With COVID-19 restrictions hopefully gone for good, Empower Youth is looking to reclaim what it lost during the pandemic. This non-profit organization hosts community picnics each week during the summer in Bethel, Ohio, to support local youth.
Before the pandemic, the average number of people attending each Empower Youth picnic was about 600. Founder Scott Conley, who started this non-profit organization with his late wife Lori in 2015, hopes to reach that number again by the end of 2022’s summer season.
“We were really seeing a community declining,” Conley said. “These kids didn’t have any hope. They didn’t have any dreams.”
Empower Youth’s Goal Is to Break the Generational Chains of Poverty
Bethel feels like a classic small town straight out of Americana when you first visit. The community even has a working drive-in movie theater. Less than 3,000 people live here full-time, which is why getting 600 or more people out to a picnic is a big deal to Conley.
That figure represents a significant portion of the community, where the median household income is less than $32,000 per year. One in five people in Bethel lives below the federal poverty line, including nearly 30% under the age of 18. []
“It’s just to give these kids a way out of poverty and to give them hope – and to show them different options,” said Conley. “It’s cool bringing everyone together.”
Each week, a different sponsor takes over the Empower Youth picnics. These groups bring their own volunteers, which Conley says is the heartbeat of their efforts to reach the greater community.
Amber Hansel is an Empower Youth picnic organizer. She says that many people come out each week to support the effort to bring everyone together. “We also call upon the Empower Youth volunteers, interns, and many other groups across the area.”
“We have everybody from the Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts to church groups and businesses [come out],” added Conley, “so everybody comes together to serve our community.”
Each Picnic Offers a Free Raffle with Toys and Prizes
Empower Youth hosts the picnics, and each weekly sponsor provides free food to all attendees. People can come to fill up on hamburgers, hot dogs, and homemade desserts. They also offer iced tea and lemonade.
Kids that attend Empower Youth picnics receive free tickets to a raffle that offers toys and different prizes.
Hansel says that the park where they host the picnics has a nearby stage where different artists and acts come to perform. Illusionists, bands, and other entertainers have come to support their events. “We’re planning to welcome The Cincinnati Civic Orchestral later in the summer,” she said.
Brooke Donley recently graduated from New Richmond High School and currently works as an intern through the county’s Summer Youth Employment Program. She says that her volunteerism and efforts to support Empower Youth helped in numerous ways. “Without this organization over the past two years, I would not have logged more than 300 hours of community service,” she said.
Donley says that getting a full scholarship to Berea College to become a high school teacher wouldn’t have been possible without Empower Youth. “They are working to bring youth up out of poverty and ensure we have a good future so [that] we can help better our community.”
Hansel says it’s great to see the kids' excitement about returning to the picnics this summer. “They’re excited and want to be part of it,” she said. “They want to come back here every week, and one kid rides his bike here weekly.”
Empower Youth Provides Additional Supports Across Three Counties
Although the Empower Youth picnics in Bethel are popular, one of the essential services the non-profit provides is a weekend food pack. The organization distributes more than 1,000 of them each week for school districts across three counties (Brown, Clermont, Highland) and is hoping to add a fourth very soon. []
The weekend food packs cost about $15 per student each month. It helps families make their groceries stretch a little when help is needed.
Students participating in the reduced or free lunch program qualify for the weekend food packs. Empower Youth also supports those identified by teachers or school administrators as needed help.
Empower Youth could use numerous food donations, including canned pasta with meat, granola bars, instant oatmeal, ramen noodles, and other individual serving items. They spend about $9,000 per month on this specific program, which means any help is greatly appreciated.
The Bethel picnics run from 6:00 to 7:30 PM each Wednesday during the summer at Burke Park. More information is available, including how to support each program, at the non-profit’s website https://empoweryouth.net/.
[] Empower Youth weekly picnics in Bethel making a difference (spectrumnews1.com); [] Bethel, Ohio (OH) poverty rate data - information about poor and low-income residents living in this city (city-data.com); [] Serving Empower Youth | OSU Extension Clermont County