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Tuesday, February 7, 2023

We must protect our youth centers

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In this week’s column, I run the risk of “preaching to the choir.”

That’s because most of the people who read this column probably already understand the concept of unity. They understand that an army cannot win a battle if its soldiers sabotage each other instead of their enemy. Most of them know that a sports team cannot win a game if its players seek glory for themselves instead of helping the entire team win.

However, there are folks who actually need to read this column, who don’t share that understanding and may never come across this paper.  

Sometime on Saturday evening or very early Sunday morning, someone stole equipment from a heating and cooling unit connected to a building owned by Friendship Missionary Baptist Church on the city’s west side. 

That building, a former Boys & Girls Club facility on 16th Street in the Haughville area, is slated to be used by the church as a youth center. For at least a few years, Friendship has been renovating the building as funds from donations become available. In a special report last month, a local television network quoted organizers as saying that the youth center will offer tutoring and activities such as cooking, art classes and ballroom dancing.

Church leaders were planning to open the youth center this month, well before most youth are out of school and in search of activities during summer break.

That will not happen now, because someone thought it was cool to take $3,000 worth of parts from the building’s air conditioning system, including a compressor and computer. To some people, $3,000 may not sound like a lot of money. However, that is a large amount when a business or nonprofit entity such as a church is budgeting strategically to keep its doors open.

Therefore, church leaders have announced that the opening of the youth center will be delayed until money can be raised to replace the stolen equipment.

What makes this situation so sad is that there is a dire need for more positive places — throughout the city in general and Haughville in particular — where young people can enjoy fun, positive activities, learn helpful skills, be around good role models and maintain physical fitness.

The building is located in a neighborhood that has one of the highest crime rates in the city. In January, 14-year-old Anthony Lee Hughes Jr. was shot and killed in the parking lot of a nearby Popeyes restaurant. Immediately, city leaders, police, clergy and neighborhood organizers announced that something meaningful needed to be done to prevent violence. The goal of opening the youth center gained even more urgency.

Now, that goal is delayed because of the selfishness of a thief. That thief could have been someone or a group of people who live in the same predominantly African-American neighborhood. Or they could have been outsiders from another area of the town, or from another city altogether. 

It doesn’t matter. Regardless of where they came from, what happened over the weekend was a disservice to our local Black community and the Indianapolis community at large.

Even if the building were abandoned, stealing from it would have been wrong, but theft reaches a supreme level of shameful selfishness when that building is a church community center.

Now the question becomes what can we do about it?

I believe the first step is for those of us in the community who care about our youth to stand up and support organizations that are trying to help. We can show this support both through financial donations and by volunteering to provide mentoring, coaching and encouragement.

Donations can go a long way toward providing not only physical resources for youth centers, but also security devices such as cameras and fencing around air and heating units.

Secondly, residents in neighborhoods across the area can help by forming crime watch units that can keep track of suspicious activity around buildings. Residents can trade off in shifts as crime watch captains so that someone is monitoring a neighborhood around the clock, even overnight when most illegal activity takes place.

Many of the people in Haughville, for example, are longtime residents who recognize the people who are typically in their neighborhood. They can quickly determine if someone who is not from the area is loitering or trespassing. In situations such as these, it is good to contact the police immediately so that thieves and other criminals do not have time to cause damage. 

Over time as a journalist, I have heard people say many positive things about local pastors, politicians and community leaders. However, I have also heard people say they are not doing enough to make things better. They complain that not enough is being done to give young people something to do to keep them out of trouble.

It is unfair to issue this criticism when we don’t stand up and help community leaders, neighborhood activists and churches when they do take action to create opportunities for our youth.

Let us show our support for new and existing youth centers with our time and resources, and by not allowing anyone, whether they are traitors from this community or selfish outsiders, attack the institutions that are trying to help our youth reach their highest potential.

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