Open Doors recently brought in a new Outreach Director, Amy Carpenter Leugs, to help us get the word out about the great things going on at the center. Amy is a longtime unschooling mom with three boys of her own, ages 19, 16, and 10. Below are Amy’s first impressions of the center.
Walking into Open Doors, I see first a couch, a coffee table, chairs, and a computer. Yes. In my experience, this is a great environment for real life learning — lounging, thinking, conversing, joking, a quick hit of Google, and thinking some more. I’m glad to see space for it right away.
I meet Rebecca, and she shows me an informal classroom with a big round table and an interesting timeline for the civil rights movement taped to the wall — a study initiated by Open Doors teens. We see a couple of art rooms, a library corner, a movement and music room, and a small kitchen.
Strewn about are bits of love: little wire doodles, a wide selection of teas, cheery handmade signs, art, supplies, quotes and words of wisdom.
Located in Eastown, Grand Rapids, the space is soft, fun, and nurturing.
Rebecca and I sit on the couch with our tea and talk, like humans do. She tells me about some of the students at the center and about her internship at North Star in Massachusetts, the model for Open Doors. (Follow the link for her story about happy teens.)
Rebecca is in her late fifties, petite with shoulder-length neat gray hair and a kind face. Her quiet warmth slowly fills the room and the conversation — she really listens when I speak. A former teacher, she is clearly and solidly passionate about empowering young people with life learning. But, she says, marketing is not her strong suit, and word of Open Doors is not yet reaching many of the teens who need it. We talk about the teens we know are suffering — those with different learning styles; those at high-pressure schools; those are losing their sense of themselves in a sea of peer pressure and expectations.
The Open Doors staff works with each teen to develop their own flexible learning plan — a plan that can often calm the parent who is new to life learning. Here are two of the staff, Rebecca and Adena, getting excited about the possibilities.
The center then gives the teen a place to take classes of their own design and choosing, explore interests, do projects, and meet with other teens.
The family pays the center according to the number of days the teen hangs out there instead of at home. As I look up later, Instead of $8000-$12,000 for a private school that may still be too structured for the miserable teen, the family pays only $1000 – $4000 for a safe and fun place for the teen to hang out, take some classes of interest, and connect with an confident staff who can support their shine. All interested families are welcome; families who cannot pay the full fee are invited to make proposals for alternative contributions
After hearing about Open Doors, I tell Rebecca about our unschooling lives and our homeschooling group (WMEHS, or West Michigan Eclectic Homeschoolers). I tell her how my kids have found their own confidence and a deep sense of themselves through unschooling, and how I enjoy coaching families as they find these new ways of relating and seeing the world.
Sipping my tea on Open Door’s couch, I can feel the possibilities. Rebecca and I talk more, and I do not realize that she is doing some financial calculations behind that quiet smile. Somehow, through that conversation, I am offered the job I was made for. To coach families toward an education that better fits their child. To hold their hand and reassure them in the way that only an experienced unschooler can. To share my own early fears and our eventual confidence and success. To pay forward all the support I’ve received over the years. This is an outreach job that doesn’t feel like a job to me — it feels like a lifeline, for me, for teens, for their families. This is what I do.
This has always been a calling for me — working with families new to life learning. I know for a fact that certain teens’ lives are made better — certain teens’ lives are saved — by any move they can make toward claiming their own education and their own lives.
In his TEDx talk, former teacher and North Star founder Ken Danford says this: “At North Star, we have, at the very least, done no harm to our teens. I could not say that when I was a public school teacher.” There are so many families who just are not able, for whatever reason, to commit on their own to unschooling. Centers like Open Doors and North Star open each teen to those moments in which she can feel completely like herself, and her parents can see it.
So I made arrangements to meet more Open Doors staff, and eventually teens. I nailed down the specifics of the offer and a start date. In short, I did all those jobbish things I needed to do.
And then Rebecca, Adena, and I celebrated my new position with a gluten-free granola bar and a candle.
Yep, I think I’m going to like it here.