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United Way of Lancaster County


Bench Mark expands programming, geographic reach

Elizabethtown College undergraduates studying juvenile justice tour Bench Mark Program’s Lancaster gym in this March 2024 file photo. (Source; Bench Mark Program)

Will Kiefer

If Will Kiefer has taken away one lesson from his 10 years operating Bench Mark Program, it’s the value to young people of having at least one person in their lives who’s a consistent, positive long-term presence.

“That’s the gold standard,” the nonprofit’s executive director says, and it’s those connections with mentors that Bench Mark aims to nurture through its programs.

Founded by Kiefer in 2014, Bench Mark is a fitness-based mentoring program that works with at-risk and justice-involved youth, using weightlifting and athletic training as a vehicle for helping troubled teenagers find better directions in their lives.

Recently, the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime & Delinquency announced that Bench Mark will receive $355,483 through the Violence Intervention & Prevention program. Bench Mark plans to use it to partner with Lancaster city police on a new one-to-one intensive mentoring program, Kiefer said.

It will target young people who are “adjacent to crime,” he said — who have not been arrested but whose behavior or social network indicates that they are at high risk. The state grant, which runs for three years, starts in June; Bench Mark hopes to have the pilot program up and running by July, Kiefer said. He anticipates hiring a program director and two staff members who would serve as mentors.

The city police are certainly interested, spokeswoman Stacia Korman said: “We welcome all initiatives that enable us to collaborate with our community partners to create a safer future.”

The grant is among 64 made statewide totaling $40 million. Bench Mark was the sole Lancaster County organization to receive one, and it is the largest in the nonprofit’s history. Bench Mark previously received a $143,968 VIP grant at the end of 2021: It funded a case manager working with youth involved in gun violence.


Meanwhile, Bench Mark is looking to grow its program in Columbia and establish its own site there.

Darren Landis

Bench Mark had been active in Columbia until the pandemic forced it to shut down. It restarted in 2022. It currently offers after-school programming on Tuesdays and Thursdays in a weight room next to the high school gym.

Last fall, Kiefer rehired Darren Landis on a part-time basis to oversee Columbia. Landis had been Bench Mark’s Director of Growth before stepping down for a while to be a fulltime parent.

In Columbia, “I was able to pick back up where we left off,” Landis said.

The school district is excited to have Bench Mark back in the community, Assistant Principal Karen Niehaus said.

A Bench Mark student works out at the Columbia High School weight room on Thursday, April 4, 2024. (Photo: Darren Landis)

“We are working closely with Will and Darren to create a space where our students can have positive role models outside of their teachers and school staff, as well as build self-efficacy and leadership skills while they continue to pursue plans for their futures,” she said.

Due to various administrative and logistical challenges — including transportation and the need to have a memorandum of understanding with any participating school district — Bench Mark’s enrollment in Columbia is limited to the district’s students. There are nine of them in the program, ranging from 8th to 12th grade.

Bench Mark had been charging Columbia Borough School District $2,500 per semester to run the program at the high school. This spring, two local donors stepped up and covered the cost instead.

To grow further in the area, Bench Mark needs a location of its own, Kiefer and Landis said. They have been talking with people in Columbia and hope to have a site identified this year.

Among other things, Bench Mark mentors youths referred to it by the county Office of Juvenile Probation; due to transportation limitations, that program does not extend to the western part of the county. With a location in Columbia, it could, Landis said. It could also bring in students from other school districts, such as Donegal or Hempfield.

Other initiatives

In a recent interview with Hourglass Foundation, Kiefer mentioned three other initiatives Bench Mark is pursuing:

  • Expanding its Suspension Alternative Program at McCaskey High School: A school suspension is often the first major milestone for a student who is sliding toward delinquency; intervening then can head off problems before they worsen, Kiefer said.
  • Bringing mental health counseling in-house: There are great resources in the county, but the young people that Bench Mark serves need it on site, Kiefer said: “They’re comfortable here. They want to stay here.”
  • Establishing temporary housing for young adults: This is a far bigger challenge than the other two, Kiefer said, but there’s a gap that has to be filled in providing temporary housing for 18- and 19-year-olds whose parents are no longer willing to house them. Without other options, they mostly end up couch-surfing, and they need stability.