Andrew Golden and Kersey Voss spend part of each workday playing and trying to think like the teenagers they serve.
Sometimes that involves improvising, like using a banana to serve as a key in a makeshift computer keyboard.
Golden, of Madison, Wis., and Voss, of Fort Myers, Fla., are Volunteer in Service to America workers who are establishing the Learning Lab Outreach Coordination Project at the Billings Public Library.
So far this year there are 18 VISTAs working in Billings, according to Brenda Beckett, Billings community development manager, bringing the total who have served since 2007 to about 90. More VISTA members will arrive during the summer months.
Over the years, more than two-thirds of the young adults have stayed in Billings following their year of service, she said.
“They all seem to be Type-A overachievers,” she said.
Those 90 or so workers have generated nearly $2.1 million in cash and in-kind contributions to fight poverty in the Billings area. More than 13,500 people have been provided with nearly 200 new or enhanced services to impact poverty or eliminate homelessness.
The new lab, on the second floor of the library and officially known as the Integra Learning Lab, will, in a few weeks, be open to middle school and high school students. Golden and Voss are preparing for an open house from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. April 15-17.
An educational toy that the two college graduates were playing with Monday is a boxed collection of electronics called MaKey MaKey. The gadget, marketed as an invention kit, allows children big and small to use everyday materials — bananas, modeling compound, even a flight of stairs — as a keyboard. It also allows them to play video games using unorthodox keys. With the right program, a child can play a simple song — Golden cranked out “Ode to Joy” as a sample — just by tapping on a small bunch of bananas.
“It’s a pretty cool thing to mess with,” he said.
It’s not the only cool thing the pair has been working to develop. A donated sound booth includes sound-editing equipment purchased through a grant. Sean Lynch of 11:11 Presents set up the equipment and the soundproof booth is equipped not only for music but for slam poetry — the spoken-word form some teenage poets use to express themselves.
Even before Golden and Voss arrived in January, the lab had come stocked with five desktop computers and 12 laptops. Using a grant, Golden and Voss loaded them up with programs that teens can use to tap into their creative side, including Adobe Photoshop and SketchUp, a 3-D modeling tool.
There’s also a fiber art wall that volunteers will use to teach teens weaving, knitting and other skills.
The lab’s emphasis, the two VISTAs said, is STEAM education, an acronym for the traditional STEM approach, science, technology, engineering and math, together with art.
“We’re doing all the behind-the-scenes work, but it will be the community partners who will mentor the teens,” Voss said. “We surveyed teens for their input, and so we’re trying to meet their needs.”
The two VISTA volunteers are paid, but not much — $800 a month. Because the VISTA program seeks to alleviate poverty, Golden, Voss and the other VISTAs have agreed to live on poverty wages for a year in part to discover teens who find it difficult to access services, including the library.
“We are trying to get to teens who are slipping through the cracks,” Golden said, adding that the space will be open “to all middle and high school teens. As part of our grant and as AmeriCorps VISTA members, we are looking to reach teens who could gain the most from the resources we will provide.”