Teen Spirit

Appears in the May 2023 issue.

By Judy Sutton Taylor

Alive Center gives youths tools for the long term

Kids drumming on buckets

Kandice Henning believes in intentionality and positivity as keys to success. An executive for more than two decades with Accenture and IBM as well as a certified life coach and yoga teacher, Henning wanted to teach teens about these and other empowerment tools. “Life can bat you around if you don’t have the skills to grab it by the horns,” Henning says. “I learned these things in my 40s and thought that if teens could learn them earlier, they could have more control over their lives to reach their goals.”

In 2012, Henning started the nonprofit Alive Center to provide teens support and guidance. Using a peer mentoring model, it offers free “teen-led, teen-driven” after-school and summer drop-in sessions, classes, tutoring, and events for kids in grades 5 to 12. Alive merged with fellow teen-focused nonprofit NaperBridge in 2015, and today there are three Alive community centers in Naperville, Aurora, and Hanover Park.

Kids working on a project

Teens create and lead the curriculum for Alive Center’s classes and programs after completing a leadership course that touches on subjects including strategic goal setting and public speaking. Adults are on hand to monitor and engage with kids, but it’s the teens who take the reins, says Henning, who left the corporate world to serve as Alive’s CEO. “We provide a balance of guidance with the freedom to create. Alive gives teens a safe space to lead and try things. It’s a model where teens are empowering other teens.”

Word of mouth among kids, school guidance counselors, and parent Facebook groups attract a diverse group of teens. After-school drop-ins are especially popular, with 40 to 50 kids often in attendance daily at the Naperville center. “After a long day at school, just having a place to hang out is really appealing,” Henning points out. Clubs and events span a wide range of interests, from fashion upcycling and robotics to neon dodgeball and a social club for differently abled teens.

Kids working on crafts

“Kids are under more stress and pressure than ever before,” Henning says. “They have to perform academically, volunteer, play sports, and be really good at all of it. They’re stretched thin and burnt out; they don’t get to be kids. Add in COVID and [computer and phone] screens, and it’s a lot.

“We do our best to wrap around kids and their families and give them someone to talk to and a place where they feel supported,” she continues. “We help them learn and discover new talents. There are no grades. There is no fear of failure here. You can just try again.”

Visit alivecenter.org for more information. The nonprofit’s annual Mardi Gras FUNdraising Gala is May 12 at Hotel Arista, 2139 City Gate Lane, Naperville. For tickets or to make a donation, go to one.bidpal.net/alivemardigras2023/welcome.


Photos courtesy of Alive Center