August 13, 2021 | Battle Creek, MI | Battle Creek Enquirer – The group of boys chatted happily as they helped pass out snacks Wednesday afternoon at the Urban League, tossing bags of chips and making jokes as they settled in to eat.
With heavy rainstorms and fall sports practices starting up, the group was small, but all of them were happy to spend a part of their afternoon with their friends at the Neighborhood Youth Program.
JaJuan Williams, 45, runs the Neighborhood Youth Program, which has been meeting at the Urban League every Monday, Wednesday and Friday afternoon for almost a year. He founded the nonprofit last summer to provide extra support for kids in the community.
Navigating the last part of the 2019-2020 school year from home was hard on his kids, and he knew it was difficult for other families, too. So, he decided to organize a program that would give parents a break, allow kids to socialize and offer families support during a difficult time.
Above all, Williams wanted kids in the community to know that there we adults who cared about them.
“There’s a lot of negativity going on in the city right now where we need to bring love back,” he said. “Kids shouldn’t grow up looking at another kid like, “Oh, you’re from the east side. You’re from the north side. You’re from the south side.’ I’m trying to bring all of us together from every side of town…I’m trying to let them know there’s another way than that.”
When he’s not working with the kids, Williams works full-time as a press operator at Musashi Auto Parts. He established the nonprofit himself and pays for all of the supplies.
Shaketta Patterson has been bringing her son, Aalon, 9, and her boyfriend’s son, Daeshaun Johnson, 8, to the program since last September.
“They look forward to going, like… ‘Can we go now? Can we go now?’” she said.
As a single mom, Patterson said she valued Neighborhood Youth Program because Williams is another adult role model for her son.
“He’s actually on him. He’s a guider,” she said about Williams. “It’s very convenient because my son’s dad is not in his life.”
During the past year, Patterson said she’s watched her son become more thoughtful.
“He doesn’t talk back anymore,” she said. “I said, ‘What did you say?’ and he’ll say…’Nothing, because [Williams] told us not to talk back to grownups.'”
When Williams was growing up, he said he didn’t have anyone in the community watching out for him or encouraging him to be better.
“Someone they can look up to, someone they can go get advice from, someone that’s been through certain situations,” he said. “Some of the kids feel comfortable with talking to me with stuff they probably wouldn’t say to their parents.”
On a typical afternoon, the Neighborhood Youth Program has between six to 15 students. Williams starts by providing the kids with a snack. Sometimes that’s fruit, other times it’s pizza, but he always wants to make sure they’ve had something to eat. Then, the kids spend time working on school work. During the school year, they work on homework, but over the summer, Williams provides worksheets to practice math, social studies and reading comprehension. They’ve even done a few science experiments together.
The idea is to provide a safe space where kids can enjoy learning and get the support they need to succeed, Williams said.
Boonikka Herring, who serves as Ward 3 City Commissioner, has often come in to help Williams with the program.
“He’s awesome…He developed a relationship with the parents that really helps out where he’s part of that village,” she said. “The kids come here and they get some fun and education. That’s always a bonus.”
In addition to school work, the kids in the Neighborhood Youth Program have the chance to try new things, like painting on a canvas or writing poetry. Williams also brings in Black professionals to talk to the kids, that way they can learn about different career options from people who look like them.
The group often takes field trips into downtown Battle Creek so that the kids can explore what the city has to offer, and they talk about what it means to be part of a community.
Williams said he wants to help kids see the best in their city.
“I want to teach them things that they didn’t teach us in school…like being respectful, being polite, helping each other,” he said. “I want to make sure the kids have a brighter future than what kids have been having.”
To contact William the Neighborhood Youth Program, call (269) 924-7281.