Growing up on the north side of Kalamazoo, Charlene Taylor experienced firsthand the many challenges facing the neighborhood, although she did not know these were neighborhood challenges at the time. Taylor simply knew how hard her mother worked to support her and her four siblings as a single parent.
“There was so much love and cohesiveness in the family that we didn’t even realize that we were the underserved,” Taylor says. “I mean there are some things, when we look back now, we knew that we were struggling, but we survived it.”
This month boys from Taylor’s old neighborhood as well as the Edison neighborhood will have their artwork featured during Art Hop, when it will be on display at Mercantile Bank, 107 W. Michigan Ave. It’s an opportunity Taylor never had as a child, but one of many she now works to provide through the STREET Afterschool Program, a nonprofit she co-founded that offers mental, emotional and academic support to boys ages 10-17.
It is the second year the kids have participated in Art Hop, and their works this year revolve around the theme of hip-hop music. According to Taylor, the theme for the art was chosen because “the boys love music, and it’s another way for them to express themselves. It’s like therapy.”
For 17 years, Taylor has worked as a substance abuse prevention specialist for the Community Healing Centers (CHC). Four days a week, she works with kids in the Kalamazoo County Juvenile Home, many of them coming from Kalamazoo’s Northside neighborhood, where drugs, alcohol and violence often lie right outside their doorsteps.
To address the mental health disparities among Kalamazoo’s underserved youth, Taylor, along with the Community Healing Centers, partnered with the Kalamazoo Community Mental Health department (CMH) to found the STREET Afterschool Program in December 2013. The concept and implementation of the program were heavily influenced by the kids in the juvenile home, according to Taylor.
“I saw too many kids coming in at a young age ending up in a grown-up prison or dying,” Taylor says. “When I got the opportunity to do this, I had the thought of the kids that touched my life at the juvenile home who didn’t make it.”
The organization’s name, STREET, is an acronym for Survival-Trust-Resources-Education-Empowerment-They, and those components serve as an outline for the services and goals of the program.
Survival of young people, according to Taylor, means providing them with immediate support on three levels: physically, mentally and emotionally. Many high-risk factors lie in the city’s Northside and Edison neighborhoods, including the availability of drugs and alcohol, which she says can ultimately lead to substance abuse, mental illness and domestic violence.
“If you don’t treat the whole person, then they cannot become successful. They can’t become the best they can be, because they are still struggling,” Taylor says.
In order to help young men survive, STREET offers an on-site therapist. STREET kids are also eligible for additional CHC and CMH services, pending an assessment.
In order for STREET to be successful, Taylor says, the kids must be able to identify with its one full-time and five part-time staff members. During the hiring process for staff, she strongly considered candidates’ personal backgrounds, she says.
“The kids know if you are for real or not. They know if you care or not,” Taylor says. “Almost everybody who works at the program, whether it was in Kalamazoo or some other underserved population group, came from the same type of environment and have become successful as an adult.”
Education is key
The STREET program runs from 3:30–7:30 p.m. Monday–Friday, serving more than 55 young men throughout the year. Kids are shuttled to and from the program, which is located in the Northside neighborhood, via Metro Transit. There is a strong educational focus, as STREET staff have relationships with area schools to monitor grades to know if a child is falling behind.
When they arrive, the boys set a goal for their time there that day. They are required to do homework from school. If a child forgets to bring homework, they must read, and if they refuse, their scheduled recreational time is taken away.
“We have recreation, but it’s in its place,” Taylor says. “Our program is very structured. The kids have a routine, and they know as soon as they walk through that door what they are supposed to do.”
The rest of the night includes rec time, a full-course meal provided by an on-staff cook, chores and evaluations. The boys rate themselves on whether they have achieved their goal for that day, with peer evaluation to ensure honesty, and staff keep notebooks on each child to track progress.
Taylor says an important goal of the program is to empower young men by helping them increase their skills and exposing them to new experiences. The annual Art Hop exhibit is one of the ways this is accomplished. The kids work on their art projects during rec time. This year they have been divided into two groups and are collaborating to create and display five pieces.
“It’s a fun way for the kids to express themselves while developing socio-emotional skills,” Taylor says. “Basically, we sit back and let them do their thing. Whenever they see someone go up to their picture, they know it’s their responsibility to go and tell them about the picture, what it means, and why they did it. They are the hosts.”
In addition to participating in Art Hop, STREET kids speak annually at CMH Board of Directors meetings, volunteer at Roof Sit and Serve for Kids fundraising events, and take field trips to Full Blast and Michigan’s Adventure.
The ultimate goal of STREET is that the boys become positive role models for their peers and their community. When they demonstrate behavioral change through the program, they graduate to the role of youth ambassador. Youth ambassadors receive a $50 stipend from STREET every two weeks for staying positive role models for the younger boys. The program sees the participants through to high school graduation.
“Overall, what I hope the kids take away from the program is a sense of pride and self-respect,” Taylor says. “To know who they are and that as (an African-American) culture we came from kings and queens. To be proud and know that it’s OK to be different.”