If they hadn’t been so focused on what was happening inside the room here at 135 Atlantic St., Kyra O’Connor and the other 14 Stamford teens may have heard the swoosh of CT Transit buses pulling up below, at Veterans Park across the street, taking car-less city commuters to work or back home.
Or they may have heard the thrum of skateboarding teens on their way to Stamford Town Center—the mall—an idle after-school destination for many students in this city.
But not these kids.
On the windowsill lay stacks of college and career guides, and their attention this Tuesday afternoon is directed toward the front of the room and New Canaan resident Clif McFeely, founder of Future 5.
He’s leading a game of “Brain Wave,” a current events quiz where the kids earn points for good answers, and often, for very good tries.
“But why was it particularly dangerous for North and South Korea to fire artillery rounds at each other?” McFeely asked them.
O’Connor raised her hand: “Because they have nuclear weapons.”
O’Connor got the full three points for that—the latest reward she’s earned in a unique program that offers motivated students not just a fun place to socialize but also a sense of, and path to, community and identity. With that foundation as its anchor, Future 5 presents the teens—all of them students at one of Stamford’s four public high schools—practical training and connections with staff, board members and volunteer coaches who have wide expertise in identifying and pursuing plans for college and careers.
‘There Are People to Help You and Encourage You’
O’Connor, 16, a city native and junior at Stamford High School who lives in Springdale, began coming to Future 5 about two months ago, on a school counselor’s suggestion.
She now comes three or four times a week.
“They help a lot,” O’Connor said. “There are tutors here, so I get a lot of help with my schoolwork and whenever I’m having trouble. They also help with the college process. And it’s also just a nice place to come after school and hang out and meet new people.”
Before she discovered Future 5, O’Connor says, she generally would simply go home after school. Asked what she’d do there, O’Connor replied with an easy laugh: “Not my homework.”
“Before I was coming here, I wasn’t doing too well in school and I was thinking maybe, ‘Oh I shouldn’t go to college.’ Also, I have a lot of friends that are going through the college process, and I saw how difficult it was for them. But they help you. There are people to help you and encourage you and there’s always support.”
She’s one of 108 students involved in the organization now, and Future 5 plans to serve more than 300 by next year, said Polly Perkins Johnson, a New Canaan resident who serves as chairman of the board.
Future 5 does not actively seek out or identify the kids who join the program: “It’s a self-selection,” Perkins Johnson said.
“Something in you knows there is something more you should be doing. Something makes you get off the bus and get downtown and walk up the stairs to the second floor. By nature, this is a somewhat motivated kid.”
No one is turned away. To this point, most of the participating teens discovered Future 5 by word of mouth—a student may recruit two or three friends, for example.
“We tend to get kids who hear about us and what we do,” Perkins Johnson said. “They may hear about the college program on Monday and the job program on Tuesday. It’s everything you can’t get from your family. It’s a character-building program that helps you with every aspect of your life.”
Founding and New Canaan Connection
Clif McFeely has lived in New Canaan since 1975, and he refers to Stamford as a second home.
Prior to founding Future 5, he’d worked in Stamford in advertising and served on the boards of Domus, a nonprofit that works with vulnerable kids, as well as Stamford Achieves, an organization focused on closing the city’s achievement gap.
McFeely long has been involved in coaching kids—“I guess I was a coach at heart, going back to New Canaan and my coaching days, I have a thing about coaching kids,” he said—and he traces his specific interest in mentoring young people to an experience with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Southwestern Connecticut. He began serving about 20 years ago as a “Big Brother” to an 11-year-old who opened his eyes to hurdles that await many kids just by circumstance.
“I got very involved in helping a young man who was struggling in life and getting to know all of his friends and I saw where they were headed—and in so many cases, it wasn’t a good place,” McFeely recalled.
In his career in advertising, McFeely specialized in marketing for teenagers, “so when the time came to do something different, it just made sense to open up this concept.”
“It’s all about connecting what we call ‘disconnected’ high school students in Stamford’s big high schools here to the world that is out there, both academically and career-wise,” he said.
He piloted Future 5 in early 2009, working out of space at Domus, and launched the program in its first academic year that fall.
Programming at Future 5 includes workshops that help with goal-setting and strategizing on achievement, job preparation (shadowing, internships, summer jobs) and college preparation (common application, essay, search process, financial aid).
Volunteer coaches work with students and recruit other volunteers to help. Perkins Johnson said that of the roughly 45 volunteers involved in Future 5, 30 are from New Canaan.
Like much of Future 5—its grassroots founding, growth, membership and programs—involvement from residents of neighboring New Canaan developed on its own, McFeely said. (Perkins Johnson said 10 of 11 Future 5 board members are out of New Canaan.)
“It just happened naturally with people I knew who heard what I was doing, and they started showing up and saying, ‘What can we do to help’?” McFeely recalled.
