When newly minted Yale graduate Lucas Spielfogel arrived in Baton Rouge in 2010, he didn’t know that the city by the bayou would become his permanent home. Maybe he would stay for a couple of years, he thought, for the duration of his tenure with Teach for America. Instead, his passion for helping low-income students in the community surged. By age 24, he had taken on the mantle of executive director for the Baton Rouge Youth Coalition, a nonprofit that has guided local students into successful colleges and careers since its founding by Belaire High School teachers Dan Kahn and Sam Joel in 2009.
“It just felt like a place where I could plant roots, and that’s exactly what happened, both personally and professionally,” says Spielfogel.
The coalition functions within a set of values granting individuality and self-sufficiency to groups of underserved students too often generalized as “at-risk,” a term BRYC rejects. For eighth-graders through sophomores, this means mastering “self-regulated learning,” which comprises all the habits and skills a student needs to set goals, create study plans, engage in work to create deep and lasting learning, and advocate for themselves. For older students, this means diving into standardized test prep, college applications and financial aid. Through its once-a-week, three-hour meetings and beyond, BRYC provides a foundation for academic and social expansion in an environment that fuels relationships—not anxiety.
Just ask current fourth-year BRYC Fellow and Liberty High senior Alexis Rogers, who says she had no intention of making friends when she first applied to the program.
“I broke out of that so fast,” she chuckles. “It’s like a family over there. They check in with you about everything. Even when I took the ACT, they made sure I had my ticket printed out, had a goodie bag for the day—they even came down to the testing site to be there when we walked through the doors. They’ve come to graduations, too.”
The ability to connect to students on a personal level is a source of pride for BRYC mentors, who build relationships under the influence of a diligently crafted BRYC Culture Code. When they help students with homework, essay-writing, college selection, or simply through a text asking how they’re feeling that day, for example, they do so with a firm understanding of power dynamics, but also with compassion for the chaos of young adulthood.
“When I spoke on the panel after the Baton Rouge Business Report named BRYC one of the Best Places to Work in 2022, I spoke about how trust underlies everything we’re trying to do,” says Spielfogel. “The most important thing we ever did internally was to create our ‘trust statements’ that define what it looks like to treat each other in a way that makes us wake up and say, ‘I’m going to work today with a bunch of people who have my back.’”
Chief of staff Josh Howard, who also serves as adjunct professor of social media and digital branding at LSU, is just one team member who strives to maintain that link between mentor and mentee. As one of the founding forces behind BRYC’s “persistence services,” or College Fellows, he helps make sure that Baton Rouge students remain vital parts of the BRYC family, whether through regular check-ins or connections to BRYC alumni.
“Our mentors make such a huge impact in these students’ lives,” says Howard, “and whatever you put in, you get out. If you invest a little bit more time and get to know each student on a personal level, that student will be better off for that connection, and they’re going to have a better opportunity to pursue whatever it is they choose to do.”
For College Fellow Ivory Gipson, now a sophomore at Skidmore College in New York, that opportunity looks like a business degree and a future in marketing, but also a sense of confidence that his skills learned in BRYC will take him wherever he wants to go.
“I could ask Lucas serious questions, because he’s more than just a mentor to me—he’s my guy, for real,” says Gipson, who was named one of the six Louisiana Young Heroes by LPB in 2021. “They’re not just strangers—they’re a community of people who really want to see you doing better.”
Spielfogel and Howard anticipate 300 to 400 students participating in BRYC in the coming school year, and hope that one day their services can extend further in the state, as well as beyond its borders.
“We feel so lucky and privileged to be able to be a small part of all of our Fellows’ stories,” says Spielfogel. “But none of that is possible without our students being as incredible as they are. Our results are ultimately much more of a reflection of the young people that come through our program than they are of what we do.”
For more information, visit thebryc.org.