There are many ways to invest in a community. Some people contribute by sending money to local organizations, others start businesses to create jobs and some do volunteer work at their church or for a charity organization.
Joseph Miller invests in people. Specifically, he invests in Winchester’s student population.
“An investment in people will always pay off,” Miller said. “If you invest in people, that will never return void.”
Miller is the director of the Rowland Arts Center, located on the second floor of The Cairn Coffee House, located at 17 S. Main St. The two entities are tied and were started as a solution to a community problem identified in a 2009 survey.
“A survey found 60 to 70 students were roaming downtown with nothing to do,” he said. “It wasn’t positive or something the community was very proud of.”
Miller and others at Calvary Christian Church decided this was a problem their organization could address. The group came up with the idea of creating a downtown community center where students could come after school to hang out, get help with homework and have a hot meal. With help from the Rowland Foundation, the RAC opened in 2012 with the Cairn as a way to support the project.
When Miller was made director of the RAC, he wasn’t really sure what he was getting into.
“Nobody (on the team) had ever run a teen center before,” he said. “We had to learn what the teens were passionate about and figure out a way to just get them in the door.”
In fact, Miller said the first year of the RAC’s existence was primarily focused on drawing students in. The center offered food, shelter and games for students who were interested, but it took time for the volunteers and staff at the building to build up trust with their visitors.
“It’s not easy to get kids to trust you,” Miller said. “You have to give them credit, when people aren’t being genuine or sincere they can see through that.”
But as time went on, and the RAC became more established, students did begin to trust the people there, and that’s when Miller began to see an impact from what he and others were doing.
“We have a tagline, ‘Dream big,’” he said. “We have a lot of kids who have been dealt a rough card to start just because of their circumstances.”
The RAC seeks to support those students through programs like Mentors and Meals, an after-school program which gives students at Baker Intermediate School a snack, mentoring, homework help and a hot meal.
“The students arrive and unwind for about an hour,” Miller said. “Then when GRC students get off the bus they come and do mentoring with the Baker students.”
Other programs, like Project Launch, help high school-aged students work on soft skills and interviewing skills to help them land entry-level jobs at local businesses. Miller said the biggest strength of the project is the number of teachable moments it creates as students look ahead to their professional lives. He said nine students have gone through the program and, of those, seven landed local jobs. The others moved out of town, so Miller hasn’t been able to check in on them.
All of this is built upon the bedrock of regular interaction between students and mentors at the RAC. Miller said the center’s success demonstrates the impact an investment of time can make, and when people ask him how they can help, that’s his top response.
In addition, spreading the word about the RAC to help students understand it’s a safe place for them to come also helps, he said.
Moving forward, Miller said much of the RAC’s programing will be fluid to adapt to what the students need. He and the other volunteers at the center continue to get to know each child who walks through the RAC’s doors and tailor help directly to their needs.
“Some kids just need someone outside of home and school to spend time with them,” he said. “There’s value in playing ping pong with kids.” §
The Rowland Arts Center is located at 17 S. Main St. above The Cairn Coffee House.
Typical drop-in hours for middle- and high-school students are 4 to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday.
To learn more about the RAC or to volunteer, call 859-737-2000.