Teens at the Hilltop YMCA learn to create and cooperate.

Nic Jaramillo stands in the largest room of the Hilltop YMCA—the basement—which he and his small staff have turned into a computer center, a creator space and a game room for teens. It is lined with computers, craft materials and game controls, including musical instruments for a rock-band game.

“There is never a time when anybody is finished with anything here,” Jaramillo says—and that’s a positive thing. The kids are always in the middle of imagining, designing and creating. He recalls one of the first projects undertaken by the teens who come to the Hilltop Y, which opened four years ago. They tried to build a remote controlled blimp with a camera attached, intending to take aerial videos.

“Couldn’t get the darned thing to fly,” he recalls. “That is the kind of thing that sticks with you.”

Still, he says: “We celebrate failure. It is not an obstacle. They don’t know that they’re learning. They have no idea.”

The Hilltop YMCA is one of several spots in Knoxville and surrounding neighborhoods that the Kidsburgh team—including Allies for Children, Hear Me and the Sprout Fund—have focused on recently in an effort to improve children’s services throughout the city.

The Hilltop Y is a popular place. This summer it served 245 local youth through 10 programs. RoboKids taught teens circuitry and robot design using the Hummingbird robotics kits of LEDs, sensors, motors, and servos, while the Sprout Fund’s Remake Learning Digital Corps offered coding lessons employing SCRATCH and App Inventor. The Y offered yoga, gardening, creative writing and DJing 101 programs, while its summer foods program served more than 28,000 meals.

The small ex-storefront has many rooms, which Jaramillo shows to a visitor. Here’s the spot where Bhutanese and Nepalese families in the community come twice a week—where the Y in collaboration with Jewish Family and Children’s Services helps high-school juniors and seniors get job-hunting help. It has connected these young people with everything from the city’s summer employment program to Google in Bakery Square.

In another room, teens are offered a chance to recoup missed high-school credits through an online program approved by Pittsburgh Public Schools. In a third room, the kids can join a chapter of the local Entrepreneuring Youth, which takes kids from business idea formulation through planning and presenting to potential investors.

Says Patrice Gerard, the Y’s program coordinator: “Just watching some of our students go through professional development and speaking before a crowd and seeing their parents and grandparents get involved—that’s not a normal sight to see.”

Many of the kids who use the Y, Jaramillo says, are “transient,” since more than 50 percent of the local housing is rental property. But the neighborhood rivalries that are sometimes said to spill over into violence here is a stereotype, he believes.

Gerard agrees. He has never seen an inter-neighborhood incident between kids at the Y: “The only time we get these neighborhood rivalries is when they talk about their football teams. It’s the adult population … These borders are planted by the parents, telling kids, ‘Don’t go over there.’”

Among its most popular youth activities is Minecraft, in which kids use teamwork and problem-solving skills to mine raw materials, craft tools and thrive in this virtual world. Players need to cooperate to understand an issue, devise solutions and spend time implementing them. Says Y staffer Jamie Tarber, who runs the Minecraft program for the kids: “I hope they get to a certain point where once they are shown problems they will be able to come up with solutions I haven’t even thought of.”

Notes Jaramillo, looking around the colorful basement room: “We’ve been able to do really a lot with a little.”

Marty Levine

Marty Levine's journalism has appeared in Time, Salon.com and throughout Pennsylvania and has won awards from the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, Pennsylvania Newspaper Association, The Press...