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New Skills and a Safe Haven: Summer Teen Program Expands into Fall

By David Montilla

Teen Expansion Program participants prepared and served dinner in late August 2023 to their program leaders, participants, and Henry Street staff

Three weeks into the summer 2023 Teen Expansion Program at Henry Street, Chef Richard Harris had an inspiring idea: “What if we can honor the most consistent participants and allow our kids to show off their new skills?”

With that idea, the Teen Expansion Program Dinner was born—a feast cooked on August 26 by nine Lower East Side teenagers, many of whom had little to no previous culinary experience. The meal was served to their teachers, peers, and program staff. As the grand finale, Omar Kellman, director of Henry Street’s Athletics and Community Enrichment Services, presented program participants and partners with awards, acknowledging their efforts throughout the summer. According to Omar, “It was the perfect way for these young adults to demonstrate not only their cooking skills but also their growing independence.”

The dinner menu included twists on culinary staples from various cultures. It featured Caribbean dishes such as shrimp sancocho and jerk salmon pasta. Other menu items included chicken and waffles, and a variety of natural juices. The menu was curated, prepared, and served by Teen Expansion Program participants.

The seven-week summer Teen Expansion Program, developed in partnership with the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), is continuing into fall 2023. In addition to the summer offerings, the fall program includes the first-ever 3-on-3 basketball tournament at 301 Henry Street and a new version of Henry Street’s historic Operation Athlete program. The latter initiative focuses on helping exceptional student-athletes navigate the path to college and career success.

The Teen Expansion Program was established to address growing community safety concerns and an ongoing youth mental health crisis. Both of these challenges significantly impact many young people in Henry Street’s periphery. With over 250 participants, nearly half in the transitional age range of 18 to 24, TEP serves as a safe haven for young people to explore their interests on summer evenings while imparting essential soft skills vital for future success.

Through consistent engagement, meaningful connections are forged both among participants and between them and their program leaders. These authentic relationships play a crucial role in meeting one of the program’s key goals: alleviating longstanding tensions that often plague teens from different neighborhoods on the Lower East Side.

Omar, the driving force behind the program, emphasizes the importance of diverse activities. “Last summer, we set out to develop an a-la-carte type of programming,” he said. The offerings included not just culinary delights but also innovative programs such as Fix It with Piggy (teaching phone and device repair), Magic Fitness (promoting healthy habits through calisthenics and proper diet), the Triton Pilot Program (entrepreneurship skills), and Project Alchemy, guiding participants toward an intentionally healthy lifestyle. “How can I?” taught valuable skills related to monetizing social media platforms.

The Savor and Serve cooking class continues into the fall, as does TherapArt (providing a creative outlet for emotions) and “Best of LES” by local artist Shaheeda Smith, where young people create dance routines. After the summer Best of LES workshop, one participant, Cianny Irby, even published an original song on Apple Music.

While consistent programming throughout the summer was the main attraction for participants, the comfortable environment with air-conditioning, snacks, and e-sports opportunities also played significant roles, Omar says. With NYCHA funding through 2026, the Teen Expansion Program will continue to serve Lower East Side youth beyond Henry Street’s well-known athletics offerings.

“The work for next summer starts now, keeping the participants involved is what helps us decide what programs we will offer in the future,” Omar says.

Learn more about the Teen Expansion Program and upcoming programs at Henry Street, visit our website at

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