Resting over a sweaty basketball sitting on my desk, I pick up the phone and call another number from my list. Its written in the chicken scratch of my 20-year-old self, so it took me a minute to read it, then dial.
“Hi, can I talk to your youth program leader?”
“I’m sorry, we don’t have a youth program.”
“Oh, okay, thanks.”
Hanging up the phone, I sighed and dialed the next number.
So went the rhythm of the next week. In between activities I was leading in the little nonprofit where I worked, I’d pick up the phone. Sometimes sweat dripped from my brow while I panted, while other times I was calming myself down from an upsetting interaction with my young people. All the time I was looking for connections.
Working from my own volition, as became my signature in this field, I put together an informal citywide survey of youth programs in Omaha that year. For a week solid I called every church across the city and asked about how they served young people. I’d been at my job for a just a few months when I decided there must be other people doing similar jobs. My mom started this program, YoungTime, a few years earlier when she was serving as a VISTA. That funding dried up, but the nonprofit that hosted her in the basement of the big ol’ Methodist church hired me to keep the program going. Working eight hours a day for $600 a month seemed suitable to me then.
For a year I led an afterschool drop-in program for elementary kids. Mom started it after discovering my sisters’ friends literally had nothing to do after school. They’d go home to parent-free homes, mothers and fathers tied up in the low-paying jobs that used to distinguish so many working class African American neighborhoods like ours. My parents never let it show that they were bothered by being one of the few white families in the neighborhood, and my mom often made it her mission to counter the negative effects surrounding the kids around her.
So YoungTime started with afterschool. However, a few weeks in I decided all the middle school siblings hanging out needed something to do too, so I created a middle school time after the young ones left at 5pm. A month into that, their high school aged siblings were showing up, so I opened the church’s basement gym to them at 9pm and kept it open until midnight, five nights a week. Knowing the courts in our gym were the only ones in the neighborhood, I leveraged the activities with three simple rules: No guns, no drugs, no fighting. The moment I had any of that I called the cops, and as the only adult in a growing surge of teens that was really the only lever I had.
About two months into this adventure I decided there was no reason to work in isolation. I set about calling all the sources I could find, churches mostly, and discovered there were almost no other programs like mine working in the churches I called. By the end of the week of calling I’d ticked off 150 churches from my list.
It took another eight years for me to found The Freechild Project. When I did I was still carrying the remnants of that survey. I don’t know what I was expecting to find back then, but I started Freechild it began to take form. I mapped out all these different ways adults were working with youth, and started connecting the dots. It was the same intention I’d had when I was running YoungTime.
Now I’m more than a decade out from starting Freechild, and the social network is still being built. I rest assured though knowing I’ve made my contribution to the field. Today, The Freechild Project has almost 2,000 fans on Facebook and is regularly connecting young people and adults creating social change together around the world. The website is still booming, and this blog helps connect people too.
The changes we seek to make in the world around us always have a seed within us. My desire was to connect people with each other out here, because my desire was to be connected to people in my own life. Some questions I asked myself to right this were: What are the roots of my work? What seeds lay inside me looking to grow? How does the life going on outside me grow the seeds I have within me?