How an After School Program at UnidosUS Affiliate Mary’s Center Made One Student into An After School Leader

This fall, UnidosUS joined the Afterschool Alliance’s Lights On Campaign with the goal of raising awareness about the benefits of after-school programming and the need for more of it. The Afterschool Alliance’s report America After 3PM, shows that 57% of Latino school children are not in an after-school program but would be if one were provided. With these needs in mind, is reposting a blog about Katya Quintanilla, a former participant-turned-leader of an after school program run by UnidosUS Affiliate Mary’s Center in Washington, DC. Quintanilla also helps to facilitate the center’s UPS-funded UnidosUS Latina women’s empowerment program Entre Mujeres. The blog first ran on the Mary’s Center website.

“Teens teach us a lot, and vice-versa… It’s a give and take, and they’re honestly the best group to work with because they’re at a pivotal moment in their life, where depending on what you give them…either they’ll go off and do great things, or it can go the other way. I think the goal is to get them on the road to see themselves as people that can actually do amazing things in the world.”

The Teen Room at Mary’s Center is quiet these days, but the Zoom chat is a different story! With up to 90 teens participating in every workshop, the chatter, teasing, and inside jokes are flying fast and thick. As the Teen Program Leader, Katya Quintanilla coordinates and runs all of the activities for the 100+ teenagers who attend Mary’s Center’s after-school and college prep programming. “They remind me a lot of me when I was younger!” she says, laughing.

The Teen Program covers everything from college readiness and advising, to career panels, summer jobs and internships, and preventative programming. Katya leads it all, with the help of an additional staff member.

“We make sure that students are equipped to live their day-to-day lives, so when it comes to school, being at home, college, whatever their goals are, we’re here to help them fulfill those goals,” she says.

Katya is one of the select few who can say she’s been a patient at Mary’s Center for literally her entire life – her mother received prenatal care during her pregnancy! Katya grew up visiting the Center with her mom and received care from the pediatric unit. Her whole family still gets their medical care from Mary’s Center locations.

Mary’s Center was always a comfortable space for her, and she often saw the older kids while she was here. When her high school required her to participate in community service, volunteering at Mary’s Center was the obvious choice. She also did her practicum hours here while getting her degree in Community Education from Trinity Washington University. The staff were so impressed with her work and dedication, that they offered her a part-time job while she finished her degree, and she started working full-time after graduation.

“I can’t tell you how much I love my job. It gives me a lot of joy.”

Working for the Teen Program was a clear fit for Katya because she knows what it’s like to need a place to go and have someone to talk to. Mary’s Center was a lifeline for Katya during her teen years. The Center became a second home and the staff were like family after her mother tragically passed from cancer when Katya was only 14.

The Mary’s Center staff who had watched her grow up provided a lot of emotional and academic support after her mom passed. They kept her grounded, and even got her a journal to help her handle the strong emotions. “A lot of the people I used to see at Mary’s Center – they’re still here!” she says. She was particularly close to staff member Julia Blanco, who still works at Mary’s Center to this day. “Julia was like my confidant. I really put her through the ringer when it came to talking about my issues!”

“I think that I got a lot out of the [Teen] Program in the sense of, not just friends, but people that cared about where I was going and what I was going to do after high school.”

Without the teen program, a lot of kids would be left out, Katya says. Mary’s Center is a space where the kids can be their authentic selves and find mentors and people who can relate to their own experiences growing up as first- or second-generation immigrants, or as people of color.



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