Our History

A History of Caring

Established in 2003, The Youth Learning Center (YLC), a 501(c)(3), has a fourteen-year track record of working with students across the Greater St. Louis Area. YLC was founded as an afterschool STEAM option for public school students, based on the core belief on the core belief that tall students could thrive and reach their potential if given the opportunity and resources. Early on, our founders concluded that YLC would not serve children through sports/activity related programming; therefore, we concentrated on academic programs in mathematics, language arts, science, computer science, entrepreneurship, and civic leadership.

Launched with an initial group of sixty students, Youth Learning Center quickly gained a reputation for high-quality programs. For 13 years, our after school and summer programming provided youth, grades 1 – 8 with access to 21st century STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, & Math) education, state-of-the-art technology, and rigorous academic support not readily available in their low-income communities. Creative learning opportunities helped students develop basic literacy and math skills while they explored high tech skills such as engineering. Volunteers from corporate supporters and universities like University of Missouri St. Louis, Saint Louis University, and Washington University supported our ability to provide intensive personal attention from caring adult role models helped children realize their potential.

During the pinnacle of our after school and summer programs, YLC grew to serve approximately 400 children annually, through our premium after-school and summer program, and other specialized program offerings.

Our commitment to quality led to program expansion within our own facility and partnerships with the local youth organizations wanting to provide similar programs to their students. In 2012, the quality of our work was noticed by Deaconess Foundation who named YLC as a Deaconess Impact Partner; providing an investment of $700,000 over four years to support staff training, back-office infrastructure, and program development. Youth Learning Center was one of six organizations chosen for the competitive Deaconess Foundation Impact Partnership from among more than one hundred initial applicants.

2012 also marked the most significant governance decision of the organization’s history as our Board of Directors voted to explore opening a world-class charter school, The Biome School.

Our journey towards opening The Biome began in 2010 when Bill Kent Jr., then Executive Director of YLC, suggested that we could improve our student outcomes through the establishment of a charter school versus after school program of two hours in the evening. The Board of Directors subsequently approved a feasibility study, followed by two years of intensive planning.

The Biome School was incorporated as a subsidiary 501(c)(3) of YLC in 2014 and opened its doors to sixty incredible students on August 1, 2015, marking the culmination of more than a decade of expertise in youth development and education. The Biome School is a model for integrating student-centered learning, project-based opportunities, and STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Mathematics) education.

The Biome began as a K-1 school (in 2015-16) and plans to grow by one grade each year, eventually operating as a K-5 school by 2019-20. The school’s model focuses on building a strong foundation of literacy and math in the early grades (K-2) to ensure that The Biome students are prepared to engage in accelerated and individualized STEAM course-work and projects beginning in grade 3. Students completing our academic program at grade 5 will be on track to thrive in middle school and beyond.

Despite our short existence, many would be surprised to learn that the organization’s origins began in the 1940’s, in a small sharecropping community on the outskirts of Shelby Mississippi. In the fields of Shelby is where one of our founders, Willie L. Kent Sr., learned the values of hard work, high standards, self-determination, and faith. His childhood in Shelby also taught him the reality of race and that equality of personhood does not equate to equality of opportunity. At the age of 13, he stood in fields of Shelby and watched daily as school buses drove past the crops in which he spent his days and formative years. Willie grew up without a father and was responsible for helping to support his family. This reality, along with the challenges of poverty and race, made attending school impossible.

Frustrated by the lack of opportunity and rejecting life as a sharecropper, Willie left Mississippi at the age of 19 and landed in St. Louis. He married later in life and with a great mechanical mind, succeeded in raising five children and kept the promise that he made himself on a sweltering day in the fields of Shelby. “My children will never be forced to work while other children go to school,” he told himself. Willie kept that promise, but it wasn’t enough. He wanted to provide opportunities for all children, especially those from underserved communities.

Living out his faith, Willie worked to open a homeless shelter, youth gardening program, and youth tutoring programs. Willie took on this commitment as a volunteer while leading a small church and holding a full-time job. With an authentic spirit and soft tone, he was always able to convert others to his service-oriented way of thinking. Inspired by Willie’s passion for service were the co-founders of the Youth Learning Center, Ray Ford, and Judy Deluca Ford.

Ray and Willie met as co-workers at Buckeye International, a high manufacturer of commercial cleaning related products. Ray and Willie first became acquainted through their work on Willie’s homeless shelter and youth gardening programs. Their friendship was one of mutual respect, admiration, and a shared faith.

Ray credits Willie as his primary motivator for public service. Ray wanted to help Willie achieve his goal of working with and for young people. When Ray and Judy saw what Willie was doing – helping so many, with so few resources they were inspired. Ray often tells the story of how he believes the Lord spoke to him repeatedly; that Ray was to build a youth center – period. Although Ray tried to say he was retired, the Lord had other plans for him. So instead of retiring to Florida, he returned to St. Louis and embarked on building the Youth Learning Center with Willie.

The YLC facility was constructed with funding from the Ford Family Charitable Fund in 2003. The original build provided 15,000 square feet of learning space until a 2010 renovation added an additional 500 square feet, bringing the current facility square footage to 15,500.

Ray has always been involved in community service, whether it was the Partner’s Campaign for YMCA for many years, the St. Louis Symphony, his church, missions for relief in Africa, bibles for those in the Middle East or Salvation Army, United Way, local hospitals, animal shelters, the list goes on and on.

With Willie and Ray setting the standards, Youth Learning Center served over 1000 students in its STEM and education programs. Furthering our mission, The Biome School reflects Willie and Ray’s values of hard work, high standards, and self-determination. Their example of faith ensures that love tempers all of our decisions and guides the way in which we serve children and our families; “Our children come first!