2020 Innovators Awards Inductee Profile: Ken Barry
Ken Barry makes valuable connections for underrepresented youth in Gary, Indiana, creating unique programming that keeps youth engaged, active, and focused on improving their future. In an area where school funding has been cut for extra-curricular activities and youth job opportunities are scarce, Ken creates numerous opportunities that fill the void.
Specifically, at the height of COVID-19 in 2020, Ken was serving as Executive Director of the City Life Center where he created the City Kids Express initiative. Because children were being made to shelter in place, they were missing daily “hot” meals that they would receive at school and during the afterschool program. Ken developed relationships with local restaurants and created a program to deliver hot meals twice per week to children and their families.
LIT After School LIVE is another program Ken launched in 2020. With students being out of school and mandated to do eLearning, he had to figure out how to deliver an afterschool program that focused on the social development and mental health of children. LIT After School LIVE was created for students in grades K-12.
Ken is highly regarded as a successful nonprofit entrepreneur and helps nonprofit startups across the country. He is an innovator because he connects the dots to resources that support our youth having a better future. Ken is a previous winner of Legacy Foundation’s Civic Innovator award, the winning recipient of numerous grants, and has a strong working relationship with the City of Gary’s leadership.
Can you talk about the two programs you started in a little more detail?
At its core, everything we do has the social, emotional, and mental health of our young people in mind. When COVID-19 hit, we had to look at the flexibility and adaptability of our programs. How were we still going to deliver high quality after school programming in the midst of kids being sheltered at home?
One of the things we decided to do was to create a really cool virtual afterschool program, which we called LIT Afterschool. When we went live, it wasn’t just a sit at the table and talk to the kids kind of thing. Each age group had its own specific vibe. Our K through 2nd graders, for example, were really high energy all over the place. They were running, jumping, and dancing, but still learning at the same time.
We did an exhaustive study with young people on how they engage social media, so we tried to bring that into a live environment. That’s really been what we consider to be very, very innovative. I liked to say, “If you mix Barney with YouTube, you got LIT Afterschool programming.”
Another concern with COVID was how to continue getting meals to kids who depended on them. So we created City Kids Express, where we partnered with several different local restaurants. Twice a week, we visited each restaurant and loaded a van up with food to deliver to our kids door-to-door. We were kind of like the afterschool DoorDash. City Kids Express also helped us maintain our relational connections with our kids and our families. Everything we do is birthed out that relationship we build with kids and their families.
What is something you wish more people knew about Northwest Indiana?
Just how powerful the people are. Northwest Indiana and the city of Gary possess some of the best people resources that you’ll find anywhere. I think Northwest Indiana gets a bad rap. I know Gary does and there’s this narrative that has been created. But this is probably the place where I see the most phenomenal people you ever want to meet in your life. And they are anxious and ready to go, looking for change. You would be amazed at how many community innovators you might find here.
What does innovation mean to you?
Creative problem solving. Coming up with new ways to attack real issues. Innovation is seeing a need and meeting it, even during challenges like COVID-19. It is looking at something that people have said there’s nothing that can be done, and still figuring out what to do.
Why is it important to invest in our youth when it comes to entrepreneurship and innovation?
It’s interesting you ask that question because in Gary specifically, one of the biggest challenges has always been youth employment. There just aren’t any robust summer jobs programs here. One of the things that I’ve always argued is that if we taught young people how to start businesses, they will be able to hire their friends, make money all year long and contribute to the economic health of their homes and community.
Entrepreneurship is extremely critical, especially in a city like Gary. You’re actually creating small businesses, which we know based on the research that small business drives the economy of our cities. And now you can have young people who are contributing to the economic development of their own city.
Ken Barry, founder and executive director of the Force for Good Community Development Corporation, was a 2020 individual inductee into the Society of Innovators at Purdue Northwest. He previously served as executive director of the City Life Center in Gary, Indiana. A full list of 2020 inductees can be found here.