At West End House, Joel Finds STEM Opportunities He Never Expected

When Joel arrived in Boston from Guatemala at seven, he knew very little English. His parents knew he needed to learn the language if he was going to succeed, but they also wanted him to make new friends and become a member of the community. They hoped he’d find opportunities to learn outside his comfort zone and build on his love of art. He had a sharp, curious mind that could lend itself to more concrete subjects, STEM specifically. He just needed someone to show him where to look.

Coming into his Own

When his parents enrolled him at West End House’s after school programming, it quickly became clear Joel had only begun to explore his interests. Though initially still focused on art, when staff introduced him to architecture, construction, and engineering, he began to come into his own. However, he found it tough to communicate with staff verbally, so instead, he made his thoughts known through his creations: drawings, designs, and small construction projects.

Elle Davis, Director of Academic Success at West End House, recalls watching Joel explore and flex his STEM muscles. “He was always tinkering with something, and when he started to show an interest in architecture, we saw him start to really experiment. He would try to implement new surprises in his designs, and he would ask endless questions to himself about what this did or how he’d use that.”

As a United Way partner agency, West End House aims to provide young people like Joel with the skills and experiences they can use to be successful in school, be they educational or communicative. Together with United Way, they’re committed to ensuring children and youth have the support they need to take the next steps in their education and be ready for what comes after. To this end, West End House engages their members in up to 15 additional hours of educational programming every week, and they focus on the arts, on STEM, and in building the foundations that young people need to prepare for and stay in college and find a rewarding career.

One of the first lessons Joel learned was about how to focus his problem solving. He took part in a workshop that emphasized critical thinking and proper project planning. Joel initially found such restrictions challenging. He was used to taking a more free form approach to solving his problems, throwing ideas against the wall until something stuck. His West End House coordinator was now asking him to consider all the angles of a question first, put together a plan, then execute on that plan.  

Mark DaCruz, West End House’s Vice President of Program Services believes these kinds of lessons are essential to their work. “We want to give all of our members the opportunity to be the best version of themselves and discover who they are and who they want to be, preparing them to take on the challenges of the world outside our walls.”

Planning Ahead

Watching Joel’s growth has allowed Elle and West End House staff to discern where and how they want to guide kids like him into their future. “He’s really enjoying our engineering and constructions material, and he loves going on the BoSTEM field trips United Way sponsors. It’s wonderful watching him discover that STEM opportunities exist in surprising places and seeing how different places evolve his understanding of the field.”

And they see in him a leader of his peers. Staff are starting to teach Joel what it means to use the tools he’s gained to do some teaching of his own. Staff are empowering Joel to become a teen educator at the agency, a paid position that would still allow him full access to all the resources he’s used to.

For Mark and Elle, it continues to be a real treat to watch Joel grow, and they’re happy his parents embraced his interests and supported them. “Parents need to learn to embrace the fidgeter,” they say, “embrace the kid who’s creating, who’s doodling. Don’t assume that just because they aren’t paying the closest attention that they’re not learning. You never know if they might become the world’s next great engineer, the next great designer. You have to encourage a child’s creativity, not push it away. Joel is living proof of the benefits of supporting a creative, curious child, and we can’t wait to see where his progress takes him.”

In his time at West End House, Joel’s been able to make a lot of progress on his English and make plenty of good friends. He’s built a solid support structure and found new confidence by surrounding himself with people and things he cares about. He’s also taken his natural curiosity and energy and turned it into progress.

They won’t have to wait long. With the direction Joel gained from the STEM opportunities and the constant support of his coordinators, he’s taken his art to a new level. At 12, he’s now the youngest member of their Path of the Artist program, which is usually filled with high school students. Pathway students have to show real, concerted control over the visual arts, and as part of the program, they can actually sell their work and pocket some of the earnings. Joel’s been able to marry the analytical aspect of STEM work with the free flow of his art, and that level of adaptability is key to any career he might pursue, no matter what life has in store for him.