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Birmingham Rec Centers as the New ‘Safe Havens’ for Area Youth

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- Shellie Layne (hands raised, left), founder and CEO of local nonprofit Women Under Construction Network, leads Birmingham kids in a parachute game at Ensley Recreation Center. (RYAN MICHAELS, FOR THE BIRMINGHAM TIMES)

By Ryan Michaels

The Birmingham Times

Jason Morgan, a fifth grader at Minor Elementary, likes dodgeball, kickball and watching TV.

But on a recent weekday evening, Jason was reading about Christmas trees with a group of five other students and a local teacher at the Ensley Recreation Center on Birmingham’s West Side.

Jason, who had gotten to play kickball shortly before the reading, didn’t seem to mind the homework. In fact, he was enjoying hanging out with everyone at the rec center.

“They (rec center staff) let us play, and they help us with our work,” Jason said.

That night, Jason was one of a few more than a dozen students who were taking part in the city’s “Safe Havens” program, a new pilot initiative to decrease violence in the city by bringing more children into rec centers after school for games and activities, as well as tutoring and life skills.

Currently, the program operates out of three centers in western Birmingham: Harrison Park in West End, Central Park in Five Points West and Ensley Recreation Center, as well as Martin Luther King (MLK) Jr. Recreation Center in East Birmingham.

When the Birmingham Times visited the Ensley Rec, children started coming into the center right after school to get boxed lunches or snacks, and participated in physical group activities, first in the classroom and then in the gym.

After gym time ended, the children were brought back into the classroom where teachers helped with homework and provided educational materials for the students to use.

Students and a teacher play at the Connect Four table during the Ensley Recreation Center’s weekly Safe Havens night. On right, City Councilor LaTonya Tate and Bush Hills STEAM Academy sixth grade teacher Angela Gowdy speak. (RYAN MICHAELS, FOR THE BIRMINGHAM TIMES)

Throughout the day’s activities, which lasted from around 3 p.m. to 8 p.m., some of the children were given snacks as needed.

During the first half of the evening, the students are led by representatives from Women Under Construction Network (WUCN), local nonprofit which focuses on using home repair to build the lives of women in Birmingham.

WUCN uses its “Youth Tools for Life” (YT4Life) home repair program to teach students life skills.

“We parallel every tool that we use, and every activity that we use…with tools and with life,” said Shellie Layne, founder and CEO of WUCN.

The youth program, Layne said, helps children develop personal skills that are beneficial throughout all phases of life.

“Birmingham Park and Rec…has given us the opportunity to work with not only the kids in terms of just the recreation piece, but to teach them a little bit about building self-esteem, about building self-confidence, about building who they are and recognizing that they’ve got great tools and great experiences, and they’ll be able to share those with other kids,” Layne said.

Layne also said that the youth program, combined with their program for adults, allows them to work on entire family unit.

Angela Gowdy, a sixth-grade teacher at Bush Hills STEAM Academy, said students at her school have embraced the Safe Havens programming.

“They’re super excited about coming to the center, playing games, doing homework and just interacting with their peers,” Gowdy said.

Beverly Thomas, who works with Jefferson County’s Head Start program, said through working with the program, she has seen the “light bulb” come on for multiple students and told a story about a 4-year-old named Charles who goes to the MLK rec center.

“We had a little boy at MLK (Rec Center) to spell his name, and everybody clapped and cheered, gave him a standing ovation because when he first came in, he did not know. He knew what his name was, but he could not write it. He could not recognize any of the letters, and he has mastered that,” Thomas said.

Birmingham City Councilor LaTonya Tate, said the Safe Havens program can be important for the many single parents, who often have nontraditional work hours.

“When school is out…this is a buffer for the kid to come in and be safe and have people really making sure that child is safe, keeping them while their parent isn’t there, providing for them, helping them with their homework, so this is a great initiative,” said Tate, who chairs the council’s Public Safety Committee.