“I Knew I Was Worth It” – YouthQuest Participants Tell How 3D Printing Changed Their Lives as 3D ThinkLink Initiative Celebrates Graduate Milestone


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tech-pack-1024x825While 3D printing saves lives in obvious ways through its many medical applications, it also has the ability to alter the course of lives, particularly young ones. Last year, we reported on the YouthQuest Foundation, an organization that teaches at-risk youth about 3D printing in order to instill in them critical thinking and problem-solving skills, as well as confidence in their own abilities, ingenuity and creativity. It doesn’t hurt that 3D printing is widely agreed to be one of the most valuable skills for job-seekers to have in the changing market.

YouthQuest launched their 3D ThinkLink Initiative in 2013 at Maryland’s Freestate ChalleNGe Academy, which was quickly joined by the Capital Guardian Youth ChalleNGe Academy in Washington, D.C. and the South Carolina Youth ChalleNGe Academy. The Youth ChalleNGe Academies, of which there are 40 across the United States, are National Guard-run schools where high school dropouts can get a second chance to gain life skills and possibly earn a diploma or GED. The 3D ThinkLink Initiative teaches students at the academies how to use CAD programs and 3D printers over the course of 30 hours of classroom instruction and labs. The students in the course are also required to complete a four-hour community service project and eight hours of Vocational Orientation at a university or business where 3D printing is used.

In December, the 3D ThinkLink Initiative hit a major milestone when its total number of Youth ChalleNGe Academy graduates reached 200 – and further milestones won’t be far off, as the initiative has expanded past the ChalleNGe Academies to reach other at-risk youth programs. The PHILLIPS Programs for Children and Families started offering ThinkLink classes for high school students with autism at their Annandale, Virginia campus last year, and will soon include them at their Fairfax location.

“We’re a very small charity, so the fact that we’ve been able to bring these opportunities to now more than 200 at-risk youth is really exciting for us, especially as we are expanding to reach other at-risk communities,” Lynda Mann, Co-Founder and President of YouthQuest Foundation, tells 3DPrint.com. “We’re expecting great things this year as we move toward having our 300th graduate.

“When we started the 3D ThinkLink Initiative, we were pretty far out ahead of everyone else in terms of applying 3D as a learning mechanism. So we weren’t really sure how effective it would be for at-risk youth. We wanted a way to teach critical thinking and problem solving to these kids because it’s something that is really missing in their lives. And as it turned out, 3D design and printing was perfect for this. Once we got up and running with our first class in 2013, we discovered that this was not only a good thing to help the kids with their thinking skills, but it also helped prepare them for careers.”

Adonis Gonzales was part of the first class to complete YouthQuest’s 3D ThinkLink training at Maryland's Freestate ChalleNGe Academy in 2013.

Adonis Gonzales, Class of 2013

That’s why the program so emphasizes the vocational and academic orientation, she continues – so that kids can actually see the possibilities for applying their newly learned skills in well-paying, stable jobs that allow them to contribute to society. The community service portion of the program, which gives the students the opportunity to use their skills to help others, has been a big success, too. Mann points out the example of Adonis Gonzales, a member of 3D ThinkLink’s first class at the Freestate ChalleNGe Academy in 2013.

“He was a high school dropout and was headed kind of nowhere,” she tells us. “He knew that he wanted to be a master electrician but he had no idea how to get there. And through participation in ChalleNGe and our program specifically, he was able to reorient himself.”

With the skills he learned in the ChalleNGe Academy, Gonzales was able to gain acceptance to an apprenticeship program for electricians, and he will graduate in one year. He’s also now married with two kids. These are the outcomes that YouthQuest loves to see, Mann says: not just improved GED pass rates, but students who go from being directionless to productive and successful members of society.


Mann and Gonzales

The program can also be a form of therapy, she says. The students who participated in the class through the PHILLIPS Programs have high-spectrum forms of autism, but the focused, visual approach of 3D ThinkLink suited them well, not only teaching them new concepts but improving their social and communication skills.

Every six months, the YouthQuest Foundation awards scholarships to students who write the best essays about how 3D ThinkLink has affected them personally. December’s winner was 18-year-old Aunya’ Jones from Hyattsville, MD, who also earned the distinction of being the first 3D ThinkLink Youth Mentor. The program’s top graduates from each class are invited to come to YouthQuest’s 3D ThinkLink Creativity Lab in Chantilly, VA for a week of advanced training. From there, the most qualified lab students are invited to become Youth Mentors and share what they’ve learned with their communities with help from YouthQuest, which provides the necessary equipment and training.

“I didn’t expect that 3D printing was going to change me as a person…It’s proof that I’m successful. It’s proof that I can do something, because not too long ago, I couldn’t do too much. I was probably the worst in the class at first,” says Jones. “It gave me more faith in myself because I knew I was worth it. I could do it. I didn’t have to doubt myself anymore.

“To be the first at something means a lot and to know that I came so far to be considered a mentor now and to teach other people what I’ve been through and share my story, it means that I can probably help change other people’s lives. That’s what I’ve been missing a lot in my life growing up. It means it’s never too late to change.

“The first person I’m going to share it with is my little brother Lorenzo because he watched me grow up and he was there to experience a lot of the stuff I went through. I want him to know that even though I made mistakes and messed up a few times, there’s always a way you can become better. It’s never too late.”


Aunya’ Jones

In her winning essay, Jones describes how, already lacking faith in herself and her abilities, she wanted to give up after her first failed 3D print, but instead became determined to try again until she created something she could be proud of. One day, her instructor told her that her design was the only one to print successfully.

“It brought me so much joy because that meant that I was finally getting it,” she says in her essay. “Joining 3D printing has taught me to never give up.”


Jones and Meeks

Jones’ essay won her a $500 scholarship for her continued education, and you can read the whole thing here, along with the essay of the other winner, Brock Jasmann. According to Tom Meeks, YouthQuest Foundation Director of Instruction, Jones’ story reflects exactly what the foundation is hoping to impart with the 3D ThinkLink Program: the realization, for kids, that failure is not final.

“One of the most consistent themes we hear from the at-risk kids that have completed our 3D design and printing classes is how it has helped them learn to deal with failure in an entirely new way,” he tells us. “They describe that in the past they were inclined to simply give up in frustration in the face of failure. But, the experience of refining a design, over several attempts, until the 3D print is exactly what they had envisioned, helped them to realize that failures can be seen as steps to success.  With 3D printing, failures are never final because 3D designs are so easily altered in as many steps as necessary to achieve the goal. What is really gratifying is to hear them describe their realization that this concept has very real application in all parts of their life.”

In addition to the schools and programs mentioned above, YouthQuest has also provided summer enrichment programs in 3D printing at Virginia’s Horizons Hampton Roads and the Culmore Boys & Girls Club. They also introduced more than 70 students from across the US and Canada to 3D printing through workshops at the 41st Annual Convention of the National Society of Black Engineers.

The foundation’s work is far from done, though, and they’re looking to connect with corporate partners and individual donors who can help them reach more at-risk youth through 3D printing. If you’re interested in connecting, you can email the foundation at info@youthquestfoundation.org or call (703) 234-4633. Discuss in the 3D ThinkLink forum at 3DPB.com.

[Images courtesy of YouthQuest Foundation]


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