Growing up, Milenny Valentin was no stranger to trouble — particularly at school.
A fractured relationship with her mother, she said, led the 15-year-old to act out in school for much of her childhood.
In seventh grade, she reached her boiling point, as she hit one of her teachers and got kicked out for a year.
But, now, she is on track to graduate from McCaskey High School and attend college to become a doctor, thanks in large part to finally finding the right support system.
It comes four days a week, keeps her out of trouble during the summer months and provides a refreshing sense of unconditional love.
“They always support you, no matter if you make the wrong decision,” Valentin said. “They’ll always guide you and encourage you.”
Founded by Hand Middle School teachers Shayne Meadows and Ty Bair, Advantage Lancaster — formerly known as Exit Lancaster — has become a support system for hundreds of Lancaster city students like Valentin over the last 15 years.
The program — with the mission of fostering productive members of the community through education, community service and wellness initiatives — was created to serve middle and high school students affected by summer learning loss, commonly known as “summer slide.”
And, Bair said, it’s usually the kids with low socioeconomic status who get hit the hardest.
“The sad part is the kids don’t even realize it’s happening to them,” Bair said. “Once the summer gets here, if they don’t do something educational, they’re going to be left behind.”
So, with the help of several community organizations, Advantage Lancaster provides courses in the arts, literacy, math, science and technology — all of which are taught by certified teachers or college professors — for students free of charge at Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology. It also brings students on weekly trips to the beach, the mountains or even to see a Broadway show.
Students receive internships through the county workforce development board, for which they can earn a stipend of up to $1,000. In addition, they get to work out at the Lancaster Family YMCA, are provided healthy meals for breakfast and lunch, and get to make their own smoothies using fruits and vegetables donated by Kegel’s Produce.
It costs the nonprofit about $3,200 a student for its summer program, which runs until Aug. 3. For services during the fall and spring semesters, it costs the organization $1,700 per student.
Bair said there are currently 43 students enrolled from Hand Middle School and McCaskey; however, the nonprofit plans to expand to serve students from Lincoln, Reynolds and Wheatland middle schools.
Advantage Lancaster is funded by School District of Lancaster and the United Way of Lancaster County, as well as fundraisers and donations.
Thaddeus Stevens lends its facilities for free.
Sobeida Rosa, a 19-year-old currently studying journalism at Ithaca College in New York, is a paid summer intern for Advantage Lancaster, and one of the program’s many success stories.
As part of her internship, she writes newsletters and handles social media for the nonprofit. Having parents who didn’t graduate college – and a father who never finished high school – Rosa said she was thankful that Advantage Lancaster gave her the opportunity to succeed, regardless of her background.
“They try to bring that positivity within the students and tell them that they can do something,” she said. “It’s a nice change of pace to see someone caring about you.”
Over the past five years, 96 percent of students who participated in the program have graduated high school, according to Advantage Lancaster’s high school director, Jennifer Meadows, who also teaches at McCaskey High School. About 86 percent, she said, have gone onto college or the armed forces.
As part of the agreement with Thaddeus Stevens, those who graduate high school while enrolled in Advantage Lancaster can attend Thaddeus Stevens for just 10 percent of the cost, Shayne Meadows said.
Regardless of the path students take after high school, Jennifer Meadows, said, she keeps in touch with as many as she can.
“You graduate high school,” she said. “But you don’t graduate from Advantage Lancaster.”