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Northeast Community College Students Are In “The Zone”

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NORFOLK – Being “in the zone” implies increased focus and attention which allows for a higher level of performance no matter what someone is trying to accomplish. While many people in the zone achieve a state of fulfillment; for others, it is a feeling of satisfaction by helping their neighbors. Some students at Northeast Community College fall in the latter group because they are literally in “The Zone” on a regular basis.

Jen Lewis, Sam Vincent, and Stephanie Fischer are among the volunteers who help staff the after school program in downtown Norfolk known as “The Zone.” “I like it a lot. It’s challenging, but in a good way,” Lewis said. “Since I have not worked with teenagers before, this has a whole new level of patience.”

The Zone

Northeast students are in “The Zone” Jen Lewis, Bellwood, (left) Stephanie Fischer, Ewing, and Sam Vincent, Norfolk, prepare snacks at “The Zone.” The three Northeast Community College students are among the volunteer staff at the after school program in downtown Norfolk for local 7th -12th grade students. (Courtesy Photo)

“We call ourselves a pro-active after school program that targets 7th-12th graders here in Norfolk,” said Julee Pfeil, coordinator of The Zone. “Our mission is to promote the physical, mental, emotional, social and spiritual well-being of adolescents. That’s a big description, but it includes all of the aspects that young people need to grow up and be healthy adults.”

Pfeil began working with youths in 2000 through the Community Character Development Coalition (CCDC) while a member of the Norfolk Public Schools Board of Education. In February, she resigned her school board position to devote her full attention to the after school program. The Zone, located in the former Uptown restaurant, at 326 W. Norfolk Avenue, actually began as an after school program in 2007.

“The Zone was created as part of a program of mentors who went out to speak to youths. The concept was, let’s have a safe, healthy place that youth could come to hang out. But we found out that those kids were really busy,” Pfeil said. “Through CCDC, I was really working on projects with more at-risk kids, the types of kids that were not making connections in school. We realized there was a gap for kids who were not doing extracurricular activities.”

A federal grant funded CCDC. The Coalition lost its funding in the second year of a five-year cycle. Pfeil said they lost the funding before they were able to create sustainability for the program. The Zone is now funded through local in-kind and financial support. “In addition to some larger donations, we receive several smaller contributions, which really mean a lot. I had several churches bring in $100 checks prior to the holidays. It’s really been the community that has come around to support us.”

Pfeil said when The Zone lost its funding, young people who had been coming in realized how important it was to them. “Students, who may not be considered leaders in their schools, suddenly developed leadership skills and understood what it would take to keep this operational.”

Becoming a non-profit was one of the first goals of The Zone’s seven-member board after the CCDC was discontinued. Pfeil said it made it easier for them to grow the organization. “We have a roster of about 40 kids now, but since they don’t show-up every time, you don’t always know many to plan for on any given day. On one recent day, over 30 of them showed up.  We don’t have a lot of space, but we do well.”

Another thing that was changed from the old CCDC model was the age of the students involved. “Previously we only worked with 7th-9th grade. When we reorganized, we wanted to focus on leadership qualities. Once those kids entered into high school, we help them personify the values we are trying to promote here – pursuing their education, respect, and community service. Those are the kinds of things that allow them to become part of the leadership group. The Zone is all about the kids. The kids own The Zone. It’s a place where they can practice their gifts and talents.”

Volunteers were added to the mix over the past year as well. Pfeil credits Northeast Community College’s Career Services’ Part-time Job Fair with providing additional staff. “I love the Northeast Job Fair, because that is where we have picked up some of our best staff.” Lewis and Fischer obtained their volunteer jobs at “The Zone” through the Part-time Job Fair while Vincent connected through one of his instructors.

Lewis, who is pursuing a double major in pre-nursing and human services, is from Bellwood. “I went to the Part Time Job Fair at Northeast looking for volunteer hours because I am trying to build up my resume and application to get into the social work program at UNO (University of Nebraska at Omaha). This hits the age of kids I have not worked with before and I wanted to do something new and exciting.”

Lewis, who has worked with children in daycare and Alzheimer’s patients, is looking into a criminal justice minor so she could also work in a juvenile detention center.

She said she has learned a different level of patience by volunteering at The Zone. “It has given me a new level of control; because they can be a little crazy and loud at times and you can’t really get them to necessarily do what you want them to do. You just have to learn to let things happen and let things go.”

But Lewis wouldn’t change a thing. “Some of them will sit down with you and be very open when they talk. It’s funny because they might say “Oh! I forgot you’re the adult and I probably shouldn’t have told you that,” she said with a laugh. “It’s neat that they can relate to you on that authority/friend level. It’s also nice to help them and connect with them, because you can see that some of these kids don’t have that in their lives.”

Vincent, of Norfolk, wants to use his associate of arts degree in social science from Northeast to go into education to teach and coach.  “It’s been good and fun. I have tried to be more engaging and step out of my comfort zone to ask questions in order to get to know how the kids are doing and what’s going on in their lives.”

Vincent said he and the other volunteers “hang out” with the students by playing pool, Ping-Pong or any number of games and help students with their homework. “This experience has allowed me the opportunity to communicate and interact with the kids, show them the ramifications of their actions and just get to know them better.”

Fischer, who is a few years older than Lewis and Vincent, is a “full-time mom and student” and has a part-time job in addition to volunteering at The Zone. “This has been an amazing experience. I went into human services at Northeast – and working with youth in this age range has been a career path I have been looking at.”

She said when she saw the volunteer opportunity at the part-time job fair; she jumped at the opportunity because it fit in perfectly with a classroom project. “I figured it would either help me to decide that I like this, or no-way I’m crazy, I don’t want to work with youth.” But Fischer said with a smile she loves the work. “I still like the youth.”

She said she can see the influence the volunteers are having on the students. “Each one of us will impact people differently. We blend in differently. Then when you’re here the next time, it seems like that’s the person they like to go to.”

Fischer has had the opportunity to explore different career options in her life. “I have worked with the elderly. But I feel you can make more of an impact on youth because the older you get, the more you get set in your own ways. I really believe that trying to make a positive impact on someone starts better at a younger age.”

Pfeil is complementary toward her staff of volunteers from Northeast. “Just the other day we had some special needs kids in here who required patience and understanding. Sam has been really good at that. They are helping the kids build social skills and teach them boundaries,” she said. “I have watched these three do that. Just telling someone to not touch the extra buttons on a video game may sound insignificant, but it’s teaches the kids boundaries…it’s teaching them a life skill.”

Pfeil is pleased with the work that is being accomplished through The Zone. “This is my community. I have been here since 4th grade. My husband and I and our children have grown up here. I never dreamed that this is where I would be, but through those at-risk projects through CCDC, being part of the Board of Education, and raising my own children, I could just see this need arise. I have become very passionate about that.“

She paraphrases a quote from the film, The Blind Side, when she talks about the youth and volunteers at The Zone.  “While our goal is to change lives of the youth through the work we do at The Zone, I must tell you, they have certainly changed mine.”


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Northeast Community College Students Are In “The Zone”