When LaQuinn Thompson went away to college in 2011, he already knew what he wanted to do post-graduation.
He was going to find a way to give back to a York city youth program called The Lighthouse that was so important to him during his childhood.
Around the time he graduated from the Pennsylvania College of Technology in 2016, Thompson, now 24, was approached about an open position as the director of The Lighthouse.
When The Lighthouse joined forces with “The Matts,” the youth center at the St. Matthew Evangelical Lutheran Church on Market Street in York, Thompson was picked to lead the program, inheriting more youth, more resources and a space in the church basement equipped with arcade games, couches, a snack bar and more. The Matts is run in partnership with LifePath Christian Ministries, an organization serving underprivileged families in the greater York area.
Of the uncanny timing of the open position, Thompson thanks a greater force. “It was weird. It was God. I’ve gotta give him credit,” he said.
Celebrating two years on the job this month, Thompson and his staff are gearing up for The Matts summer camp. We talked about the impact his program has on York’s at-risk youth and the role he plays in it all.
Tell me about who the youth center serves.
We serve any youth in the York County area. The majority of kids that we see are from the west end of the city. The youth center’s evening program has been here for over 50 years and serves sixth-graders to 12th-graders. The hours are from Monday through Thursday 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. and Friday 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. Monday is usually our time to crack down and see if they need any assistance with homework. Some bring it in. Some don’t. And then we have the arcade games in the center for the youth to play. On Tuesdays, we offer bible study. We don’t force it, but we also leave it open for an option.
With the addition of LifePath, we now offer an after-school program for first-through fifth-graders. We pick them up from their schools, bring them here to do homework, feed them dinner before they go home, and do crafts crafts, play in the gym, do bible study and make sure they’re active and learning something while they’re here.
I think last school year, one night, we had about 113 kids. In the summertime we have about 150 kids. I would say there’s usually close to 60 or 70 kids here per night. It’s a very popular program in York city that’s been around for a long time.
What’s your history with the after-school program?
It actually was my dream job to run The Lighthouse program, which has been around for longer than I’ve been alive. I’ve had family members go through the program, friends go through it, and I went through it as well. I started when I was in first grade and never stopped going.
What are some values that inform how you do your job?
Being mindful of what you do is something my youth director instilled in me growing up. We don’t always know what we’re gonna get from the kids, what their background story is. It’s not our business to pry into that, but it’s our duty while they’re here to provide that structure for them, that safety for them. They don’t always like that structure. They’re uncomfortable with it, so they kind of revolt against it. But the more we start to get to know the kids and their back story and they realize that we care, they start to open up and realize they don’t have to fight it.
We do our best to set that tone in here, that everybody’s welcome. Everybody’s free to be a kid, be a teenager, be you. Sometimes they don’t have that chance to do that. They have to be a parent or a guardian at home. Play video games, talk, hang out with your friends. There’s structure, of course, but it’s a chance to let them be kids.
Tell me about your childhood growing up in York.
I grew up with a single mother, and she was the one that pushed me to stay active. I became a peer mediator when I was in middle school because I really wanted to make sure everyone felt comfortable in school, and then from there it just grew. In high school at York High, I got involved with pretty much everything: student government, basketball, video-game club. My class just did our best to raise awareness of the good stuff that happens at York High. A lot of that stuff gets bypassed in favor of negativity, and we did our best to show that there’s a lot of positivity in York city.
As you look toward the future, what plans do you have to make things fresh and exciting?
That’s actually my motto, keep things fresh and exciting every year. Last year was fun, and this year is even better. Last year we had our first camper appreciation day during the summer camp to let the campers know we appreciate them for coming. I want them to know that this is for them.
There’s financial program through the Lutheran church called Thrivent [a program that works with people in the Lutheran faith to help with financial planning] that wants to do college-preparedness programs and teach about opportunities for scholarships for the kids. We’re constantly growing every year to add more programming to the center.
As a young person, how do you find time for yourself?
Honestly I feel like my purpose in life is to do this. I find time to relax when I have the time, but I’m so invested in seeing this program grow and the youth grow. Every night I think about what else I can add to the program and just see who I can collaborate with. I’m the kind of person who doesn’t really see limits.