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