January 4, 2023

Youth Development Team Focused on Initiatives for Kids of All Ages

READY FOR ACTION: The Princeton YMCA’s Youth Development and Outreach Team includes, in the back row, from left, ACE coaches RJ Becton and Alyssa Roman, and Preschool Assistant Teacher and Princeton Young Achievers (PYA) Site Director Michael Woods. In the front row, from left, are PYA counselor Lilian Chipix-Lopez, Associate Director of Youth Development and Outreach Claudia Orostizaga, and Director of Youth Development and Outreach Keshon Bennett.

By Anne Levin

Since merging with the Greater Somerset County YMCA and becoming a branch of that organization last March, the Princeton YMCA has been bolstering its programs that deal with children of limited resources. Key to this strengthening is Keshon Bennett, in charge of several youth initiatives involving children from preschool through high school.

The YMCA’s new director of youth development and outreach, Bennett oversees the growth of the universal pre-K sites in conjunction with the Princeton Public Schools; the Princeton Young Achievers (PYA) afterschool program, with three learning centers in partnership with Princeton Community Housing and Princeton Housing Authority; and the ACE mentoring program that focuses on middle and high school students.

“I have a nice, big calendar and a white board in my office, thank goodness,” he said this week. “But I have help. Slowly but surely, we are putting the team together.”

Bennett was leading the camp at the Somerset Hills YMCA in Basking Ridge when he learned of the opportunity in Princeton. “When they told me about the programs, I was immediately interested,” he said. “About six or seven years ago I had come here to coach basketball, and I really loved the community.”

Bennett, who turns 46 this month, grew up in Neptune. After working for Verizon for 16 years, he transitioned to education, teaching and coaching high school basketball. He coached in Plainfield before spending five years teaching at New York’s Success Academy. “I was attracted to the inner city,” he said. “I love coaching. But it goes way beyond that once you start to develop the relationships and mentor the students. It got me going in this direction and I haven’t turned back.”

Since joining the staff at Princeton YMCA, Bennett has focused on program structure and staff recruitment. “Everyone is eager to get into a routine, and our priority is to ensure that our activities are operating well and our youth get a solid start to the second semester,” he said in a press release.

Claudia Orostizaga is Bennett’s associate youth development director. “Claudia is a Princeton resident and Princeton
High School graduate,” he said. “She was instrumental to us during the pandemic, supporting our students with remote learning, and she is a great asset to us.”

The PYA site director is Michael Woods, who is also the assistant teacher at the preschool during the school day, and works at camp during the summer. “Mike is the ideal of a Y youth leader,” Bennett said.

The ACE program is back to weekly in-school meetings at the high school, and will soon expand to middle school. New coaches RJ Becton and Alyssa Roman will be leading programs including field trips and experiential learning. “Our focus is on opportunities for social-emotional learning, college and career readiness, character development, health and well-being, and community-building,” Bennett said in the release.

ACE, which originally addressed chronic absenteeism, is especially relevant to Bennett. “I was one of those students,” he said. “My mother passed away when I was 15. You have the opportunity to mentor young students, which was a natural fit for me.”
The father of two daughters — one in elementary school, the other in middle school — Bennett said he doesn’t have a favorite program. But he admits having a special affinity for the preschool kids. “I just love to see those smiling faces,” he said.

The overall aim is to give children access to the entire team, as they grow. “If you took all three of the youth development programs, the ultimate goal is to take our preschool students, and move them up, all the way through high school, and help them prepare for college or whatever vocation they pursue,” Bennett said. “Hopefully, we’ll have some of the high school students volunteer and come back to help.”

To volunteer or learn more, visit princetonymca.org.