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Thursday, Dec. 9, 2010 02:44 pm

New east side center steers youth in the right direction

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Elmer Perkins, Leannette Black and Charles Muhammad Strickland lead the Progressive Youth Foundation.
PHOTOS BY RACHEL WELLS

Leannette Black grew up in San Francisco, where she remembers her mother making and selling hot tamales and hamburgers out of their home to raise money for drum and bugle corps costumes. “I saw all these people moving around me and it was just community,” says Black, who after serving in the army until 1992 came to Springfield to attend what is now the University of Illinois Springfield.

Black, who works for the state, is hoping that the new community center she’s helping to establish at 2130 Clearlake Avenue in the old Metzger’s Flooring building will help build up that same sense of community on Springfield’s east side. Incorporated as the Progressive Youth Foundation and Athletic League earlier this summer, the organization, which is still seeking nonprofit status, is largely funded through Black’s personal contributions.

“I want a legacy for my children, to let my children see me striving for the community,” Black says, adding that many of the people the organization serves are economically disadvantaged, without a fully nurturing home life and at risk for a life on the streets. “The kids who come through here are the kids who nobody wants to deal with. That’s why we’re here in the community.”

While Black leads and organizes fitness classes and basic skills workshops for women and girls through a Sister to Sister program, her two partners, Charles Muhammad Strickland and Elmer Perkins, are working with young men and boys through their Steel Sharpens Steel mentorship and boxing program. Strickland and Perkins have both spent time in prison, which they say motivates them all the more to keep their young trainees busy and working toward productive lives. “This way, I can correct some of the problems I could have created,” Perkins says, proudly pulling out a keychain with the word “coach” on it – a gift from one of his trainees.

Perkins, like Black and Strickland, previously worked with the Harriet Tubman Susan B. Anthony Center, where John Crisp, Jr., serves as president. Crisp says he’s pleased that there’s a new center to help steer more disadvantaged youth in the right direction and adds that the Progressive Youth Foundation’s leaders collectively have what it takes to make the new center a real asset to the community.

Already the young boys who spend their Monday, Wednesday and Friday evenings with Perkins and Strickland say the program is making a difference. Ten-year-old Brian Shipp says he’s learning discipline, and his mother, Glynnise Jackson, says her son comes home from boxing excited, constantly talking about his experiences and progress. “He’s enjoying himself, and it’s better for him to be doing that instead of being out tearing up stuff out here,” she says, adding that Shipp is already a good kid and she wants him to stay that way.

On Monday, Shipp and his fellow trainees’ excitement was at a high as the center celebrated its latest accomplishment – the acquisition of a used boxing ring. Perkins and Strickland had spent a week preparing space for it, while the children waited impatiently at home.

“I like it,” says nine-year-old Daekwon Jones about the new ring and his first time ever stepping inside one. “The floor feels soft.” He says that before he started boxing this summer he spent his free time playing baseball video games.

Eighteen-year-old Parsheona Pam volunteers at the center when she’s not attending Lanphier High School and planning her futures in nursing, business and social work. She says the youth foundation needs both more volunteers and more participants, but adds that the center has a lot of potential. “I believe this is going to make progress. You just got to keep pushing it and making it go.”

The Progressive Youth Foundation, which is seeking equipment and supplies, can be reached by calling 670-0814.

Contact Rachel Wells at rwells@illinoistimes.com.

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