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How faith and creativity are transforming Pennsylvania youth into leaders

Students in Erie, Pa., – many from Erie's inner city – will spend their summer exploring horsemanship, theater, and more through Urban University, a youth leadership program. It aims to provide mentorship, hands-on skills, and guidance on how to practically apply faith to daily life.

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Avari Hannold, mentor Phyllis Machacek, and Darius Roth (l. to r.), help prepare lunch during an Urban University session at the First Presbyterian Church of the Covenant in Erie, Pa., on June 28, 2018.

Greg Wohlford/Erie Times-News/AP

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Acting has boosted Kamaria McKinney's confidence, brought her new friends, and renewed the 12-year-old's faith in God.

The experience also helped Kamaria embrace the concept of leadership.

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"What this shows me is that if you don't know how to do something, if you're nervous about acting or don't know how to cook or whatever, you can do it and you can help others do it," said Kamaria, a seventh-grader at East Middle School in Erie, Pa.

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Kamaria performed three roles in an original play that debuted Friday evening at Erie's First Presbyterian Church of the Covenant.

The production, "Unfinished," is the culmination of a theater arts workshop at Urban University, a youth leadership program run by nonprofit Erie City Mission that offers middle school students hands-on learning experience and mentorship, and teaches them to practically apply faith in their lives.

This summer, Kamaria is among dozens of students – many from Erie's inner city – who will experience horsemanship, theater, culinary arts, video production, nature, art exploration, chemistry, robotics, and aviation, among other activities, as part of the Urban University curriculum, which is funded by private donations and tax credits.

"We are really trying to raise leaders," said Steve Westbrook, the City Mission's executive director. The program, which started in 2010, also features after-school curriculum during the school year.

"We don't want this to be just a place to hang out," Mr. Westbrook said. "It's so vibrant, and it's a really unique program."

In addition to playing featured roles in Friday's play, students also designed the sets, costumes, and danced onstage. "Unfinished" takes its title from a Bible passage, Philippians 1:6, that refers to carrying God along during life's journey.

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The sessions cost $10 for each student and take place at various locations throughout the summer. Many Urban University students sign up for multiple one-week sessions, said RoseMarie Lackey, the City Mission's director of women and children's ministries.

"We knew that we had to make this very engaging to win them over," Ms. Lackey said, adding that adult leaders and volunteers affiliated with the City Mission help run the workshops. "We wanted to create experiences that wowed them and challenged them, experiences where learning is fun, and experiences that make education and learning something the students want."

"These students want the challenge," Lackey said. "I like to say that we are developing emerging students leaders. Sometimes the students don't even realize they are leaders. We want them to understand that in order to be a leader, you have to step outside your comfort zone. You have to do things that are hard, and you have to push yourself."

Students must apply and complete a face-to-face interview to be accepted into an Urban University program, Lackey said.

"It's a contract that they sign," Lackey said. "We have 15 workshops this summer.... We want to know if they're willing to stretch themselves to get to different places."

Giana Morgan, 10, is participating in a culinary arts workshop.

"I'm learning more recipes, how to bake more, and about safer ways to keep food good," said Giana, a sixth-grader at Mother Teresa Academy in Erie.

Making macaroni and cookies, Giana said, were highlights.

"It's good to learn new things," said Giana, who will also study chemistry at an Urban University workshop at East later this summer. "I can make new friends, and I don't have to stay home and do nothing."

Jake Bartko is executive director of Community Access Television, Erie's cable access station. He is teaching an Urban University video production workshop in July, focusing on directing, filming, and editing a television show.

Mr. Bartko has spent the past four years working with Urban University students.

"It's honestly a blessing for us to be involved with this program, Bartko said. "We teach them to create a program that spreads their voices and their opinions on what's going on in the world today. It does so much for the youth in the inner city and this community."

Lackey said Bartko's involvement underscores another valuable aspect of Urban University.

"If I can expose these students to professionals in the community in various fields, even fields they might eventually work in, that is important," Lackey said. "In anything we do here, we try to be as creative as possible. And the people we have leading our courses are amazing people who really pour out their desire to invest in the kids."

Grace Rukundo, 14, said God's reach and power is a constant within all of Urban University's lessons and activities.

Grace, who will start her freshman year at Erie High School in the fall, danced in the production of "Unfinished" on Friday night.

"I like being here," Rukundo said. "We learn God is good and that He heals people a lot. And we learn that we can do different things because He is with us."

This story was reported by The Associated Press.