The Future of the Fox Cities

Posted on March 1, 2023 by Grace Olson

Youth Programs are Making a Difference and Changing Life Courses

As corny as referring to song lyrics can sometimes feel, I haven’t been able to get the words of “The Greatest Love of All,” most notably sung by Whitney Houston, from my head while researching and writing this story centering on our area’s young people.

“I believe the children are our future / Teach them well and let them lead the way.”

They’re simple phrases that hold more meaning and truth than it’s possible to convey in print. With that being said, here are their stories:

SOAR Fox Cities

“Empowering People with Differing Abilities.”

What has now been known as SOAR Fox Cities since 2014 has had multiple names beginning since its conception in the 1950s—including ARC of Outagamie County, The Arc of Neenah-Menasha and The Arc Fox Cities, Inc.—but its mission to empower those with disabilities has never waivered, and began with parents advocating for their children.

“One thing that I really like to share, because it’s cool about our history and who we still are today, is that when we were founded in the 50s, it was the parents who wanted more for their kiddos with disabilities,” Ashley Gustafson, Director of Community Engagement,” explains. “At that time, there weren’t nearly as many programs or services. These parents really wanted to help their kids fulfill their potential.”

Serving youth and adults with developmental disabilities, the group also offers programs for traumatic brain injury survivors as well. The group primarily focuses on socialization, team building and everyday life skills.

“We provide the ability to meet new friends, learn those social skills, and also teach some of those daily living skills through programming,” Lisa McCallister, Youth Services Manager, says. “Our programs are very inclusive. I have a team group that meets every other Thursday night and it is teens with disabilities, but also peers from the community.”

McCallister explains that they do a lot of “wild, silly, loud, obnoxious” things, but with a serious objective surrounding it all.

Youth Programming with SOAR Fox Cities:

SOAR Thru Summer Camp (Youth with developmental disabilities entering sixth grade through eighteenth birthday.)

SOAR thru Summer offers daily camp activities that ensure fun, safe, and enriching days, enjoying traditional camp activities, skills-based learning, and field trips in the community.
Skills: Communication, laundry, cooking, teamwork, community navigation, financial literacy
Field Trips: Museums, parks, art studios, nature preserves, arcades, mini golf, bowling
Fun: Games, snacks, crafts, water days, reading, sports and more

Teen Stop

Teen Stop is a peer-to-peer social group for youth with and without disabilities held at a school within the participating school district.

The purpose of Teen Stop is to build relationships and positive interactions with peers through cooperative games and team building. Teen Stop expands social circles, awareness of varying abilities, and exposure to youth throughout the community.

TnT – Teens and Transitioning Youth

TnT provides educational, social and recreational activities for youth ages 13-23 years with and without disabilities in inclusive and interactive settings. TnT is a popular offering and a great way for individuals to interact with their high school peers in a supportive social setting.
This positive interaction between peers allows them to gain exposure to each other, which leads to understanding and results in acceptance for each person involved. All teen participants take part in large and small group activities such as singing, sharing and games, engage in cooperative learning experiences and have opportunities for leadership development.

SOAR Camp Onaway

Campers aged 14 and over are welcome to attend SOAR Camp Onaway near Waupaca for a week of swimming, boating, games, crafts, music, fishing and fun each summer.

“A large part of our programming is also Activity Days, and that spans from elementary school all the way through high school,” McCallister says. “We go into the school and we go into a classroom setting. Individuals with disabilities and their peers who are interested in working with students. They get budded up and do curriculum together.” 

“One of the big takeaways is the emphasis on encouraging or fostering understanding and acceptance among all youth,” Gustafson adds. “Youth with and without disabilities that are, you know, doing games and activities together: the fun and crazy things that Lisa comes up with that have small groups or pairs. That’s a huge part of it.

“A lot of times people with disabilities are not given the opportunity to voice their opinion or given the opportunity to make decisions. So it’s about providing that confidence and self-advocacy skills that they can use as they grow into adults.

“Everyone here treats everyone who comes through the door the same. No one is any different. They have a safe place where they are treated normally and celebrated.”


YMCA of the Fox Cities

“To put Christian principles into practice by promoting youth, adult and family activities that build a healthy spirit, mind and body for all.”

You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who hasn’t heard of the YMCA, let alone visited one. Its first location in the Fox Cities began in Appleton in 1888, with its subsequent locations following soon after.

“It’s just as important back then as it is now… the Y is kind of the crossroads of our community,” Dani Englebert, Chief Operating Officer of the YMCA of the Fox Cities, says. “Everybody comes to the Y and we try to find ways for everybody to be a part of the Y… it’s people coming together and really it’s a place to grow… growing in spirit, mind and body.”

“It’s the sense of belonging, sense of community,” Brenda Johnson, Executive Director of the Heart of the Valley YMCA, adds. “Most of our branches serve as the Community Center in the community that they are a part of, bringing people together… there are all these relationships that are built.”

