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Kendra Vandewater and her partner James Aye started Y.E.A.H in 2018. Picture: Yeahphilly.org.
Kendra Vandewater and her partner James Aye started Y.E.A.H in 2018. Picture: Yeahphilly.org.

How Y.E.A.H. Philly stayed providing a safe haven for youth in West Philly amid COVID-19

Kendra Vandewater founded the organization to combat the increase of gun violence in the city.

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A local nonprofit, Y.E.A.H. Philly dedicates its time to bridging the gap between policy and practice.

The Executive Director of Y.E.A.H., which stands for Youth Empowerment for Advancement Hangout, is Kendra Vandewater, and she’s devoted most of her life to volunteering and social work.

“My whole life has been spent doing advocacy,” she said. “I am a life and social worker but my background is trying to help people make sure they get the things that they need, I used to inspect jails and make sure that their needs were met while being incarcerated.”

In 2018, Vandewater and her partner, James Aye, believe that to limit and decrease the violence currently going on in Philadelphia, the first step is to take care of the city’s youth.

They would interact with kids on their walks in the neighborhood, asking what they liked to do in their free time

“We took all of that information and started running groups at rec centers and libraries,” she said.

Vandewater decided to focus on the West and Southwest areas of Philadelphia because those are the most violent areas in Philadelphia. There’s also an extreme lack of resources in West and Southwest Philadelphia.

Their effort grew quickly in numbers, and the operation also expanded.

“When our group turned into 30-50 kids trying to get into our space each week, we decided to talk to them about how they manage their feelings, we also help them get their driver’s license and provide a meal,” she said.

From then on, Vandewater created different workshops and components, transforming the effort into a much-needed, full-fledged community organization.

“We run groups, so every week we do different groups,” she said.

For example, they lead a teen-run food drive, where people in need can come in from Monday through Saturday to get the food and pet supplies they need on top of giving them out on corners of West and Southwest Philadelphia.

“It is all run by our young people, they came up with that idea,” said Vandewater.

On top of the numerous workshops, she also created a Youth and Police group that was recently terminated following the murder of Walter Wallace Jr. by the Philadelphia Police back in October 2020.

“We have since targeted patrol officers to come into the space and talk to our youth and try to work on that relationship, and work together to change policies,” said Vandewater.

She also emphasizes to students that education and job skills are important to achieve success and build their confidence.

“We have an employment and skills initiative, where if you are 16 to 25 and want to take a trade or college class, we are able to pay for those things for them,” said Vandewater.

They also attend school meetings, do home repairs, and provide kids with clean clothes.

“We are there for them whenever they need us,” she said.

Another vital program created by Vandewater for youth are peer mediation groups. The goal is to develop the skill of communication.

While violence surges in Philadelphia, Vandewater is making sure that shootings are not the way to go to solve problems between each other.

“These kids are shooting each other over Instagram, and they don’t know that this can be resolved,” she said.

The mediation sessions are still in-person and mentors are much needed now more than ever.

“Our staff is small, we are actually in the process of building our team,” she said.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit last March, Vandewater wasn’t giving up on connecting with Philadelphia’s youth. To counter the isolation of indoor quarantines, she started taking them out in nature and going for hikes. 

“We wanted to help kids who really needed to get out of the house, the pandemic was really affecting them,” she said.

They have since found a 1,860-square-foot home that will act as a safe haven for the kids.

The space will also have a television room, along with a mediation room and a food pantry.

“Safety wise, it is really important for kids to have a space, no rec centers are still open, a lot of basketball courts aren’t open,” she said.

Vandewater is now seeing many kids flock to her space, which she admires.

“It’s a space where they can come be themselves, even if they don’t feel like doing their homework, they can play video games and board games,” said Vandewater. “Not enough places like this exists.”

To donate to this organization, visit their GoFundMe page.

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