Grand Rapids Center Gives At-Risk Youth Hope, Second Chances

High school wasn’t easy for Xavier.*

By the time he got to 9th grade, he had already failed twice. He had to deal with gossip and harassment and was expelled after a fight, which he said he participated in as a means of self-defense.

He tried to pursue his GED, but was turned away from many programs due to his age, then 19.

“I didn’t have the help and resources,” Xavier said.

The Grand Rapids Center for Community Transformation is located at 1530 Madison Ave. SE in Grand Rapids.

Since he found the Grand Rapids Center for Community Transformation, his hope has been restored. He plans to finish his GED coursework early this year and works at the Rising Grinds coffee shop located inside the center. The now 24-year-old said it hasn’t been easy, but support from his classmates and instructors has made the difference.

“It was hard. It was so hard. If it wasn’t for some of the staff here, I think I just would have given up,” he said. “It’s family here.”

Expanding Opportunity

Xavier checks on the soup of the day at the Grand Rapids Center for Community Transformation’s Rising Grinds Cafe.

Xavier’s experience highlights one of the center’s main focus areas: relationships.

“That’s really foundational to what we do,” said Director Justin Beene.

He explains that for some kids growing up in Grand Rapids, there may not have been positive family or community role models to look up to. Parents or family friends likely didn’t have the connections and social network that teens in other parts of the city had that naturally expose them to a first job or quality internship experiences.

People with money and social capital have access and raise their children with these advantages, Beene said. Kids with parents who aren’t well off often have the same limited path in front of them.

Despite his two masters’ degrees and doctorate, Beene himself walked that line.

He grew up near the Madison Square neighborhood, playing basketball at the former Paul I. Philips gym, which is now a Boys and Girls Club. His family didn’t have a lot of money and relied on food stamps to get by. He recalls picking up free turkey dinners from local churches for the holidays.

However, Beene acknowledges advantages he did have. His parents owned their home and his grandparents paid for him to go to a private school, which tremendously expanded his social network.

“Since being a young kid, it was always my dream to create a place where young people weren’t looked at because of their deficit, but because of their assets,” Beene said.

Transforming Lives

That vision was realized through the center, which is a collaborative movement for community and city transformation, and includes partners Bethany Christian Services, Tabernacle Community Church, Building Bridges Professional Services, Rising Grinds Café, and Double O Supply and Craftsmen. The collective mission is “to create opportunities for transformation through work, education and community revitalization, as well as relationships.”

“We also have a singular shared vision, to see transformed communities,” Beene said.

Students use the center’s computer lab.

Youth ages 14 to 24 have access to career help including resume building, interview training and searching for jobs. Internship, job shadowing and employment opportunities also exist, as well as vocational training in construction, landscaping, and job placement through internal partners Building Bridges Professional Services and Rising Grinds Cafe.

Along with GED courses, teens and young adults can take advantage of educational workshops and receive help navigating the college admissions and financial aid process, as well as help with locating student housing. Leadership and mentoring opportunities along with development and life skills classes round out the offerings available at the center.

Xavier said the programming and the staff help young adults like himself see their potential, although the work still falls on the individual.

“If you’re not pushing yourself, then the help that they give you is only going to go to waste,” he said.

Community Reach

Besides developing the youth who enter the building, the center also looks outside its walls. Its social enterprise, Building Bridges Professional Services, provides landscaping and snow removal services for free or reduced prices to low-income seniors. Staff also work with teens to plan and execute community development projects.

Until recently, some of the center attendees had been working to remodel a building in front of the center to house an expanded version of the coffee shop scheduled to open to the public in May 2017. Sadly, their work was destroyed by a fire on the morning of Nov. 19, 2016. Beene said he was devastated, yet remains optimistic that through community support the coffee shop will rise somewhere in the neighborhood yet this year.

“We ultimately want the cafe to be a place where a millionaire can come and have coffee with the marginalized youth and both of them feel equally at home,” Beene said.

Editor’s Note: The Center for Community Transformation is the recipient of a $25,000 grant from the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan Foundation. The funding supports expansion of a Teen Outreach Program started by Bethany Christian Services to take place at the center. Under the program, participants will engage with a trauma-informed curriculum designed to promote healthy decision-making and reduce risky behavior. Programming incorporates principles of the Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy clinical model to help youth understand their various traumas and how they may affect many aspects of their lives. Outcomes will be assessed using Likert Scale pre-test and post-test anonymous surveys to be administered by TOP facilitators. These surveys will measure changes in trauma symptoms and attainment of identified projected outcomes.

 *We’ve agreed to not publish Xavier’s last name due to privacy concerns.

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