The Y is a place for all, but begins with youth. “Infant to infinity” is not an exaggeration at the Y. When can children get involved?

“Well, they’re born,” Englebert laughs. “But truly, children are involved with us at a very early age… at 6 weeks. Kids can get involved both formally in a childcare program or informally. Even at that very young age having all of these loving faces around them is huge.”

Youth Programming with the YMCA of the Fox Cities:

Growth and Development 

Focusing on “vital building blocks for quality of life and future success,” Growth and Development at the Y teaches youth to be their best selves through the Y values of caring, honesty, respect and responsibility.

Programs include “Parent & Child,” “Fun Shops,” “Lunchtime Classes” and classes reserved for children aged 1½-3 and 3-5.

Youth Government

A national program for children in grades 7-12, Youth Government takes a hands-on approach to leadership skills-building.

“They’re learning public policy and speaking, leadership and how to debate and how to formalize, you know, marketing and communication skills,” Johnson says. “It is a fabulous program. And then they go down to the capital and they do a model government day where they actually elect a governor and all those different positions.”

“They go to Madison and they have the opportunity to move on to the national program held in North Carolina,” Englebert adds. “Kids who come in super shy and they’re just trying to figure out what it is… two months later and they’re standing up in front of our corporate board volunteers and giving a speech with no notes! It’s a true life skill.

“Some of our local politicians have even come through that program, so that is pretty impressive. Some of them are future leaders.”

Arts + Sports Programs

“I think an unknown for a lot of our families is that we have a robust arts program,” Johnson explains. “We have a beautiful art studio with staff who have gone to school and have a degree in the field of art. They’re teaching how to draw or how to paint or how to throw pottery or whatever it might be.

“And then dance… our dance instructors, again, all went to school for that: from ballet to tap to jazz to lyrical. They do recitals at the end of the year, and it’s so cool to see. You can dabble in it and just do things for fun or it could become your passion and you can keep going.”

Johnson says the Y’s positive influence starts young in information program settings and is built upon both directly and inadvertently.

“You look around and there are so many role models that you also have that kind of affect you without you knowing it,” she says. “It’s ‘I want to be like that!’”

“We try to reinforce manners and civility,” Englebert adds. “And treating other people well whether you know them or not… our focus is to strengthen the foundation of community, but we also kind of really emphasize core values, which is caring, honesty, respect and responsibility.”   


Boys and Girls Clubs of the Fox Valley

Boys & Girls Clubs of the Fox Valley’s mission is to inspire and enable all young people, especially those who need us most, to reach their full potential as productive, responsible and caring citizens.”

For nearly 25 years, The Boys & Girls Clubs of the Fox Valley has been dedicated to ensuring the local youth have greater access to quality programs and services to enhance their lives and shape their futures.

“We work to do this by providing young people with a safe place to belong, full of opportunities to have fun, make friends, learn, grow, and build relationships with caring adults,” Melissa Wurzer, Director of Marketing & Communications, says.

The organization is made up of 14 locations, which include two branch locations in Appleton and Menasha as well as 12 school-based Club locations throughout Appleton, Little Chute, Kiel, and New Holstein. Each year the organization serves more than 12,500 young people.

“The Club provides kids with a diverse array of programs focused on character and leadership, education, workforce readiness, health and wellness, and sports and recreation,” Wurzer explains. “Programming varies by location, taking place before and/or after school as well and in the summer through our Summer Program (June-August) which is offered at the Boys & Girls Club of Appleton and Menasha branch locations and summer school support at some of our school-based Clubs. Young people are also served nutritious food while attending Club.

The Club believes that every child deserves an equitable opportunity to achieve their full potential and it’s why we’re committed to doing whatever it takes to help them build their own great futures. We seek to do this by giving kids the tools, knowledge, resources, and support they need to become the best versions of themselves and to pursue their dreams. The team is passionate about working with every child to meet their needs and work alongside them to help them grow and thrive.

Youth Programming at The Boys & Girls Clubs of the Fox Valley:

  • Youth & Family Counseling – provides licensed no-cost counseling to children and families and supports their mental, behavioral, and emotional needs and goals.
  • Center for Grieving Children – provides compassionate support to children and families who are grieving the loss of a loved one.
  • Scholars on Target to Achieve Results (STAR) – works to build equitable opportunities and support for middle and high school Black students.
  • Home Base – serves youth and families who are experiencing challenges related to running away, transience, and housing insecurity.
  • Truancy Reduction and Assessment Center (TRAC) – works with students to promote to school attendance, instill positive attitudes towards school, and build life skills.

“We are always looking for caring staff and volunteers to join our team!” Wurzer says. “If you’re passionate about serving and making a positive impact in the lives of young people, we invite you to learn more by visiting our website at”

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