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March 8, 2018
Bench Mark Program: Strengthening Local Lives
“At Bench Mark Program’s core is the belief that if we can build a young adult’s self confidence, we can give them the strongest tool imaginable to combat adversity in their lives. If they come to the gym and learn, through experience, that they can be really good at doing something that is hard for most people, like weightlifting, that feeling of confidence will spill into other challenges in their lives. We are using weightlifting as a tool to give students a ‘win’— something that they can fall back on say, ‘hey, I conquered that weight, I surprised myself, and I believe that in this new context and in the face of new challenges, I can do it again.'” – Will Kiefer, founder of Bench Mark Program
Bench Mark Program is focused on investing in at-risk youth by providing positive, long-lasting support needed to achieve future goals and success. The program matches youth from the community with mentors who also act as trainers, teaching kids through weightlifting, exercise, academic counseling, and career development. The guidance these mentors give provides sustainable leadership training and growth.
Each year Fig partners with a nonprofit organization working to transform the community. The nonprofit gets a page in each quarterly Fig Lancaster issue in 2018, plus digital promotion on FigLancaster.com and Fig Lancaster social media. For 2018, we are collaborating with Bench Mark Program to help showcase the inspiring story of the nonprofit and impact the community for the better.
What is Bench Mark Program?
Will Kiefer began Bench Mark Program while a senior at Franklin & Marshall College.
“There are some things in life that you see, and then you can’t ‘un-see’ in your mind,” said Will. “For me, that was a realization that there were, and still are, young men and women in our city who were too old for available youth programming, but still needed a place to gather and be around positive adult role models.”
Will started with just three students, and created a program to help teach them skills that would build self-confidence and cultivate a strong sense of worth. He created the program to ensure older at-risk teens had a safe place to communicate their needs, and to offer an outlet for energy. The program began to quickly grow—with a high level of community interest. Once he graduated, Will had even more opportunities to pursue this new venture to help kids learn how to overcome hardship.
“Recognizing that I, someone with zero experience in the field of juvenile justice, could play a role in making these young adults’ lives better fueled me to launch Bench Mark Program,” said Will. “Going to bed at night knowing that someone’s life is better because of the work that you did with them that day is a feeling that I can never get enough of.”
Bench Mark Program is focused on investing in at-risk youth by providing positive, long-lasting support needed to achieve future goals and success.
Growth & Impact
Bench Mark Program quickly gained the interest of kids in the community, especially since it was the perfect safe space to work out while having someone encouraging them along the way.
One of the first few kids to walk through the doors of Bench Mark Program was Freddie Rivera. He has been participating at BMP for three to four years, and credited his personal growth to the wealth of support he received from Will and the rest of the leadership mentor team.
“I like the program a lot,” said Freddie. “It helps me in my social life, and helps me achieve my goals. Will has been there by my side for many years. He helped me achieve many goals, even when I was suffering from a lot of stuff from my past.”
Before he found Bench Mark, Freddie was searching for a place he could work out and use some energy. While searching online, he stumbled on the Bench Mark Program website and thought he’d give it a shot.
“The first day I came, Will greeted me with this big smile and a big, friendly handshake,” said Freddie. Everyone was friendly and welcoming–an experience that meant a lot to him. “It was really cool. I will never forget it.”
Since he started at Bench Mark, Freddie has had the opportunity to pursue a variety of careers—getting certified at Thadeus Stevens College for metal casting and forklifting, acting on the side in local projects, and creating music.
“I’ve been writing a lot of songs,” Freddie said. “Me and my best friend are starting a label together so we’re trying to get everything going and rise to the top.”
Will, along with the support of Bench Mark, also helped Freddie achieve a pretty great step in the right direction.
“I got my driver’s license,” added Freddie. “That was fun. I will never forget that.”
Freddie has since taken on more leadership roles while at Bench Mark. He helps other kids with equipment, encourages his peers, and leads others with his attitude and guidance.
“I feel at home here,” said Freddie. “I come here, relax. When I’m stressed, I can work out. If I need to talk to somebody, I talk to somebody. If somebody needs to talk to me, I am here for them.”
If there is one thing Freddie wanted to emphasize about the program, it is the welcoming, inclusive environment where you can be yourself.
