Finding My Voice through Leadership
Kimberly Mendoza, Youth Leader, The Institute of Music for Children
The Institute of Music for Children serves 1,000 young people each year, using the arts to develop youth into responsible, healthy adults. Located in the Metropolitan New York area, the Institute serves students in and around Elizabeth, New Jersey, a diverse city with large Black and Latinx populations. In this piece, Youth Leader Kimberly Mendoza talks about her experience growing within the program.
Every summer after I turned five, my parents would send me to summer camp. We spent our time as most kids do—playing games, doing icebreakers, going on field trips. At first, it was a fun routine, but it grew tiresome as I got older. I wasn’t having any new experiences! That all changed when I started attending the Institute of Music for Children in 2017. I began spending my time learning different art forms both from professional artists and from kids my age. Suddenly, each day felt new and enriching. I had found a place where I always wanted to be.
The Institute of Music for Children is a community arts organization serving students in elementary through high school. The Institute offers beginner- and advanced-level classes in guitar, piano, drawing/painting, filmmaking, singing, dancing, and more. All year long (including summers!) students are exposed to different art forms as they develop new personal interests—meeting new friends, seeing old ones, and socializing through the art and enrichment classes offered here. It is more than a creative hub; it provides young people with a caring and welcoming family.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Institute’s Youth Leader Program. None of the summer camps I ever attended had anything like it—a program essentially designed to help us grow up. Participants work through four levels: Volunteer Youth Leader, Youth Leader-in-Training, Youth Leader, and an optional Teacher-in-Training stage. The first two levels are for under-18 members who want to work at the Institute but need time to learn its responsibilities. Trainees shadow Youth Leaders, learning to distinguish leadership behavior from student behavior. Working side by side with experienced Youth Leaders provides key insights: how aware of the children we must be; how to read signs in a child’s behavior; how to resolve conflict; and how to make a student’s experience comfortable and enjoyable. Training this way prepares us to identify social cues and situations in which we might have to intervene. We also learn to make ourselves available to children who don’t want to speak with an adult.
Youth Leaders serve as examples for trainees and students alike, demonstrating classroom etiquette and helping with students who might need extra attention. The Teacher-in-Training stage is offered for aspiring educators looking for direct field experience. Though very few students become Teachers-in-Training, it helps to know it’s an option for those of us who know early on that we want to teach.
Youth Leaders are not just babysitters; we are mentors and friends. In that way, we’re more than camp counselors. The Institute could have easily hired adults like any other camp, but I’m glad they didn’t. Learning in an environment where everyone, even teachers, can share and be influenced by one another has improved my communication and social skills immeasurably. More than that, I’ve felt a more complete sense of self, having recognized strengths I didn’t know I had.
When I first joined the Institute, I was extremely shy and so nervous to talk in front of large groups. Making friends was scary. But stepping into a leadership role showed me what I’d been missing out on. Being in a group with kids my age, who are interested in the same things as I am, gave me the courage to open up. The Institute offers classes that help with that, too—and not just for Youth Leaders. Creative Writing and Public Speaking classes helped me develop in a different way. And I didn’t want to do them at first, either; it took encouragement from teachers and friends alike. Reinforcement from your peers is sometimes the best way to learn that your thoughts are worth sharing. That was true for me, and I bet for many others.
Just as important is the emotional side; classes such as Teen Talk and Kids Speak allow us to discuss our feelings about various topics. Providing this safe space to discuss how we feel, and to learn how to express ourselves in a group of peers, helps us in real life when we must communicate in our true voices.
Serving as a Youth Leader has become such a significant part of my life. Watching the young students now, I remember exactly how it felt to be in their shoes, making discoveries about art and about themselves. When I think about the journey, I think of all the small moments of comfort I received and then paid forward. It is similar to having siblings—you remember the big events, but you cherish the small interactions, when they are eager to share some small part of themselves with you. I am grateful to everyone who felt comfortable asking me for help; to have students trust and look up to you for guidance, whether it be in the arts or in their social lives, makes the experience special.
As someone who has moved through the ranks from student all the way to Youth Leader, I have seen how each role plays a crucial part in our own development. When I first became a Youth Leader, I was just excited to learn how the camp functions. Getting assigned responsibilities made me feel useful, like more than just a student. But during that process, the Institute helped me grow up, prepared me for potential jobs, and helped me become a better person. Through this journey, I also gained self-confidence. The freedom to speak and suggest new ideas—and be listened to, no matter my age—is how I define a true community. I would not want to be anywhere else.
Kimberly Mendoza is a 20-year-old Youth Leader at the Institute of Music for Children. She started attending classes at the Institute in 2017 at the age of 16. Outside of the Institute, Kimberly attends Kean University with a major in HR Management and a minor in ASL. Her favorite art forms are drawing, painting, and sculpting.