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A Safe Haven for Growth


For our last blog of the year, we turn our attention to a Promise Partner who has made a name for itself by creating a safe environment for educational and mental health support. Created in 2014 by CEO and Founder Valerie Cunningham as a place for teens, UrbanZone includes a learning center, commercial kitchen, recording studio, and yoga program.

“My heartbeat was to create a haven where students can access learning opportunities, mental health resources, and an exposure to life outside of Kalamazoo,” Cunningham said of UrbanZone’s formation.

Another goal of the organization is to provide support for students who are eligible for The Kalamazoo Promise but struggle to meet the academic requirements. This need was further exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Students need us to listen to them now more than ever,” Youth Development Program Manager Kaylee McElrath shared. “Right now, with the circumstances that we are given, students are expected to depend on a 13-inch laptop to get their education, which can be difficult.”

From an academic standpoint, UrbanZone’s Learning Hub accommodates the needs of teens who may need help with making this adjustment.

“The Learning Hub is designed specifically for middle and high schoolers and is a safe place that supports learning.” Executive Director Sonja Roseman explained. “Not every student has access to the resources needed for virtual learning, so we provide a space that can accommodate up to 15 students.”

With resources that include tutoring, social work services, goal settings, college preparation, virtual learning support, free Wi-Fi, and snacks, the Learning Hub holistically addresses the needs of each pupil.

“Additionally, it is our intention to have counselors that look like the community and individuals who are walking through our doors. Fifty percent of our counselors are African American and Hispanic,” Cunningham added.

A career readiness program is also provided in the fall. During this event, UrbanZone hosts professionals from the Career and Student Employment Services Office at Western Michigan University who walk teens through a three-day course on career readiness and resume writing.

Getting these young minds prepared academically and interested in a vocation is important but it is only a part of the battle that UrbanZone fights. The organization also strives to tackle traumas that stem from negative personal experiences and economic challenges.

“We are set on identifying and eradicating the stigma around mental health, especially in African American communities,” Roseman stated.

Mental health, wellness, substance abuse, and other challenges are addressed by the program’s curriculum through support that includes art, music, social work, and counseling. A partnership with the Homer Stryker School of Medicine has also helped make this service possible.

Having a group of dedicated professionals that looks out for the youth brings us comfort and really demonstrates the compassion we have come to expect from our community members. If you know of a teen who could benefit from the UrbanZone’s support? Check out its full list of resources and contact the organization today!

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