Many students who previously graduated from the Healthy Choices, Healthy Relationships Program headquartered at The Father Center of New Jersey in Trenton spent their summer as mentors and camp instructors, giving back and staying academically engaged. This photo was taken by Eric Valdez who is a 2018 alum of the program. Eric spent his summer as a mentor to middle school students in Boston and returned to Harvard in September for his junior year of college.

“Summer learning loss,” “brain drain,” and the ubiquitous “summer slide” are all terms used to describe what often happens to youth when they turn off their brains during the summer and take too long of a break from academic activities, especially reading.  It’s a real phenomenon, often affecting families of low socioeconomic status more than families with abundant financial means, and it is an obstacle to obtaining educational goals, especially for local principals and teachers who deal with the impact each September at the beginning of the school year.

Healthy Relationships, Healthy Choices, a popular youth program for young men (one of the only youth-focused consortiums for ninth-grade boys in Mercer County), encourages teen participants and alumni to fill their summers with fun educational activities, camp programs, and purposeful internships. Designed by Calvin Thomas, Healthy Relationships, Healthy Choices (HRHC) offers a curriculum that allows boys to learn life skills early on and helps prepare participants for healthy relationships. HRHC is implemented throughout the school year, with 28 weekly, two-hour sessions at The Father Center’s Trenton location. With additional grant funding secured this year, HRHC will be expanding to serve more youth onsite at The Trenton Ninth Grade Academy.

The graduates from this program are invited to join an alumni group and continue, many serving as mentors to the new ninth-grade program enrollees. Contributing to the success and sustainability of HRHC, Program Manager Andre Thomas keeps connected with his growing group of graduates as the boys continually update him on their activities and accomplishments. This summer, several alumni from HRHC were involved in extraordinary activities.

Omar Morales, a 2018 HRHC program graduate who is pursuing his education at The Rochester Institute of Technology, had the amazing opportunity to be a summer camp instructor at a technology program and stated,  “I had the privilege of teaching high school students in the Rochester area all about the world of games. I had an amazing time during this program. Our mission was within just three weeks to empower each student to create their very own unique game. Our team guided them through the fascinating journey of game development, focusing on the game engine Construct 3 and unraveling the intricacies of this creative process.”

For Omar, it was not all classroom work.  Omar and the team added fun to the mix by organizing field trips to the Strong Museum of Play. They spent an hour a day dedicated to just enjoying time outside. To make things even more exciting, they invited industry professionals to share their firsthand experiences, giving the students a sneak peek into what it’s like to be a game developer.

Omar spoke about his responsibilities in this role: “I wore many hats, from being the go-to IT person to a supportive camp counselor and an inspiring teacher. What’s more, I actively chose to work during the summer months because I was eager to enrich my portfolio with the experiences gained from these internships. With no classes to worry about, I had the freedom to wholeheartedly focus on the job and the students we were privileged to guide along this exciting journey.”

Research suggests that summer programs do help combat the summer slide, and Calvin Thomas, Founder, and Lead Curriculum Designer of HRHC, stated, “Our primary goal for every boy we serve is to help get them successfully through high school and instill their curiosity, enough to keep them engaged as citizens.”

The HRHC program begins working with young men during their freshman year of high school. Every week, they meet at least one day after school and cover topics such as leadership, time management, communication, developing interpersonal skills, and tips on navigating the complicated issues and choices that teens face during their high school careers.

Eric Vasquez participated in two meaningful programs. One took place in Cambridge, MA. He worked for a local organization called the Phillips Brook House Association. He was employed as a summer school counselor/teacher with Chinatown Adventure in the Chinatown community (a local low-income community in Boston). He participated in an intensive 5-week training before he began teaching a group of 6th graders for six weeks. Eric stated, “This opportunity was such a magnificent experience, and I’m glad I chose to do this for my summer. Through this program, I got the chance to help a disadvantaged community, work with children, go on fun trips on behalf of my program, and spend my summer in Cambridge/Boston without the stress of school and homework lingering over my head 24/7!” Eric is a graduate of Trenton High School who is now attending Harvard College and plans to major in Computer Science.

Eric also participated in Momentum AI at MIT. This program aims to teach high schoolers from all over Massachusetts the fundamentals of machine learning and artificial intelligence. Eric worked with another mentor to teach a class of ten high schoolers. They provided slides and coding exercises to students to aid in the lessons. Through this program, Eric gained more knowledge about machine learning and artificial intelligence and then transferred that knowledge back to a younger group. He built strong connections and friendships with the high schoolers and his fellow mentors. Additionally, through Momentum AI, his room and board were covered in the heart of Boston at a hotel for free, and he got to eat out at some of the most popular places in the city, also for free!

Eric said, “These two programs were very fun, enriching, and fulfilling. I have no regrets for how I decided to spend my summer. Being a teacher is definitely not what I plan to be in the future, but doing it on the side was definitely a rewarding and unique experience!”

Back in Trenton, Randall E. Toby, Executive Director of Breakfast With Our Boys, and Andre Thomas, HRHC’s Program Manager, organized a summer brunch so the HRHC alums could connect and enjoy a meal together as they filled each other in on their summer employment and volunteering activities. Randall stated, “Our investment in time, energy, and mentorship with this wonderful group of high school young men will pay off in the future when we see them contributing to their communities and paying it forward to a new class of HRHC students!”

To learn more about The Father Center of New Jersey, click here:

To visit the Breakfast With Our Boys Website, click here:

To view a video featuring Omar Morales and his role with MAGIC Spell Studio’s inaugural summer game design camp, click here:

Over the summer, HRHC alumni met up and enjoyed a wonderful brunch together at a “Breakfast With Our Boys” event in Trenton, NJ.
Omar Morales, a student from Trenton, NJ, at the summer camp he taught in Rochester, NY.


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