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Interview: Jamie Berger of the Thrive Project on helping overlooked young adults build meaningful careers

   /   Nov 8th, 2010Education, Interviews

Think of able-bodied young adults in beautiful leaf-peeping Western Massachusetts, and you don’t think of kids who’ve dropped out of high school or gotten stuck in dead-end jobs. But after living and writing in the historic mill town of Turners Falls for three years, Jamie Berger began to see that there were many youth in the area who lacked opportunities to fully explore their passions. Last spring, he started the Thrive Project to “help young adults go beyond merely surviving” by offering a center for tutoring, coaching and community engagement. We sat down with Berger to talk about why he decided to open Thrive and how he got it off the ground.

Dowser: What is the founding story of Thrive? How did this idea emerge?
Berger: I moved to Turners Falls when I started my Master of Fine Arts degree in writing at the University of Massachusetts, mostly because I didn’t want to live in the college town. I eventually became part owner of the Rendezvous, a bar in town. As I was finishing up my degree last spring, I thought of starting a tutoring business, since I’d tutored for Princeton Review in the past. And I thought, what’s the goal?  To find people who already have all the help they need? I’ve pretty much always taken day jobs that are just jobs because supposedly writing is my main thing, but they’ve never been totally fulfilling. I was talking with my friend Liz Gardner, who wanted to start a more traditional youth and teen writing center, and I thought right away of all the younger adults I’d met through the bar — who really just needed a little push to actually get their GED, actually catch a break, and actually get the opportunity to do something stimulating and fun.

Thrive describes itself as helping young adults ‘not just to survive, but to thrive.’ How would you define the distinction between surviving and thriving in a community like Turners Falls?
In low-income rural communities, the guys washing the dishes or working the factory shift are taught they’re lucky to have any job. There are so many 18 to 30-year-olds around here who didn’t finish or barely finished high school, took the first job they could find, and now it’s ten years later and they’re stuck. Because of the SAT, by 18 it is defined whether you are going to go to college, or, say, lay bricks, and if you don’t hit it right then, you rarely get another chance at doing something you like with your days. If these young adults don’t get pregnant or in trouble with the law, there aren’t significant services to help them get an extra kick.

In what ways does Thrive want to provide those second chances to these young adults?
It started last spring with two people who had been telling me for a year that they were going to get their GED, and I finally said, ‘Let’s sit down with this book once a week and just do it.’ I’ve been listening a lot to what young people want around here. Oftentimes, people in these towns don’t have cars or the resources to find out just what is across the river at Greenfield Community College, the best community college in Massachusetts. We want to refer them to what they need and to walk them through the bureaucracy to get them there. Then we want to offer cultural classes, book clubs, a DJing class, stand-up comedy, all to allow these young people a chance to do something they enjoy and see that as a possibility.

Does Thrive’s model apply to other rural low-income communities around the country?
Absolutely. This could be a model for small towns everywhere. In big cities there are more avenues than there are here, but we’re trying to show young adults that there are options. We’ve just opened, and I’m already getting letters from people asking if Thrive is going to be in other counties and towns!

It took about six months from conception to Thrive’s first open afternoon. Why did you open so quickly, and how did that initial start-up process work?
It is an unexplored concept to help rural young adults across this spectrum. When I started getting excited about the idea, I couldn’t find anything nationally that had the same angle. In order to get funding and to get people excited about the idea, we really had to open fast because there wasn’t a model to point to. We had literally a few thousand dollars in the bank, found this very cheap space and decided to rent it for the next four months. Last April I got a board together made up of people I knew from education and the arts – people who sat on the boards of nonprofits, and people who worked at area schools and colleges. Liz started to put together the curriculum and the programs, balancing between life skills and arts workshops. The first weekend of October we had our fundraising weekend, Thrive Fest, headed up by my friend the comedian, Eugene Mirman, who was able to bring great names up for a comedy show.

What do you wish you had known when you began working on this project?
I’ve learned more and more about the challenge of pride in bringing young men in here. I was raised by a strong feminist and am not someone who thinks men don’t ask for help. It is hard to get men to come in here. Still, I think it will help that I’ve always been an in-between kind of person – What makes me good at this job is that I can connect both to people in authority and with youth, with the people we call Thrivers.

