Lifting the Barriers for At-Risk Youth
We’re so proud of our Fellows’ commitment to their companies—and we’re just as proud of their after-hours efforts to boost the communities where they live and work. In his post below, 2014 Fellow Dylan Gordon discusses his involvement in Bench Mark Program, a nonprofit that uses weightlifting, academic counseling, and career coaching to empower at-risk youth in Philadelphia. Dylan currently works full-time at Clutch, a marketing technology firm, and serves at the Chief Strategy Officer of Bench Mark during his off hours. Learn more about Bench Mark and support their Indiegogo campaign here.
Back in November 2014, I began to feel increasingly disconnected from the community to which I purported to belong. While I was working in a beautiful office in the suburbs, the city of Philadelphia was experiencing soaring homelessness rates and severe educational issues. In my own mind, I claimed to care deeply about the needs of the city and community that I called my home, but I lived my life separately from them.
I was greatly bothered by this realization, and I couldn’t suppress it anymore. I called my friend Will Kiefer, with whom I graduated in 2014. Shortly after graduation, Will founded Bench Mark Program, a nonprofit empowering at-risk youth to realize their full potential through weightlifting, academic counseling, and career coaching. I wanted to learn more about his work, and how I could potentially help out.
The conversation that ensued was one that I’ll never forget. I’ll spare you the details, but I hung up the phone completely galvanized by a cause that was formerly foreign to me. Two months later, I visited Bench Mark Program to see the amazing work in person. This is an account of my first time at the facility:
As I stood scanning the Bench Mark gym for the first time, my eyes fixated on this enormous, beaten tire. I had never seen anything like it, not in-person at least. I pondered its weight, origins, and history for a few seconds. More importantly, I wondered how they even pushed that tire into the gym.
Breaking my stare, I turned to Will and jokingly asked, “Do you think I can flip that bad boy?”
To provide some context, I’m 5’6” and weigh 140 pounds. I knew the answer to my question.
But Will shot me his classic smirk, one that spoke, “You better not doubt yourself, bud” or “I know something you don’t.” I knew instantly that I had opened a can of worms for myself.
Looking to his left, Will glanced at one his students who just entered the gym. “Quan,” he called out. “Would you please teach Dylan the proper technique to flipping that tire?”
Without hesitation, Quan approached me. He must have been 5’7” and only 130 pounds. There was no way either of us was going to flip this mammoth. I was a bit nervous.
The kid, who I figured could be no older than 17 years of age, reached out his hand. He gave a brief introduction, stating his relationship to Will and his purpose at the gym. We walked over to the tire, and I listened to his instructions intently. He said, “Dylan, I want you to squat down, get a good grip, and use your legs to lift the tire to knee level. Then, push your right knee against the tire and drive forward like a linebacker tackling a running back.”
When I lowered my body to emulate his technique, he corrected my flaws and insisted that I repeat the movement. The second time around, my technique was much better. Encouraged by Quan, I made my first attempt at flipping the tire. I failed miserably. I also failed during the next two attempts. I turned to Quan and said, “Hey, this might take some time, so I’d rather have you work out with Will for now.” Quan didn’t leave.
You see, Quan was a natural teacher. My goal was our goal; he wanted me to flip that tire as much as I did. And certainly, Quan wasn’t going to walk away until he had successfully done his job as an instructor.
I was taken aback by this realization. During our introduction, I learned that Quan was here because he needed guidance and mentorship. Now, without thinking twice, he was paying it forward to someone he had just met a couple minutes earlier. I went into a quick self-reflection mode, pondering how many people I knew that would do something like this. I couldn’t think of many.
Suddenly, I felt a new influx of energy and motivation. Getting into a squatter’s stance, I made my next attempt. Fighting off my sore forearms, the 800 pound tire flipped over and hit the cement with a loud thump. I looked at Quan, who didn’t even crack a smile. He knew all along that I was going to do it. He knew before I did.
I spent the next 30 minutes helping Quan with his resume. Originally, I thought that we’d just talk about his work experience and skill set, but our conversation took to much greater depths. We discussed our ambitions, familial statuses, and philosophical matters. We spoke about altruism, desire, and passion. And we debated purpose, education, and the power of surrounding yourself with the right people.
I’ll never fully understand where Quan grew up and what he has seen. We have led two different lives; I concede that. But I do understand the passion with which he speaks and the competitive spirit that drives him. And I sympathize with his yearning to help others and provide for his family. I liked him from the moment I met him.
Fast forward seven months. Quan has a full-time job, allowing him to support his girlfriend and two children. As for me, I couldn’t be any happier as Chief Strategy Officer for Bench Mark Program. Each day, I am humbled and honored to see our students mature into full-time employees and college students. Further, I couldn’t be happier to witness more and more at-risk youth finding value and positive support within our tight-knit brotherhood.
Growing up in the suburbs of New Jersey, we didn’t have poverty, homelessness, or education related issues. Sure, you read about sad problems in the news, but there were always so distant that they never felt real. Here in Philadelphia, I observe these societal shortcomings all around me, I refuse to sit on the sidelines and simply accept the conditions for what they are.
I joined VFA partly because I felt so strongly aligned with the idea of bridging communities for the common good. Now, I am fortunate enough to execute this mission every day, and I look forward to positively impacting more at-risk youth in my daily work!