Detroit program builds youth skill, leadership

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Capital News Service
LANSING – In the middle of a city whose glory days belong to past generations, YouthVille Detroit promotes hope and pride in the future.
YouthVille’s founder, Gerald K. Smith, believed young people needed a safe place, responsible, caring adults engaged in their lives and involvement in their own development, the nonprofit organization says.
Rita Clark, the director of programs, was there at its inception in 2005.
Clark said YouthVille is a youth development center that services people ages 11-19 and gives them high-performance learning opportunities.

YouthVille teaches a wide range of skills from pottery and music production to leadership and service learning.
Clark said there have been ups and downs since YouthVille’s opening.
“In 2005, it was the hottest thing on the block in Detroit. During a time where Detroit was having a number of challenges, YouthVille was a ray of hope and sunshine for a lot of youth and families.
“We averaged close to 300 to 400 kids daily, kids from all walks of life,” she said.
Sustainability is always a challenge, according to Clark. “Of course we reach out with the traditional forms of soliciting dollars from foundations, but private donations come frequently.”
Detroit has several other youth development centers, such as the Center for Urban Youth and Development and City Connect Detroit.
Youthville seeks funding through state, federal and local grants. Clark said YouthVille has received grants “upwards to six figures or more, but those are often a challenge.”
The two largest grants were from the Skillman Foundation and 21st Century Community Learning Center, according to chief financial officer David Buckler.
Clark said, “When you write a grant, you’re competing with the rest of the world, so you never know what the outcomes are going to be, but we’ve had some success and we continue to pursue dollars.
“Nonprofits are struggling and competing to get dollars. So what you find is that nonprofits come together to work collectively,” Clark said.
What that looks like is having tenant partnerships inside its building.
Clark said, “All of these people in the facility have some interest or investment in working with young people. We realize we can’t do it all.”
One example is Henry Ford Health Clinic. Having health care in the building allows program participants to get medical help there.
Clark said, “If the partnership is effective in a way that young people are yielding positive outcomes and results based on these partnerships, that makes it beneficial.”
Even the low $25 annual membership fee has hurt participation in difficult economic times.
Clark said, “The priorities for families were not so much getting their kids to an after-school youth development center as it was, ‘I have to fill my gas tank up.’”
Mike Huckaby, who has taught music production at YouthVille since 2006, has helped students and parents. He said, “I even matched the fee. If there was a kid with some interest, I would pay his tuition.”
Several people have donated laptops and money, and Huckaby said students’ biggest practical need is a laptop computer.
The Mac Shack is a creative space equipped with more than 15 iMac computers for participants to learn public relations and marketing.
One of the largest advertising and digital communications firms in the country, Campbell Ewald, donated money for the lab, Clark said, “They transfigured that whole space.”
However, Huckaby said it is difficult to get youth excited about using such state-of-the-art equipment like those in the Mac Shack.
Transportation is a serious problem, said Clark, “especially with the average of 175-200 kids daily with attendance increasing.”
Detroit-area schools are aware of YouthVille but the challenge is transportation and how youth get there, she said.
Huckaby said that parents often struggle to find time to drop their children off and pick them up. “The time commitment can be harder.”
YouthVille also engages in service learning by reaching out to neighborhoods in need. Clark said, “It’s one way for young people to understand that the world is bigger than where you are right now and you need to see some other things to appreciate that what you have may not be as bad.”
Yet another challenge is the sometimes-fleeting commitment of students. Clark said, “With a youth development center you have a choice – so you either come and engage or you just come and hang out then leave.”
Huckaby said one of his greatest challenges is when students look for instant gratification. “Some of the students are really jaded. They don’t really see this going anywhere for them.”
YouthVille’s first participants are now adults who have gone onto college or pursued other opportunities.
Jarvis-LaRue Brown, now 25, remembers when YouthVille was still a dream.
Anthony Thompson, Brown’s mentor, influenced him to divert his path leading to jail at age 13 to become more productive and become a leader through YouthVille.
Brown is a music production teacher at YouthVille, and he said, “Because of Youthville, I’m in the business of working with youth and making sure that they are better leaders and put them in the right position where they are around people that could potentially change their life.”
Brown said, “We have a network of youth that will amaze you.”

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