Story by Jessica Spoor
It’s 8pm on a Friday night, and while most people my age with kids are ready to wind down and head to bed, I venture to the Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Center for the first ever Friday Night Life event. As soon as I walk inside, I can feel the vibrancy and positive impact this initiative will ultimately bring to youth in our community. The brick and mortar walls have transformed into a colorful array of balloons, cheerful volunteers wear matching “FNL” t-shirts and barber chairs greet the entry, soon to see a line of teens waiting to get their hair done – free of charge.
The Martin Luther King, Jr. Center staff are organizing each breakout room while Cynthia Taylor and Kintae Lark, both community staples and orchestrators of the event, are running around like any organizer would. Each stop to check on teens passing by, genuinely listening to their responses. It’s community leaders like this that can subtly impact a kids’ life in such a way that helps curb the attraction to violence and risky behavior.
The night kicks off with a variety of avenues appealing to different interests: painting, video games, martial arts, basketball. Everywhere I look, there is a space invaded by teens and their friends. About an hour into the activities, the group is corralled into the gym and the lights go dark.
“I’m here to tell you…to press your way forward,” said Lark.
The inspirational face on the screen is Kintae Lark, VPA’s Youth Employment Manager, sharing a two-minute testimonial that moved me to tears.
“Don’t give in to the temptations around you…It’s time to heal, to forgive, to be strong,” his voice echoes.
The lights come on and the once buzzing gymnasium had fallen silent, intent on listening to more relatable words of wisdom. Beyond any kind of tough exterior that’s presented, it’s easy to tell these young people are craving to feel understood.
Recent years have seen an alarming relationship between youth and violence within our city. The challenges of food insecurity and lack of resources creates an emotional toll and increases the need to lash out for many teens.
“It’s not a new problem, but having a spotlight on it this past year has proven that we need to work on creating relationships and make a bigger impact to shift their focus,” said Lark. “For a lot of these young people, they’re trapped in a darkness and we’re here to be intentional enough to make an impact.”
The darkness can only be understood through firsthand experience. During this particular evening, there are almost as many volunteers as there are kids, made up of a strong group of mentors and community leaders, each ready to share their own stories of overcoming adversity.
“Programs like this are important for our community to succeed, and it can take a village,” Lark said.
“I grew up living this life,” he said. “I saw where it could lead, and I decided to get out of it. I had to press through it. My passion since then has been to create a space for kids, to get them off the streets and inspire them despite the strong adversity they can end up facing.”
In only two events, the breakout sessions have proven to be emotionally charged and extremely impactful. Topics like life skills, coping skills, how to resist temptations and conflict resolution are part of the curriculum, encouraging moments of discovery.
“We had young people opening up about thoughts of suicide and being violated,” said Lark. “We’re here to provide the professional resources for these kids to begin to heal and bounce back from all the hurt and the trauma that many others will never see in their lifetime.”
Although events like this open a critical door for growth and development in a teen’s life, the community centers they’re held in have played an extremely important role in South Bend for over 50 years.
Later in the week, I walk through the doors at the Charles Black Community Center and am greeted by an abundance of energy. Despite the limitations placed on capacity by COVID, the doors have remained open. Today, I’m not sure if it’s the young e-learners with their laptops, the small adult basketball session in the gym or the bass in the music studio thumping, but there’s a sense of belonging.
Both the Charles Black Community Center and Martin Luther King, Jr Community Center have seen thousands of youth seek respite within their walls. It is not just about programming the space but opening their doors and allowing for kids to simply walk inside.
“It’s extremely important to have these centers, to relate to the things that these kids are going through and equip them with the tools to feel empowered to stay positive,” said Cynthia Taylor, VPA’s Director of Community Partnerships. “Some come to us hungry, some come without having slept. Some have seen violence that we cannot begin to imagine. Making sure they know we’re here for them is the most important job we do.”
Both centers are nestled within neighborhoods that have seen more than their fair share of issues.
“There’s a lot of these young people that just don’t have a place to go,” she said. “We can teach them how to make a healthy meal without using a stove, expand their creativity by providing painting supplies. That has led to some of our deepest conversations with these kids, by asking questions and learning more about their situations.”
Taylor has been on the front lines for many years as the former Charles Black Community Center Director and now as VPA’s newly created position Director of Community Partnerships. Known as “Miss Cici” to the kids who routinely visit, she can attest to the triumphs and heartbreaks that kids face.
“I’ll never forget when a young boy came in and started to paint. It was a picture of himself next to his mom, and his was dad leaving,” she said, getting emotional. “For me it was like, wow, you just don’t know what is going on in their lives and the weight they’re having to carry with them.”
It takes a village. A village of various warriors who are ready to take on the challenges that face today’s youth. The compassion of a single person can change the trajectory of someone’s life, regardless of age; For people like Cynthia Taylor and Kintae Lark, it’s their life’s purpose.
“I just love young people, no matter what they may do,” said Taylor. “I’ll still keep going every day to make sure these young people get to the success that I see in them.”
You can get involved and make an impact in our community. Get more information on Friday Night Life and how you can play a role at sbvpa.org/fnl.
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