Market Square Mall to get ‘New Life’ with STEM lab for youth

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Market Square Mall gets 'New Life' with STEM lab for youth
All photos contributed

By Mike Kinney

A new science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) lab will launch this summer for local youth at Market Square Mall in the Iron Triangle after a growing Richmond nonprofit secured a grant from the California Department of Education to begin programming at the lab. 

The New Life Movement, founded by Bendrick Foster to provide resources to high-risk youth and young adults in part with mentorship, educational programs and vocational training, purchased the space at Market Square Mall at 322 Harbour Way for a dedicated STEM lab for Richmond youth.

The lab’s debut program is called Designer of the Year (DOTY), which engages students ages 12-17 in the design, manufacturing, and sale of their own clothing, “with the goal of cultivating skills necessary for healthy social development and successful entrepreneurship,” Foster said.

The DOTY program aims to increase students’ “self-esteem and self-efficacy, as well as skills related to leadership, time management, and negotiation by learning how to manage the realities of running a small business (i.e. working with diverse groups of people, tracking projects, meeting deadlines, creating budgets, marketing),” Foster said.

The program will run for 12 weeks, with 1-2 meetings per week in the lab. It will have four dedicated instructors teaching students the basics of digital graphic design, web design, screen printing, apparel manufacturing, marketing, and financial literacy. The program culminates with an end-of-session event/career fair where students are able to show off and sell their new products, as well as engage with other businesses and organizations around potential career opportunities and initiatives seeking to create positive change in the community, Foster said.

The STEM lab is the latest iteration of a fast-growing nonprofit started by Foster not long after he, himself, was an at-risk young person. Raised in the Park Plaza neighborhood, Foster dropped out of high school, sold drugs and got into all kinds of trouble in the streets. But then he turned his life around in an interesting way.

Bendrick Foster (in the middle)

In 2015, Foster took his new outlook on life to John F. Kennedy Park, where he dedicated his time to clean up and rejuvenate the park. His efforts aimed to make the park located across the street from Kennedy High safe and welcoming. He also saw it as an opportunity to intervene directly with young people, with interventions ranging from simple conversations and buying food for hungry students, to engaging in more targeted mentorship for young people at serious risk of making life-altering decisions.

“The JFK park clean-up and mentoring project was really the foundation for the programs that New Life Movement offers today,” Foster said.

The New Life Movement has only grown from there. Its signature program is called Reactions and currently operates at three West Contra Costa Unified schools in Richmond. Via Reactions, New Life Movement mentors meet with 15 to 20 youth participants two to three times per week for 12 weeks at their respective schools and at the organization’s Resource Center in downtown Richmond, where they engage in activities that promote conflict resolution, healthy interpersonal communication, emotional resilience and informed decision-making skills, “all through a trauma-informed lens,” Foster said.

The goal of Reactions is to provide vulnerable youth “with the tools needed to mindfully mitigate potentially volatile interactions with their peers and adult authority figures,” he said. The program has an “instant impact” on the students and school climate at WCCUSD school sites, as recognized by teachers and administrators, said Foster.

Bendrick Foster with WCCUSD Superintendent Dr. Chris Hurst.

New Life’s mentees have reportedly demonstrated significant decreases in fighting, classroom disruption, and disrespectful behavior toward school staff and their classmates.

“We have also seen an increase in the number of Reactions students regularly attending academic tutoring sessions, and have noticed a dramatic drop in truancy among those students who have met individual goals in the program,” Foster said, “Additionally, students who participate in the New Life Reactions curriculum have demonstrated notable improvements in their classroom behavior and staff interactions.”

Reactions services were particularly critical during the COVID-19 pandemic, during which students were isolated amid school campus closures, added Foster.

During the pandemic, New Life mentors contacted over 300 public school students and their families to collect data on Wi-Fi/computer accessibility during the period of distance learning. The data compiled by New Life allowed district officials to identify students needing technical support to successfully participate in virtual learning, according to Foster.

At the emerging New Life Café, the organization is broadening its efforts with plans to create a vocational training program for Richmond high schoolers.

“Our youth also feel proud about the programs they participate in,” Foster said. “When our participants enter the NLM STEM lab, they feel a sense of belonging (given that STEM labs are uncommon in low-income neighborhoods), and begin to show signs of increased self-confidence and competency as our mentors and instructors guide them through activities that lift up their inherent strengths to develop positive life skills and growth-minded behaviors.” 

While all programs for the STEM lab have initial funding, New Life is looking for more donors and funders to maintain and also grow the programs.

Foster says the success of the New Life Movement is in part attributable to the organization being operated by people who grew up in Richmond and understand the challenges faced by the city’s vulnerable youth.

“I grew up in the Park Plaza neighborhood on the city’s Southside, and now I share the lessons of my own challenging experiences as a young man in Richmond with younger generations of at-risk youth, guiding them toward positive, fulfilling lives through intentional outreach and mentorship,” Foster said.

When young people speak to Foster, they recognize themselves in his story and are thus more receptive to joining New Life’s programming.

“Our participants trust our mentors based largely on their credibility and first-hand knowledge of life in the streets, which in turn increases the quality of our programming as participants engage deeply with the activities and more readily receive critical life lessons and skills,” Foster said.

New Life’s mentors and instructors are also trained in person-in-environment practices, which makes them able to identify and respond mindfully to environmental factors that may affect participants’ behavior or level of engagement with program activities.

All of New Life’s programming is free to the community. Anyone who wants to get their child involved in New Life’s programming, or who wants to volunteer or donate to the organization, can visit its website at here. They can also reach out to Foster directly at [email protected].