A Second Home for Youth to Grow | Youth Opportunities Development
By Dana DeSantis
On any given weekday in Clairton, Youth Opportunities Development (YOD) in Clairton is hosting about two dozen kids, ensuring they have a safe place to go after school. It’s not just a place to ensure they have supervision once class ends. It’s family.
Brandon Ziats is the Executive Director of the nonprofit organization that started in 2012. While completing an internship with the former community-based violence prevention organization, One Vision One Life, during his studies at the University of Pittsburgh, Ziats was able to visit Pittsburgh’s urban neighborhoods to see what issues they faced and help them find solutions. Soon, though, he learned that more needed to be done with prevention.
“We wanted to go up stream and help prevent people from getting to the point where they needed intervention,” Ziats said.
This led him to co-create Youth Opportunities Development in Clairton. The nonprofit afterschool program focuses on education, recreation and mentoring for boys ages 10 and up.
The Creation of Youth Opportunities Development
“Clairton is a small, tight-knit community. There are a lot of strengths in that and past success,” Ziats said. “It is a lower income city, but I think the strengths outweigh the weaknesses and people are willing to work together. YOD is a really small part of the puzzle.”
For years, the organization focused on in-person activities, which had a positive influence on the lives of the boys involved. When the COVID-19 pandemic started in March 2020, many of this programming had to be put on hold.
“The pandemic definitely hit us pretty hard. The kids are used to coming to us on a daily basis and all of a sudden, that couldn’t take place for an indefinite period of time,” Ziats said.
Instead of education and recreation, YOD started making food its main focus.
“We shifted to providing daily meals to kids in our neighborhood. A lot of the kids coming to this were not even kids from our programs, but just kids in our community,” he explained.
For several months, YOD staff made sure kids in Clairton had enough food to eat. This was not limited to the boys in the program, but instead was available to anyone who needed it. Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank provided these daily grab and go meals to YOD.
“In the past, we struggled with an inconsistent food provider. We weren’t getting regular meals. Once we started working with the Food Bank, we were able to get daily meals to kids,” Ziats said.
New Opportunities Expanding the Program
In mid-summer 2020, Ziats and his staff started in-person outdoor activities for the kids. Recreation included things like basketball, kayaking trips, horseback riding, fishing and more. Many of the kids involved in the program had never experienced activities such as these.
The education component also resumed. Kids are now learning about American history and visited historic sites like Harper’s Ferry and Gettysburg. Food and culture is also a main focus, thanks to funding from UPMC. Students are able to learn about various ethnic cuisines, order dishes from local restaurants and try making their own.
Perhaps the most important part of YOD is mentoring.
“It gives us an opportunity to teach them and for them to teach us as well and figure out the best way to help them,” Ziats said.
Ziats and his staff have daily conversations with the kids in their program about the negative influences they may see, including guns and violence.
“The key is just to talk to them about it, to talk about those challenges. You have to be adaptable in how you discuss these things and we’re confident in the future of this group of kids,” he said.
He says daily interactions and consistency have helped to make a difference in the lives of the kids they work with each day.
“We expect kids to come on a regular basis and we expect to have a longer-term impact,” Ziats explained.
Two of the older teens will have jobs with YOD this summer. Others say they see the organization as more than just a place to go after class and a place where they can truly be themselves.
From Afterschool Program to Second Home
“One kid recently said to me, ‘I don’t think of this as an afterschool program. I think of this as a second family’,” he said.
Ziats said the parents of the kids in the program are very supportive of the work and sees that as a major part of the success he sees in the kids.
“They very much have bought into what we are doing and do a lot to support us. They also do a lot to stress the importance to their kids of coming to a program like YOD as well. We maintain at least weekly contact with our program families and we work together well to problem solve any issues. So, it definitely is a team effort,” he said.
YOD will continue its outdoor recreation activities this summer, along with education and mentoring. Ziats says he is excited to continue growing the program and to work with the kids and families of Clairton who are part of YOD.