Organization offers weightlifting, fitness as outlet for at-risk youth

ASSETS client and participant in the third annual Great Social Enterprise Pitch, Will Kiefer of the Bench Mark Program, is making news!


Will Kiefer, left, coaches a program student, Dom, on Olympic-style lifting. – (Photo / Scott Kingsley Photography)

When Will Kiefer took a study abroad trip to South America as a pre-med student at Franklin & Marshall College, he had no inkling that the trip would lead him to the unique idea to start his own business.

January marks the three-year anniversary for the Bench Mark Program, one of the more selfless and significant small businesses in the region. Kiefer and his staff provide long-lasting, positive support to at-risk youth who wouldn’t receive that support from anyone else.

Bench Mark uses a unique approach to provide an outlet for physical fitness, academic counseling and career coaching. Students received guidance for as long as is needed with the ultimate outcome being academic success, employment and mentorship opportunities.

“When I was in South America, I did research on the communities that I was involved with,” Kiefer said. “When I came back to Lancaster, I was looking for the community connection. I realized that I didn’t really know Lancaster at all. I started asking myself, what do I have to offer other people? I enjoy weightlifting and fitness.

“I asked some professors for their thoughts on what I could do,” Kiefer continued. “I thought that I could have a positive impact on high school students who had low self-esteem.”

A few connections later, Kiefer found himself working with at-risk youth and youth who had been incarcerated. That was the start of the Bench Mark Program. Rather than relying upon traditional therapy methods that have been used and reused over and over again, Bench Mark focuses its program around weightlifting and fitness as the bond to overcome adversity, and it creates a safe and positive environment that doesn’t exist on the streets.

Despite the program’s growing reputation, what Kiefer and his team do isn’t something that comes naturally, and it also isn’t easy to make connections with these kids.

“On the back of my business card it says two things: ‘Be who you are’ and ‘Figure out who you want to become.’ ” Kiefer said. “That philosophy has allowed us to build a connection that allows the young people to ask for help. They come in with low expectations — it’s just another program, it’s just another white guy who has the solution to all my problems.

“I allow them to explore the space, listen to music and they can work out if they want to, or not,” Kiefer went on. “I give them days, sometimes weeks, before I even ask them about what’s going on at home or if I can help them. Then we go through this period of confusion — What’s this guy trying to do? Is there a fee? Is there some work I have to do here? After that phase passes, then they let me in a little bit. They are refreshed when they come here and figure out that we don’t have an agenda.”

Many of the cases that are referred to Bench Mark are kids involved with selling drugs. Kiefer and his team know that being involved in the illegal drug trade is easy, and it’s lucrative for these kids. If Bench Mark doesn’t provide them with a viable alternative, those youth will not give Kiefer and his team the time of day. That’s why they move quickly to find jobs for these kids that keep them busy, safe and making money, so there is no reason to go back to selling drugs.

One of the most challenging aspects of Kiefer’s work is when he wears his hat as development director. As a nonprofit organization, Bench Mark essentially survived the first two years strictly off of private donations. Board members kicked in substantial funds, and then some corporate donors came on board. In year three, Kiefer now has all of the paperwork and documentation required to go back to foundations and other entities in order to create the funding that would make Bench Mark a sustainable business model — a model that Kiefer hopes to export to other communities.

He is working with the School District of Lancaster and the Lancaster Office of Juvenile Probation, and his vision has him expanding next to Columbia, and then to York County.

“I was ready to pull the plug on this so many times,” Kiefer added. “A year and a half later, the kids are saying, ‘this has changed my life’ and ‘you are the dads that I didn’t have.’ We really hope this can be a sustainable program, and we are closer to that happening than ever before.”

 

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