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Rochester, New York remains racked by poverty and lack of opportunity for its young people, with the 5th highest rate of child poverty in the nation and the poorest school district in Upstate New York. As a result, the Safe to be Smart program is an oasis of caring, education, and mentoring for city youth, successful 16-year collaboration among the Rochester Public Library (RPL), the City of Rochester, and the Friends & Foundation of the Rochester Public Library.

Safe to be Smart provides a safe afterschool environment for an average of 225 teens, ages 12-18, each school day, at six library sites. With a continuous and recurring population of teens at these sites, the program counted more than 56,000 interactions last year.

Teens bond with caring staff and help to select library materials and plan meaningful programs, activities, and field trips. Safe to be Smart offers mentoring, homework assistance, research assistance, college information, job readiness training, STEAM-centered activities, digital storytelling through film and music creation, life skills, and social groups.

Thirteen-year-old K’Nai found a lot of support at the Safe to be Smart program.

“You see,” shared K’Nai, “I am living with my poor single African American mom who’s doing the best she can for me and my siblings, and I don’t have a father to correct me when I’m doing wrong. But when you add Mr. Mark Dixon to the Maplewood branch library, things start to change.”

His relationship with a mentor such as Mark made a significant impact.

“Actually he probably doesn’t realize his advice made me succeed at 8th grade. He makes me read every day to get my stamina up and he tells me I need to read to succeed. And that same semester, I went from a D in reading to a B+.”

Today, K’Nai looks forward to a brighter future!

“So now I’m in the 9th grade, looking to go to Wisconsin St. University and get married and go to the National Basketball Association. Mr. Mark tells me to make smart choices and good things will happen. He keeps me and the whole library branch laughing and staying positive. He says, once you get older I’ll hook you up with a job – I got you, and much more.”

The ten RBL branch libraries provide safe havens for youth and are often the only educational and cultural resources available beyond the schools. But sometimes these teens need more supervision, assistance, and creative programs than dedicated library staff are able to provide. That is why the Maximus Foundation awarded a grant to support the Safe to be Smart program, offering educational, cultural, and recreational activities and programs for children and teens.