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Teen UpRise Leader Devotes Heart, Humor, Faith to Troubled Youth

Roxborough Christian youth program reaches out to those in need.

Amy Scalera looks you right in the eye, laughs, switches to her serious voice, tells you a heartbreaking story, sighs, and breaks into a joke. Thirty seconds into a conversation with her about Teen UpRise, the after-school Christian youth program she founded, you can tell she's both truly devoted to her teens and unwilling to take crap from anyone.

Teen UpRise is a Christian mentor program for local kids in the Roxborough-Manayunk area. Founded by Scalera in May 2011, the program launched full-time last September in three weekly afterschool sessions held at in Manayunk.

"I love the kids I work with. They can be simultaneously wonderful and awful. When I get them, they don't have these boundaries that other kids will have. So everything they think or feel, it comes right out. So that's good or bad. But sometimes, that makes you feel really good," she said. 

The ultimate goal—making kids feel like they are worth something and have options.

"Success can be if one of my kids is getting bullied... and instead of fighting, she'll say, 'Hey, it's not like you are perfect. I can point something out that will make you feel bad, but I won't. But I want you to leave me alone.'"

Originally from southern New Jersey, Scalera moved to Manayunk to attend the University of Sciences in Philadelphia, where she got a degree in teaching. After earning her Master's in Youth Ministry from Princeton Theological Seminary, she moved to Roxborough and worked for .

How It Works

The students range from 12 to 18 years-old and come from a variety of backgrounds. Nearly all Roxborough and Manayunk elementary and high schools are represented. Often, students enjoy the experience and recommend their peers join in. About 10 to 19 kids are part of the program.

On Mondays and Wednesday, seventh to 10th grades have their time. On Tuesdays, fourth to sixth graders come in. After each organized session there are clubs. Students earn their way into "silver" or "gold" levels by performing and behaving well. The clubs cover practical and fun areas, like sports, PSAT prep, and internship applications. She also meets one-on-one with them. 

Members must follow rules to progress—showing up on time, respecting others, no violence, no touching others. Also, students must be drug-free to be part of Teen UpRise, so Scalera performs random drug tests. 

The benefit of being good: Gold Teen UpRise members go on field trips—like to the St. Patrick's Day Parade or Comedy Sportz. 

"Sometimes it gets expensive for us, but for a lot of these kids, it's the first time for them going into Center City," she said.

Originally, she thought the program would work with high school students. However, she quickly determined that was often too late.

"When you work with these kids, you figure out by high school they become engrained in their family patterns really early—like third grade sometimes," she said, adding a big focus is to make sure everyone can read.

Success can be if one of my kids is getting bullied... and instead of fighting, she'll say, "Hey, it's not like you are perfect. I can point something out that will make you feel bad, but I won't. But I want you to leave me alone."

"There's a lot of things you don't have to be able to do. But you have to be able to read. If you can't read, you won't be able to do anything else," she said.

Scalera accepts students with any (or no) religious affiliation. When she founded Teen UpRise, she debated whether to keep it spiritual or go secular—ultimately deciding to keep God involved. She doesn’t hammer members with religion but incorporates faith where she finds it appropriate.

"For those who are more religiously inclined, we talk about where they see God in their lives. No one has to be religious—we have some agnostics in the group—but I'm a youth minister at heart," she said.

Dollars and Cents

A nonprofit, Teen UpRise is a free program. Scalera wants to provide a loving community that holds its members accountable and establishes self-worth. So Scalera must be creative and thrifty to fund it.

For example, Scalera's dad works at St. Mary's, and, though not directly affiliated with the church, Teen UpRise rents the St. Mary's space for free. So the facility's future is in jeopardy  with  in June.

The program relies on donors from board members and others. The Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields in Chestnut Hill donated its Christmas collection plate to Teen UpRise.

For her efforts, Scalera takes home $250 monthly. She employs four interns, but is the only staff member.

On top of being the only minister and staff member, Scalera serves as the program's executive director. That means she's tasked with fundraising, organizing events, and indoctrinating new members. The teen work also often extends beyond the official program, when kids call Scalera for emergency help, sometimes picking them up from dire situations.

Reaching Into the Community

In addition to funds from its board members, Teen UpRise has partnerships to establish opportunities for students. Honors students from Arcadia University began spending time and sharing experiences with Teen UpRise members, and continue their relationship outside the classroom. 

A business etiquette coach volunteers to teach students interview skills. Scalera often does resume workshops and works to drill on fundamentals—like showing up on time, and dressing and behaving appropriately—to get her kids ready for the real world.

Through a connection with the Philadelphia Youth Network, Teen UpRise wants to get their members summer internships with local businesses. 

"Maybe they'll just do the cleaning at a restaurant, but they'll see what it's like to be a chef," she said.

For many, college is a lofty ambition. But Scalera strives to set goals for them.

"Not all kids are meant to go to college. Our goal for them is apprenticeship, trade school or college. Everything we do is focused toward having them be useful citizens of society and God's kingdom," she said. 

Starting this summer, Teen UpRise will host flea markets twice a month. People can donate items for the market. Kids will take home 10 percent of sales themselves, with the rest going to Teen UpRise. 

For more information, visit Teen UpRise's website.

Editor's note: An earlier version misidentified the church St. Mary's is merging with. It has since been corrected.

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