What are the biggest obstacles Thrive is facing right now?
People don’t think about this particular sector of kids. The unemployment rate is high, as everyone knows, but this isn’t about being employed – it’s about the right to pursue happiness being denied to a lot of people at a very young age. Money is also of course an issue. We’re starting an organization that needs money in a place where there really isn’t any, so we need to learn how to relate to people in cities and places with money and get them to care.

Another big thing for us and our Thrivers is breaking down that gap for them between what they are and what they think they aren’t – for example, ‘college kids’ are things they think they aren’t, but we can walk them through the milestones that could make them that.  Once we can get them to take the first step to come in here for a fun event, we can then say, ‘Hey, didn’t you tell me that you don’t have a resume? Did you mention you wanted to go to Greenfield Community College?’ The level of ignorance and anger in frustrated American adults can be helped by a little thing like this all over the country, an open space where people can do any number of things, work and play related, as adults.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Photo: Paul Franz, the Greenfield Recorder

36 Responses

  1. lilfish says:

    I’m sorry but this gentleman comes across as pretty self-important and a bit condescending to the popualtion he’s trying to reach. Hopefully that is not the image that Thrive is putting out. In theory a great idea, in practice, well. I wish them luck.

    • Andy says:

      I know Jamie personally and he not at all condescending and cares deeply about his community. I had the pleasure of working for him for a year and have nothing but respect for him and what he is trying to do for the TF community.

      • jamie says:

        whoops, sent this below as a “comment” before I realized I could just “reply”:

        Hi lilfish,
        While I could hem and haw and say how our hour-long interview got smushed into this here (by necessity) and maybe I’m not perfectly represented, instead what I’d ask is, can you spot places in particular where I come off as either condescending or self-important? I’m not asking this as a challenge. I’m sure that your gut feeling is valid and is likely that of at least a few other people too, and I’d like to better understand so as not to come across like that (whether I am actually a self-important condescending &%$(&% or not). In person, while I can imagine myself thought of as self-important (yuck!) I don’t think I’m ever pegged as condescending at all. Any feedback at all appreciated. Thanks.
        jb

      • jamie says:

        p.s. if you like, you could write me at “jamie at thethriveproject dot org”
        thx

  2. lilfish says:

    that’s great to hear Andy, I was just giving an outsider’s perspective of a first impression.

  3. Anon says:

    @lilfish, I agree…..

  4. jamie says:

    Hi lilfish,
    While I could hem and haw and say how our hour-long interview got smushed into this here (by necessity) and maybe I’m not perfectly represented, instead what I’d ask is, can you spot places in particular where I come off as either condescending or self-important? I’m not asking this as a challenge. I’m sure that your gut feeling is valid and is likely that of at least a few other people too, and I’d like to better understand so as not to come across like that (whether I am actually a self-important condescending &%$(&% or not). In person, while I can imagine myself thought of as self-important (yuck!) I don’t think I’m ever pegged as condescending at all. Any feedback at all appreciated. Thanks.
    jb

    • lilfish says:

      The fact that you seem sincerely interested and perhaps even concerned as opposed to defensive is a good thing. I didn’t want to add negativity to this thread but a response makes sense.
      I got the feeling that your status is very important but yet it doesn’t sound like you’ve had any experience with your target ‘audience’ as a whole. There are assumptions all over the place about what kind of life someone without a GED or college education might have or what “thriving” really looks like.
      The specific statement that fueled my initial response was when you said “If these young adults don’t get pregnant or in trouble with the law, there aren’t significant services to help them get an extra kick.” I think I know what you meant, maybe, but it definetly makes me wonder what you’re really thinking.
      Ultimately your intentions make a lot of sense but your image makes me feel like there is a massive gap between you and your clients. The last thing you want people you’re helping to think is that you are better than them. ‘

  5. jamie says:

    Thanks for the response. I think there is a massive gap between us, but only because I got a few breaks along the way that I’d like to help make possible for others. The only real gap to me is in having those breaks and being raised to believe they exist.

