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New Kids on the Block

By Maggie Heyn Richardson
In 2017, Dustin LaFont stood in front of the former Sarkis Oriental Rugs building at Government and Wiltz streets and dreamed.

The stately, red-brick former church seemed like the perfect place to expand his Front Yard Bikes, the program he started in 2010 that helps young people earn a bike through skill-building, mentoring and teamwork. By then, the grassroots project—launched in LaFont’s front lawn while an LSU student—had grown beyond his wildest expectations, and he needed more space to work with the growing number of children and teens who clamored to participate.

“I took a picture of the building on my phone, and told our kids how great I thought it would be,” LaFont says. “So I was really disappointed when someone else bought it and it didn’t work out.”

Leaders from the nonprofits Front Yard Bikes, Line4Line, Humanities Amped and Big Buddy, from left, Lucy Perera, Maliah Mathis, Anna West, Destiny Cooper, O’Neil Curtis, Gaylynne Mack, and Alex Torres are working together to transform the former Sar…
Leaders from the nonprofits Front Yard Bikes, Line4Line, Humanities Amped and Big Buddy, from left, Lucy Perera, Maliah Mathis, Anna West, Destiny Cooper, O’Neil Curtis, Gaylynne Mack, and Alex Torres are working together to transform the former Sarkis Rugs store on Government Street into a youth center. | Tim Mueller photo

But three years later, it did.

In fall 2020, after the Mid City property had been bought and sold twice by developers who also saw its potential, LaFont convinced then-owner Devin Broome to sell it to him, not just to house FYB, but to fulfill a larger vision. The space will also house programs of three additional nonprofit partners, Big Buddy, Humanities Amped and Line4Line. The leaders of the four youth organizations, committed colleagues whose agencies share many of the same participants, have spent the last year working on creating a center that values and supports Baton Rouge youth. In November, they closed on the building and are now in the process of raising funds to redesign and renovate it.

The 10,000-square-foot “youth lab” will house FYB’s bike repair and skill-building shop, Big Buddy’s workforce readiness classes and mentoring meet-ups, performance and event space for Humanities Amped spoken word open mic nights and a mock barber shop/salon where kids can try their hands at barbering under the direction of Line4Line founder O’Neil Curtis. And that, say the founders, is just the beginning.

“We have to radically believe in our kids—and invest in them,” says LaFont. “A space like this is going to amount to much more meaningful interactions and give us a place to really give these kids our best. It’s just really exciting.”

Each of the four organization’s leaders, LaFont, Gaylynne Mack of Big Buddy, Destiny Cooper of Humanities Amped and Curtis of Line4Line, are past recipients of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Louisiana’s Angel Award. They applied for and received a $250,000 BCBSF Angels of Change grant, a special award that supports collaboration among past honorees. The Baton Rouge General Foundation, the Baton Rouge Area Foundation, the Wilson Foundation and other donors have also supported the project’s start-up.

“I cannot tell you what this means to organizations like ours, which are always, always looking for space for meetings, trainings and events,” says Mack of Big Buddy, an organization that matches adult mentors one-on-one with youth and provides workforce training to high school students. “For us to be able to have a place for our Big Buddies to meet their Little Buddies, and to hold our Level-UP! workforce development classes, it’s a game changer.”

Mack says that a committed youth center devoted to helping young people realize their potential is the hallmark of a strong city.

“The best cities in the country are investing in the leaders of tomorrow,” Mack says. “This will show our kids we truly believe in their potential.”

Once renovated, the youth center will pulse with energy. The front of the building will house the repair shop and administrative offices of Front Yard Bikes, allowing LaFont to consolidate his program’s current locations at BREC’s Terrace Street Park, which he’s outgrown, and at 2560 Government St. The entrepreneurial organization generates revenue by repairing bikes for the public, so expanding this capacity is important. FYB’s free after school program allows kids to earn merit badges as they work on bikes and master different life skills. LaFont is a former Westdale Middle School world history teacher who believes firmly in experiential learning.

“This is not a place where kids hear, ‘no, you just watch,’” LaFont says. “They jump in and learn by doing.”

LaFont envisions the bike shop, a large open space, morphing into a weekend performance space where partner Humanities Amped can hold open mic nights and spoken word events. A school-based program, Humanities Amped develops literacy and problem solving skills in middle and high schoolers by situating the study of humanities in a format where students’ emotional well-being is prioritized. The classroom becomes a caring community and the students share and write about their experiences growing up amid intense social challenges. As the class members delve into their life stories, they also discuss the issues that inform their experiences and develop strategies for addressing those challenges.

Humanities Amped was founded in 2014, when English education doctoral student Anna West teamed with then-Northdale Alternative High School teacher Destiny Cooper on a project for West’s dissertation. The two created a special class in which English and creative writing were taught in a transformative environment—one that took into consideration the trauma young people experience regularly. West and Cooper used restorative circles to get kids talking. They created a safe space for sharing and invited students to write about their lived experiences. The kids also discussed community problems, like racism and inequities in education and health care, and developed potential solutions.

“We see young people not as problems to be solved, but as problem solvers,” says West.

Three years of Humanities Amped data showed that students in its classes were 29% more likely to graduate on time than their peers. The program now works in five East Baton Rouge Parish middle and high schools and includes a teacher training component.

West says being part of the Government Street youth center will give the program badly needed dedicated space and will open up new possibilities for programs and events that allow it to reach more participants and to go deeper with those currently involved.

Another youth center partner, Line4Line, also sees the new space as an opportunity to expand its work with neighborhood youth. Based at O’Neil’s Barber and Beauty Salon at 449 North Acadian Thruway, Line4Line gives kids free Monday haircuts and dinner when they agree to pick up a book and read to their barber. It’s an endearing, simple concept, but one that works, says Lucy Perera, director of learning innovation for the Knock Knock Children’s Museum and Curtis’ partner on the project.

“When you bring books into an important community space like this,” says Perera, “it makes a big difference and changes the narrative about who is a reader.”

The barber shop’s back room is a well-organized reading room filled with engaging books for kids and teens. The program has made it a priority to select a variety of books featuring Black characters and stories.

“There’s a lot of research about how important it is for children to see themselves in books having normal, everyday experiences,” says Perera.

Children pick up a book while they’re waiting for a haircut—itself a confidence builder—and they read to their barber aloud as they sit in his chair. The kids can also participate in the 449 Book Club, named for the barber shop’s street address, and borrow a book to take home.

Volunteers from Southern University and other organizations spend time at the barber shop to support the kids as they read.

The new youth center will feature an additional Line4Line reading room and a mock salon with a barber chair where kids can learn and practice barbering and salon skills, under Curtis’ direction.

Perera says that the center also presents an opportunity for the organizations to form a craft guild and help kids start micro-enterprises making purposeful art they can sell in Mid City.

The collaborative projects among the organizations, which work with similar constituencies, are limitless, say the founders. Moreover, the youth center also has the potential to streamline important administrative functions that currently weigh down individual operations. For example, each organization must run background checks on adult volunteers, a time-consuming function for which there is no shared process or database.

“The center could become an intermediary that could perform the background checks for all of the organization, as well as a site for training adult volunteers,” says Mack.

“We see this new youth lab as a place where we’re going to be able to provide a very high quality of service to our young people,” Mack continues. “And why not? They’re going to be leading our city before you know it.”