It takes a village to raise a child.

That’s an idea Amaury Abreu of Project 13th Grade embraces wholeheartedly, with his community-based approach to preparing children and youth for the world beyond high school.

Project 13th Grade is a local organization with this mission: “To empower children and youth to create a better future for themselves and their communities.” This mission statement was first posted to the organization’s Facebook page July 19, but the general principle has guided it since its inception in 2018.

“The whole point of Project 13th Grade is to help students understand what they need to learn to be able to be successful when they’re done with their formal K-12 education,” said Abreu. “We want to be there for their transition process as they move forward in life, going from being in middle school, elementary school, high school, to eventually graduating. We want to help them be prepared for that.”

One way Project 13th Grade seeks to prepare youth is through presentations to local school districts, including Annville-Cleona, Lebanon, and Cornwall-Lebanon. While these presentations initially focused on entrepreneurship, as that was Abreu’s experience, they now offer more presentations tailored to different topics.

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“At the time [2018], we were mainly going and sharing our experiences and showing the students, ‘if you feel like this is a path you want to take, this is our experience,’” explained Abreu. “I think now is going to be even better because we’re going to come now with a more structured organization with having a board, having a clear vision and mission, and also specifically having presentations tailored for these different topics.”

Amaury Abreu stands in front of a classroom giving a presentation for Project 13th Grade. He has been giving presentations in schools since 2018, but did pause in-school presentations last year due to COVID-19 restrictions.

Project 13th Grade also hosts events encouraging children and youth to engage with the community. One is its monthly Community Cleanup Day, where youth clear litter at local locations and connect with others within the community.

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“The whole point of that is to bring out the children and youth to understand why it matters to take care of their community, but at the same time start developing those community connections with people that are also there,” said Abreu.

The Community Cleanup Days allow youth to volunteer and also make connections with leaders in the community; business owners, nonprofits, and others who can help them build their resumes or connect them with eventual careers.

Youth gather with full trash bags after an hour of collecting litter at a Community Cleanup Day. The next Community Cleanup Day will be held this Saturday in front of the HACC building from 11 a.m. to 12 p.m.

“That moment of just being out in the community provides them with [community connections], and at the same time learning how to take care of your environment,” explained Abreu. “That’s been amazing; we have had such great feedback. Every time we do it, there’s always a good group of children and youth who are showing up.”

Project 13th Grade’s newest program is its monthly Community Health Day, which had its first day July 17. Its goals are essentially the same as the Community Cleanup Day, except youth are shown the importance of exercise and exploring Lebanon County’s parks and recreational facilities rather than clearing litter.

Amaury Abreu and participants at the first Community Health Day at South Hills Park, July 17. The next Community Health Day is this Saturday from 9 to 10 a.m. at Coleman Memorial Park, meeting in the parking lot.

“We’re bringing out children and youth and teaching them how to take care of their bodies by exercising, and at the same time connecting with other people in the community as well,” said Abreu.

While the program is new, Abreu hopes to eventually collaborate with other local organizations such as Community Health Council, Lebanon Family Health Services, and/or the Lebanon Mobile Kitchen to teach youth the value of staying healthy.

Abreu is passionate about preparing youth for life after school. When he and his family immigrated to the US from the Dominican Republic around six years ago, Abreu found himself struggling to know exactly how to go about processes like applying to college.

“I remember it being somewhat frustrating just because there’s so many factors and components to, for example, applying to college,” said Abreu.

Abreu’s background also inspired him to start the Right on Time program, in which he sends clothing and non-perishable food to families with fewer resources in the Dominican Republic. Abreu began this program around a year and a half ago and sends supplies every three months.

Abreu noted that while college is the right path for some youth, others seek admission to trade schools, while others still plan to enter the workforce after graduation. Regardless of any specific path, though, he feels that youth are best off getting a head-start thinking about how they will succeed after graduation.

Amaury Abreu talks to an auditorium of students for Project 13th Grade.

“Why is it that something so important for somebody that’s pretty much going to affect the rest of their life, why do I need to wait until I am — I don’t know what age — to figure it out?” Abreu asked, remembering being told that he should wait to think about what he wanted to do after graduation. “That was always my thing: I don’t need to be older to figure something out that I can do now.”

To Abreu, community is extremely important in helping youth prepare for adulthood. And he has noticed that many youth do not have regular opportunities to interact with members of the community, something he feels is important both to develop experience and character.

“You want to start building those relationships and those community connections now, because even though you might not think you’re going to need, it, it’s not about needing it,” Abreu said. “It’s just important.

“When you have somebody there coaching you through it, it’s going to be easier.”

Amaury Abreu gives life advice to a student who approached him after a presentation.

Going forward, Abreu hopes to keep expanding Project 13th Grade’s reach. He is now working on a collaboration with a local employer to connect them with current seniors in high school looking for employment opportunities post-graduation. He also hopes to develop a pathway to share with students guiding them through the process of applying to college or trade schools.

“A message that I would say to everyone is, start thinking about it,” said Abreu. “Start asking yourself those questions because the sooner you’re able to identify what is going to happen next, what you need to be prepared for that next step, the better it’s going to be once you get to that moment and have all those resources.”

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Emily Bixler was born and raised in Lebanon and now reports on local government. In her free time, she enjoys playing piano and going for hikes.