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Innovating Our Youth

Austell Youth Innovation Center (AYIC)

Unity breeds hope as the Austell Youth Innovation Center creates a learning path of Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math for area kids.

By Jennifer Morrell

Chances are that most educators you know are passionate about their jobs. Teaching is a calling for many, rather than just a job. For Pamela Dingle, education has taken her down several roads that have allowed her to make a difference, forging paths for area youths.

As a former director of federal programs in the Cobb County School District, Dingle was perfectly positioned to become the program director of what is now the Austell Youth Innovation Center (AYIC).

“I began participating in the Austell Community Collaboration when assigned to engage the community as a part of my role in Cobb County,” Dingle says. “The collaboration became a passion and love as one of my skills is being a connector. Even more important, it became an urgency for me to see more innovation in learning that would reach underserved communities and offer a pathway to more opportunities than they thought imaginable. Why not imagine and experience the same opportunities as their more resourced peers?”

Dingle left her role with the Cobb County School District and became an independent consultant. Her work in the Austell community began in 2017. She was joined in her efforts by Pastor John Bailey, a long-time champion and partner of the AYIC, not only committing resources, but also sharing his experience in youth ministry with a focus on literacy development. Pastor Bailey regularly visits the center and encourages the work happening there.

The AYIC came about through a multi-sector collaboration of the Austell Community Collaborative (ACC), a parent non-profit arm devoted to helping the Austell community thrive. The original collaboration was initiated by Lin Harrison, John Bailey, Malcom Lewis, and Joel Rodriguez, faith-based leaders in the community, and consisted of the City of Austell government leaders, churches in the community, Austell schools, Sweetwater Mission, and other community leaders.

The goal always has been to positively impact the Austell community through youth programming that helps to shape the narrative of area kids. Four targeted initiatives to reach these outcomes consist of youth development, mentoring, parent engagement, and cross-sector collaboration.

The AYIC currently employs Yolanda Shackelford as facility director. Shackelford is responsible for the day-to-day execution of the center. As program director, Dingle works behind the scenes, developing programming, making community connections, seeking resources, and much more. The center is only limited by the size of its current facility and serves between 140 to 200 youths per year.

“We initiated after-school tutoring; however, we have been limited in executing this service until we are able to acquire a 12- to 15-passenger van,” Dingle says. “We will then serve 40 youths in after-school programming from elementary and middle schools. We could not execute our programming without youth leaders from South Cobb High School. About 20 youth counselors per year volunteer with fundraising, outreach, and youth services.”

It takes a village
To be sure, the participation and support of community business leaders is imperative to the success of the center. Travis Reeves, owner of Kids Next Code, has been an educator and strong supporter of the center and STEAM learning that is provided there. Back in 2020, Dingle approached Reeves with an opportunity to bring his coding program to the center. Planning ensued through the fall of 2020, but originally, the planning was STEM-based. Reeves observed the need for and benefits of STEAM learning, which included coding, engineering, game design, cybersecurity, and robotics. He asserts that STEAM learning is critical to the Cobb community, since a digitally based society is reality for students.

Austell Youth Innovation Center (AYIC)

“Local business owners have been involved in facilitating workshops during our camps,” Reeves says, “by assisting students with their hands-on projects, speaking to them about their day-to-day activities as a business owner, and volunteering their services to participate in student competitions and project evaluations.”

Why STEAM learning? AYIC’s forward-thinking leaders and program directors see the overwhelming value of a Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math (STEAM) learning track and believe it to be crucial for Cobb County. Regarding economic development, Cobb can develop a skilled workforce ready to fill jobs and create new businesses.

Critical thinking and problem-solving skills can provide a basis for successful, future elected leaders in government, business, non-profits, and volunteer boards as well. STEAM learning also can ensure that the Cobb community can compete in a globally competitive market. Businesses of all sizes believe in the center and its cause.

“Donations for the Austell Youth Innovation Center were made by Austell Gas System, because we believe in setting our future leaders up for success to flourish within the community,” says Justin Isbell, CEO and general manager, Austell Gas System. “The youth of our community is the future of our community, and that, in itself, is worth the investment.”

In addition to the unwavering support of Cobb business leaders is that of local government officials. After the AYIC was created, support streamed in from all facets of the Cobb community. Mayor Ollie Clemons, Jr., picked up the torch from former Mayor Joe Jerkins, and lit a fire toward positive programming opportunities for area youths.

Darrell Weaver, city of Austell, Director of Community Affairs, is a readily accessible supporter as well active board member, offering innovative ideas, fostering supportive connections, and rolling up his sleeves to help with the pursuit of funding.

Mayor Ollie Clemons, Jr.
Mayor Ollie Clemons, Jr.

“Education has always been important to me, so as a leader of the city of Austell, I have been involved since the inception of the AYIC,” says Mayor Clemons. “Government leaders in supporting programs like the AYIC help develop the critical thinking, social and emotional wellbeing, and problem-solving skills that will be necessary to take on the complex problems we are facing not only today, but what students will face in the future.”

Mayor Clemons says these include environmental concerns, affordable housing, socio-economic disparities and the digital divide, mental health, homelessness, and managing conflict when opinions are varied. Students from South Cobb High not only demonstrate community involvement for college applications, but also act as role models for younger students in the camps.

Another enthusiastic champion of the AYIC is Cobb County Commissioner Monique Sheffield, who is connecting with the Atlanta Braves organization to bring on even more support. “It is a privilege for me to provide support to the Austell Youth Innovation Center,” Sheffield says. “The AYIC has proven to be a vital investment in our community’s future by focusing on empowering our youth and sharpening their young minds to become future leaders. It showcases the commitment to nurturing resilience and fostering growth in the next generation.”

The city of Austell has partnered with the AYIC to provide a facility and additional resources that have enabled the sustainability of programming. Funding sources of the AYIC have included camp revenue, grants, in-kind donations, fundraisers, and charitable contributions.

Full STEAM ahead
STEAM learning is vital to the sustainability of our world, says Dingle. Camps offered by the AYIC allow youths to learn to protect and support the environment, create businesses and market them, safely navigate and work in the world of technology, and use the arts to promote goodwill. All STEAM camps require campers to design solutions to real-world problems.

Pamela Dingle
Pamela Dingle

“When the AYIC is thriving, we see programming from kindergarten through 12th grade in multiple areas and at multiple sites, expanding as much as possible to surrounding communities,” Dingle says. “Eventually, we will have facilities that allow us to expand our reach. We will get campers out into the community, sharing what they have learned and participating in community projects that contribute to the improvement of the world in which they live. We plan to initiate parent programming next, focusing on personal health and emotional wellness.”

The AYIC also wants to partner with initiatives through local colleges and universities as well as Sweetwater Mission to help parents who didn’t have these opportunities get exposure and awareness. This would entail fitness and yoga classes, where the AYIC would help parents understand their roles in the development of their children, instructional classes to help them improve their own skills, and connections with organizations that can help with overall wellness. Dingle wants for the AYIC to be a place where wraparound services can occur.

How you can help
The AYIC invites readers to visit austellyouthinnvovationcenter.com to learn more about the center’s programming. If you desire to give back to the Cobb community and its future, you can do so by being approved as a volunteer, making donations, or just spreading the word about the great things happening within the city of Austell. “We want to get the word out about our exciting camps that will be offered this summer, including TV/Film, Environmental and Culinary Arts, AI & Cybersecurity, AI & Engineering, and Art,” Dingle says.

Clearly, the AYIC has impacted the community by providing better opportunities for youths. When a community comes together and partners with schools to strengthen student engagement and academic success, amazing things can happen.

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