One of those is New Canaan resident Noreen Poulson, a co-director of Future 5’s six-week Job Prep program, which this year has had about 40 kids in it.
With a master’s degree in higher education, specifically college student development, and having seen her own kids from high school to college to careers, Poulson said she felt Future 5 offered her an opportunity to take what she’s learned and help others.
“I feel very much this is a time where I can give back to my community and help students who may not have the help at home or school that they need to be successful,” she said.
She’s been volunteering at Future 5 since the fall of 2009. A more recent addition to Future 5’s “coaching staff” is New Canaan’s Lindsay Valk, a 1971 New Canaan High School graduate.
Valk had been retired for a time from a career in publishing when Perkins Johnson—who had worked in the same field—approached him and said he should consider getting involved.
“It’s been fantastic,” Valk said. “What Clif has built here with everyone that’s helped him, you see the kids and how enthusiastic they are and how much they want to learn and how much this program has optimized their future. It’s fun and its’ great working with the kids because they’re so excited and fun to be with.”
Another coach, Kevin McMahon of New Canaan, is a lawyer who specializes in technology-related matters, and he knew McFeely through St. Mark’s Church up on Oenoke Ridge.
McMahon said he’d wanted to work with kids for a while, “to give them a chance to succeed, where you’ve made a difference in somebody’s life and that’s very valuable.”
Asked what Future 5 has given back to him, McMahon said: “The satisfaction of seeing kids improve and remarkably improve their chances of succeeding in life, which is what it’s all about.”
The numbers back that up.
According to data on Future 5’s website, since the organization’s founding, 92 percent of Future 5 graduates have commitments to two- or four-year colleges, and 99 percent graduated from high school. That’s against a statewide high school graduation rate of about 82 percent, the website says, which is far lower—about 69 percent—among Hispanics, Latinos and African-Americans.
‘It Feels Like I’m Important’
While O’Connor was playing Brain Wave in the front room overlooking Atlantic, 17-year-old Stamford High School juniors Greg Koszkul and Joshua Cenejuste chatted over homework in a quiet study room with computers, on the opposite side of Future 5’s space.
Known to each other casually prior to meeting at Future 5, the two now call themselves friends. They participate together in bike rides around Stamford and Darien that McFeely himself leads, and say they most appreciate the focus at Future 5 on practical job preparation.
“If I didn’t come here, I wouldn’t have a resume,” said Cenejuste, an aspiring physical therapist who lives on Stamford’s east side.
Koszkul, a native of Poland who moved to Stamford with his family as a second-grader and lives in the Belltown neighborhood, said he’s learned job interviewing skills from McFeely that he wouldn’t have picked up elsewhere.
An aspiring civil engineer, Koszkul joined Future 5 as a freshman and has since been involved in shadowing at companies that include Stamford-based Ashforth, a diversified real estate firm whose work spans property management, general contracting and construction.
“I’m hoping to get an internship there to get some experience for the summer,” he said.
About 20 minutes later at the Old Town Hall across the street, Koszkul had a chance to practice his 30-second “audition” for that internship with a co-CEO of the company—New Canaan’s Andy Ashforth—watching from the back of the room. It happened as Koszkul received his certificate for graduating from the Job Prep program, along with about 15 other students. Here he is with McFeely:
Koszkul and the other Job Prep program grads received not only a certificate from Future 5 but also business cards and a letter of recommendation that included this:
“Greg is an active member of Future 5, a nonprofit organization based in Stamford. We work with ambitious high school students who are determined to make a positive future for themselves, in school, careers and life. Each Future 5 student creates a personal game plan for success and works with volunteer coaches to achieve that plan. In particular, you should know that Greg completed our Job Prep Program, which focuses on soft skills employers tell us they are looking for in job candidates. These include communication skills, positive attitude and work ethic, teamwork, customer interaction and problem solving. Greg attended all six workshop sessions and was a regular participant in our other workshops and events. He is an ambitious young person who we believe is job ready and has the potential to be a valuable employee. Also you should know that if he’s fortunate enough to go to work for you, one of our Future 5 coaches will continue to monitor his progress.”
And McFeely, Future 5 staff and coaches serve as personal references for the kids.
Angeline Etienne and Shuwana Lynch, both 18 and seniors at Stamford High School and Westhill High School, respectively, also graduated from the program.
Lynch, who currently is working at Old Navy while finishing high school, said she aspires to enter a hospitality program in college, possibly a 2-year course at Norwalk Community College, and to become a hotel manager in the Caribbean.
Etienne said she wants to enter the medical field in some way, and that the interviewing and other skills she’s developed with Future 5 will help her get there.
Asked whether her business card represented the first time she’d ever seen her own name in print that way, Etienne said yes. Asked how it felt, she said, “It feels like I’m important, that I can give people my business card. It feels like I’m a professional.”