center, created and led by teens, for all teens.

This summer, Open Doors staff will attend a training session at the Neutral Zone on how to effectively create a Teen Advisory Council. We hope to establish our own Council to meet weekly throughout the summer to develop Open Doors into the kind of space teens in our area both want and need. Our current members decided they would like to spend these casual meetings around campfires, trekking through the forest, and otherwise adventurously traipsing.

Are you or a teen you know interested in joining us on our adventures to create an awesome space for Grand Rapids teens? We could use your input! Contact our Program Director, Jacob Sabourin, for more information or to get involved.

If you’re passionate about our mission and what we’re doing, you can also assist Open Doors through monetary donations, volunteering your time, or offering in-kind gifts for our space. Every bit helps!

Thank you for your continued support, and make sure to check back often to stay up-to-date on our progress.

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