Will Kiefer sits on a piece of gym equipment in the shadow of a gorilla mural honoring the infamous Harambe.
The mural depicts strength on a level that can relate to the youth who find their way to the gym at Bench Mark Program.
“When we got this space, we painted all the walls black and I put out a Facebook post asking for a mural,” says Will. “Some impressive artists hit me back.”
No fear-inducing, giant gorilla, Will is the approachable and well-spoken visionary behind a program with a mission to create unique spaces—in this case, gyms—where at-risk young women and men can build connections with mentors, increase physical and mental strength, and overcome academic and careerrelated challenges.
His inspiration for the program did not come as a result of one single moment, but rather an exposure to a larger societal issue—a need for guidance and support. The idea sparked when Will met three young men through the Spanish American Civic Association. One was on juvenile probation and all three simply could not connect with support services already in place for them. He started working out with them at the YMCA, training them and listening.
“I didn’t want the kids to feel like I was helping them because they had these deep problems. I just wanted them to know I could support them if they were open to it,” says Will.
Bench Mark Program was formed after Will graduated from Franklin & Marshall College and decided to take what grew from three to five, five to six, six to ten kids into a fulltime program.
“It’s really not too hard to empower kids to take the next step,” says Will. “That was my confidence boost to take this to the next level.”
Beyond fitness training in powerlifting, weightlifting, boxing, and martial arts, Bench Mark Program provides academic counseling and career coaching. The most demanding goal is moving kids away from drugs—and making thousands of dollars a day—to a workforce they sometimes do not understand or cannot tolerate. Bench Mark Program asks kids to step away from the drug world, which presents a myriad of challenges socially. It may mean losing friends. It may mean finding adult guidance somewhere other than home. Will attains success by being persistent through availability. The program is always there for kids who want it, even if they have to come back.
“The only entity that we’ve considered our competitor is the drug trade. It steals more of our kids than anything else,” says Will.
All kids are working towards a key to the gym, which they can access anytime they want. The goal is a sign of respect.
“The kids who get a key are our up-and-coming mentors,” says Will.
With a compliment of mentors, liaisons, and a board of directors, Bench Mark Program is mostly financially supported by individual donations. The program runs without big donors or corporate sponsorship and started with monetary gifts from friends and family. The Bench Mark Program is Will’s full-time endeavor and he is dedicated to working with the kids, rather than running a business. The long-term goal for the Bench Mark Program is to create a sustainable model that can be moved into other communities.
“But, it has to be something that can be grown in that community,” says Will. “I’m not going to open a program in Columbia or York. It has to come from within the community.”
In our community, two of the original three kids in the program are success stories now studying graphic design at Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology. One is riding a full scholarship. The other has worked the same job for three years, paying his own way through school.
“Conversation starts here, but a lot of this work is done outside the gym,” says Will, who has stood in line at financial aid offices to make sure kids are getting what they need. “That’s all Bench Mark Program is. It’s a consistent positive reinforcement in the background of these kids’ lives.”
To learn more about the Benchmark Program or to make a donation, visit benchmarkprogram.org.