Join Hands ESL, a youth organization built on community, forges digital connections 


Join Hands ESL, based in East St. Louis, IL, is a youth and family program with a mission to encourage the “pursuit of education as a pathway out of poverty.” The organization provides youth and young adults with opportunities “to and through college graduation” and teaches them how to become advocates for change in their communities, which is vital for a city with one of the highest poverty and murder rates in the country. Join Hands ESL currently serves over 225 adults and youth and has over 20 students in college. 

Relationships and community are at the heart of the mission of Join Hands ESL. So, when stay-at-home orders were issued across the country, Executive Director Sheila Burton knew that a shift to virtual programming would be necessary to keep program youth connected and engaged. Ascend, creator of gamified goal-setting software for adolescents and young adults, presented itself as a way for program staff to virtually deliver activities to youth, to track the completion of activities, and to store assignments and documents in one place. It also gives youth a way to keep up with program requirements, to connect with their program mentors, and to set their own personal goals through an easy-to-use, gamified, mobile-friendly interface.

Burton and her team at Join Hands ESL will use the Ascend platform to deliver summer program activities such as resume creation and goal setting to ensure the youth they serve stay connected with their mentor. Staff and mentors will be able to see which students have completed activities and access youth responses. Additionally, the platform will provide staff with quantitative and qualitative data & insights about program outcomes, which is important not only for ongoing program management but also for maintaining funding opportunities.

Though the impacts of the transition to distance-learning and virtual programming have yet to be seen, it’s certain that the team at Join Hands ESL will continue their work of helping youth and families access opportunity, create new pathways, and advocate for change in their community. And although staff, volunteers, and youth may not be able to commune as they typically would, they will still be together, just a little farther apart.

To learn more about the mission and work of Join Hands ESL, visit their website,


About Ascend

Ascend is a student empowerment platform that enables schools, youth programs, and mentoring organizations to cultivate, track, and measure student goals and achievement. Ascend is proud to be a minority and woman-owned business and supports organizations in North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Wisconsin, Texas, and beyond.