Unconditional love is the foundation for a youth center in Akron’s Kenmore neighborhood that has helped thousands of teenagers and young adults find their way down life’s uncertain path.
“We believe in being a place of grace and acceptance where students can come in the way they are,” says Jessica Swiger, ministry director at First Glance.
“We have atheists, agnostics, Muslims — all are welcome in our building. We accept them where they are at. You don’t have to be a Christian or attend church. But in our heart, we believe they can find eternity through Christ and we want to share that with them.”
First Glance began in 2000 through The Chapel’s junior high department. It quickly grew from 22 students to a program that now is comprised of 11 programs and has offerings nearly every day of the week.
“Relationships and mentorship are the basis for all the programming that we do,” Swiger says. “We want to put students in the room with positive mentors who can walk through life with them and be there consistently. And even when they make bad decisions, we don’t walk out. We believe they can change when they are ready.”
The majority of the students at First Glance come to the center from the Kenmore neighborhood — and most come on foot.
“That’s kind of our demographic,” says Kasey Parmelee, First Glance’s business director. “A lot of kids are in poverty, so transportation is an issue. We get a few kids that can take public transportation or get a ride with parents, but most are within walking distance.”
Parmelee adds that walking distance is a relative term with some of First Glance’s students.
“When I started with our young adults program on Monday night, I was living in Cuyahoga Falls and I talked to one of the guys who was there and got to know him a bit,” Parmelee says.
“I found out he lived in Cuyahoga Falls too and was walking from Cuyahoga Falls to get here. It would take him about four hours. I said, ‘Dude, I drive pretty close to your house, let me give you a ride.’ That’s how important it was to him. He grew up in Kenmore and grew up coming to First Glance and he was going to do whatever it took to get back here.”
First Glance has a series of continuous programs, including Teen Moms (ages 11 to 19) and Young Moms (ages 20 to 26), that are geared to help young people at critical stages in their lives.
“Our Young Moms started because our Teen Moms were aging out,” Swiger says. “We care about them. These are our friends and our family and we don’t want them to be pushed out on the street. We want to walk with them. So we created Young Moms to continue to be able to walk through life with them.”
Ladies Night Out is a program for teenage girls to get together and play games and enjoy fun activities while Man Up strives to provide a similar experience for male participants. It’s all part of an approach that attempts to further First Glance’s mission of connecting young people to Christ, but does so in a non-threatening, pressure-free way.
“You won’t see us make everybody sit down and listen to something,” Swiger says. “We work through relationships.”
The effort to help people who have experienced a lot of hardship in their young lives can be taxing. So the same love, support and friendship that is offered to students is also freely available to staff and volunteers whenever they need it, Swiger says.
“We want them to be equipped to handle what we do here,” she says. “And we tell our volunteers when they get burned out to take a month off and come back. Your family is your first priority and you need to be able to be there at home.”
When students get into trouble, they can be suspended from coming to First Glance. But even at that moment of separation, a hand is being extended to welcome them back.
“Even if we kick you out for three weeks for fighting, we always tell you before you leave that in three weeks, we want you to come back,” Swiger says. “We always accept them back.”
In most cases, they do come back. And that puts them back on the path to being one of First Glance’s success stories.
“It’s cool to hear stories of these older students coming back and telling their stories and the experience they had at First Glance,” Parmelee says. “If we can get these teenagers to turn their lives around and come back and complete that cycle, it’s awesome.” ●
How to reach: First Glance, (330) 848-9685 or www.firstglance.org