    I started this project based on knowing some people in their twenties as friends who year after year have plans to go to school, to get a better job, to start making their music or their art for others besides themselves, to volunteer, (you get the idea) but who, year after year, don’t seem to get it done, in part because when you work a job you hate all day, at the end of the day you just want to sleep or escape otherwise because you’ve just got to go out and do it again in the morning, and in part because they haven’t had a break, a friend, a teacher, a coach, an organization, a relative, that tells them they can make positive change and then helps them do it.

    And from working with just a first couple of people before we opened our doors, often almost all it takes is having one person on your side. And once you turn 18, there isn’t much out there to offer that hand, that break.

    I’m sorry if all this is redundant, lilfish and other readers. Just trying to be clear. If you want to know more, please go take a look at our site,

    http://thethriveproject.org

    Thanks.

  6. First, I compliment all of you on this highly civil exchange. Reading it reminded me of how often people I’ve met, or written about, who are trying to make some kind of a change happen, find their motives or personal styles impugned. It’s very common. Part of the problem is that anytime anyone says something publicly, there will be many people who will read their comments and interpret them differently. And they won’t be in the room to add clarification and nuance. I wonder if it’s better, then, to try to focus our judgments on what we can actually see — the action, the effect — rather than what we imagine to be someone’s inner state, whether we think them to be self-important or humble.

    Thanks for your comments. – David

  7. anon says:

    Now David sounds condescending. The whole point of the internet is free exchange of ideas, opinions, observations, etc. While some abuse that structure, I do believe lilfish made a valid point, in a respectful manner. It is not for anyone else to judge a comment. You can respond to it, but going so far as to say people who create change are going to be berrated is quite a limited world view. Sounds like we all crave a chance to “thrive”.

  8. jamie says:

    Thanks, David, and Dowser and Leora and Anja for putting Thrive and me up here. Good luck!

  9. Jeff Y says:

    Jamie – I find your idea and plan to be very compelling. I don’t claim to have extensive knowledge of the situation young, uneducated adults face. However, I am around a lot of public school teachers and I know they encounter a lot of kids that, for a variety of reasons, don’t value education or have much of a vision for adulthood. If they reach a point where they want more, but have a history of failure, I’m sure they need help believing in themselves and creating some successes. You mention that your idea could be applied in other locations. What do you think are the keys to successful scaling? Is it a “program” or the right people – or both? How will you measure your success?

    • jamie says:

      Jeff,
      Those are big questions to fit answers to in a comment. They’re also questions we’re still asking more than answering. Especially the question of measuring success when we’re not focused on one goal – say GED – will be a tricky one to answer simply. One note: I definitely wouldn’t call Thrivers UNeducated at all, they just didn’t finish a more and more narrowly defined system (as No Child Left Behind test-prep curricula force more and more music and art and other “non-essential” progams to be cut) a of “school.” Just about I’ve met at Thrive has skills and talents that I don’t begin to approach.

  10. gwil says:

    If anyone has a child in this age group who doesn’t exactly fit into the norm, you KNOW that this is a crucial issue in society. I am thrilled to find a source that is exploring this issue. My daughter who just turned 22 is bright, great people skills, resourceful, strong, willing to work hard, has difficulty taking tests, survived a devastating divorce and is virtually unemployed despite the resumes she consistently puts out…she has attended some college and found it wasn’t for her. She is depressed often times about the outlook for her life. I don’t know how to help her except to know that there are always options–I’ve thought of mentorship and trying to find other opportunities for teaching some skills. Finding her purpose in being is one of her goals. I thank you for posting this site Jamie.

  11. jamie says:

    Don’t know if you’ll ever see this, but thank you gwil.

  12. gwil says:

    how does a family get involved with the Thrive project and what does it cost?

  13. jamie says:

    Hello gwil,
    In brief, the short answer is to live here in Franklin County, MA, or better still, in our town of Turners Falls. And there is no cost, but donations are very welcom. While the dream of Thrive is to branch out to small towns, well, any/everywhere, right now we’re just struggling to stay afloat financially and build the first Thrive Project location right here right now. Perhaps someday we’ll also be more of an online/remote entity, but for now what you see on http://thethriveproject.org is what we have. Please check back with us though, and thanks for the interest!

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