“Anybody who’s out there suffering from stuff in the streets, or their own family turmoil, you can come here and talk about it,” Freddie added. “You can benefit your life by progressing here. We help people find jobs, schooling. If you’re in school now we help you with that too. Anybody who comes here can feel welcome. This is a family atmosphere. We’re here to support each other and build with each other.”
Building on Mentorship
The foundation of this program resides on relationships. It’s the critical element to making it succeed. That’s why it’s so important to have a group of mentors ready to invest in the kids’ lives, help them achieve goals, and be with them each step of the way.
“Our diverse team of mentors have helped us become who we are today by creating a gym environment where almost everyone feels like they can fit in,” said Will. “You can come to our facility and chat with us about anything and I guarantee you someone in our mentor community can connect with you over a similar experience.”
This mentorship experience is offered through a variety of team mentors that come from various backgrounds.
Mike Malinchok, one of the current BMP mentors, was ready to jump to help the cause.
“My first introduction to the program was through talking with Will. His passion and heart for the Bench Mark mission drew me in,” said Mike M. “As I have gotten more involved in supporting the program through mentorship, I recognize the powerful way in which the program allows for multiple ways to connect with students—physical fitness education, encouragement and motivation to set and achieve goal, personal conversations, and simply being present to connect with students and give them the ‘safe place’ to learn and practice some new life skills.”
Another mentor, Mike Doughton, leads the way in recruiting others to help join the local movement.
“I am the Lead Mentor Trainer,” said Mike D. “What that means is, when a new mentor comes to BMP, I guide them through our process to ensure they understand the mission. We want to make sure we create a safe and positive environment for our students.” And when it comes to the kids, he added: “My goal is to teach students that they can be successful with no matter what challenges they are facing, and that there are no limits to their potential.”
The mentor team continues to grow, and that helps bring more opportunities to help kids. Johnny Vega, Director of BMP’s Southside Gym (the second BMP location on 660 Lafayette Street), enjoys seeing this process of transformation in the kids’ lives.
“By far the most rewarding thing is seeing a kid go from troubled to successful. Just thinking about it gives me goosebumps,” said Johnny. “My hope is that they learn that anything in life is possible if you work hard and make the right choices.”
Julie Halteman, Assistant Director of BMP and mentor herself, echoed that sentiment.
“I hope that each student comes away from the Bench Mark Program with a deeper awareness of how to engage in positive, healthy relationships as well as to learn and put into action the next steps for him or her to achieve a successful future,” said Julie.
Zane Brown, current BMP mentor, added to the reoccurring theme of helping kids’ grow as being a foundational element for the collaborative team of mentors.
“I hope the kids learn first and foremost that they are loved, cherished, and have something to offer in life. Also, I want them to learn how to treat one another and honor their individual spaces,” said Zane. “Real community exists to help each other progress.”
All the mentors offer support through exercises, classes (both fitness and educational), and just being a listening ear. It’s through these relationships that the kids have a sturdy foundation to build success. The program is all about strength—not just physical, but emotional too.
"At Bench Mark Program's core is the belief that if we can build a young adult’s self confidence, we can give them the strongest tool imaginable to combat adversity in their lives."
Bench Mark has no signs of slowing down anytime soon. In fact, Will and the team are looking to expand in a variety of areas—from growing their program’s opportunities for girls, to further developing other BMP locations.
“I’m excited about creating a model that can be expanded by community members in other towns and cities,” said Will. “I want this program to live and grow far beyond my capacity as an individual. I believe that if BMP can establish a model for sustainable operation, then other community leaders can take up the program and implement it in their localities, with their own local flavor.”
As for Lancaster, Will continues to emphasize the importance of self-worth and how critical it is to encourage that in youth today.
“I hope that all BMP students learn that they are stronger than they imagine, that they are powerful, and that they are unique,” said Will. “Every student should leave our facility feeling like we want to see them tomorrow, and that in our little basement gym, they have an external family who cares about them and wants to know how we can help them achieve their goals.”
Find out more about Bench Mark Program online on their website. If you’re interested in mentoring, want to donate to the mission, or have ideas to help, feel free to contact the team. Fig is excited to be alongside Bench Mark Program in 2018 and looks to strengthen that partnership far into the future.