The Heights

STREETS Ministries combines play and empowerment in The Heights

Open the doors of STREETS Ministries in The Heights and you find a building filled with youth and sound: bursting laughter, chattering voices, running feet and the echo of basketballs on the court down the hall.  

It’s a comfortable, casual and safe space for the 180 middle and high school students who take advantage of STREETS programming in The Heights.

“This building is like their second home. For some, it is their first home,” said John Nawi, recreation coordinator for the Graham Street location.

STREETS Ministries was founded in 1987 as a faith-based ministry offering a safe and supportive environment and academic, athletic, artistic and spiritual programming regardless of race, religion, or sexual orientation. STREETS operates a campus on Vance Avenue in South City and one at 1304 N. Graham Street in The Heights. The Heights campus is open to youth in grades six through 12 from 2:15 to 6 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 2:15 to 5 p.m. on Fridays.
(L) John Nawi, recreation coordinator for STREETS Ministries in the Heights, and Michael Kollatz, 17, prepare for a block party on Nov. 12. Kollatz not only takes part in STREETS programming, he volunteers and helps out when he is there. (Dawn Neuses)“Our founder once said this is not just a building. We don’t want to open the doors and have kids come in and out. We want to build relationships,” said Nawi. “We want to empower them.”

According to the STREETS 2017 Impact Report, the median household income for the families they serve is $35,000 and 76 percent live in poverty. By middle school only 26 percent of students test proficient, and 39 percent of youth do not graduate from high school.

Nawi said many youths are struggling with loneliness, depression and abusive situations, and they lack a relationship with God, which the ministry feels is a key tool for combating these stressors and ensuring future success. STREETS staffers want to help students establish that relationship, but first, “we have to earn the right to be heard,” Nawi said.

They do that by meeting kids where they are in terms of willingness to engage and interests, and STREETS offers several distinct spaces and activities to make those connections. Every inch of the building has purpose, Nawi said. Standing in the gymnasium filled with youth playing basketball and soccer, he points across the court.

Related: "The Women's Foundation for a Greater Memphis has a bold vision to stamp out poverty"

“Even the bleachers have meaning. If we see a kid sitting alone, maybe they’ve had a bad day, we go sit with them, talk to them, get to know them. It can lead to a meaningful conversation,” Nawi said. “We use everything in the building and are always coming up with ideas on how to grow programs and better serve the kids in this community.”

There is a wing dedicated to educational classes including a space for ACT prep, a computer lab and a place for spiritual practice like Bible study and devotion groups.

According to STREETS, the average ACT score for students in their ACT prep program increases by almost a point, and 79 percent of STREETS youth who attended programs three or more times a week are now enrolled in post-secondary education. There are also more than 129 youth enrolled in Bible studies.

STREETS also features a music room and the Liz Lounge, a girls-only space to relax and be creative. There is rehearsal space for Angel Street Choir — a program for girls ages eight to 18 to learn music education, songwriting and performance. Angel Street It is a subsidiary of Hope Church’s Oasis of Hope.

Related:  "AngelStreet choir expands musical education opportunities for youth across Memphis"

There’s also a room where youth meet one-on-one with an adult mentor.

“We pull them away from all the craziness and they come in here and have some quiet time,” Nawi said, adding the opportunity to have the full attention of an adult for one hour can make a big difference.

A mural featuring neighborhood staples like Stepherson's grocery and Jerry's Sno Cones adorns the wall of the girls-only Liz Lounge inside the STREETS Ministries Graham Heights location. (Dawn Neuses)
STREETS evaluated its programs across both locations and found students who have mentors are 78 percent more likely to volunteer on a regular basis and 130 percent more likely to hold leadership positions within schools, activities and the community. They also report increased self-confidence and hope for the future.

The Heights campus has about 30 volunteer mentors. Kharman Figueroa, 11, recently began meeting with one. They read the Bible together and talk about life.

“I tell her about the things stressing me out, things that are hard to get out of my head,” she said. “She always gives me good advice and is the best person ever. She tells me to be myself and not to change myself for anyone. That is the biggest thing I’ve learned here.”

STREETS staff take their mission into the larger community, too. They believe presence is important to the youth. It is common for parents in the neighborhood to work long hours or multiple jobs, so at 5 p.m. each Friday, staffers lock the building on Graham Street and attend games and performances at nearby schools. They wave, cheer and applaud for the STREETS youth.

“They see us, and they know someone is in the bleachers for them. It matters,” Nawi said.

STREETS investment in The Heights does matter.

“This place made me who I am, a faithful, good person,” said Gonzalo Rivas, 19, who often stops by the building on his way home from work. “STREETS gave me a great foundation. It is a community, it is a family. I love it here and I still feel a connection with the people I met,” Rivas said. 

Sky Navarro joined the recreation staff seven months ago. He likes being a role model for the youth and recalls how a similar program helped him.

“It was always good to have someone older to talk to,” Navarro said. “I’ve become good friends with a lot of the kids here, and I grew up in a similar way. I can relate to a lot of them,” he added.

Nawi said establishing relationships with the students is essential to the success of the programs so when they reach out and start communicating, he is thankful.

Nawi got a midnight call from a young man in his Bible study group, and for a second, he questioned whether he should answer it. He did and they talked for hours. The teen told Nawi he wasn’t sure he wanted to live anymore. Nawi listened, they prayed and made sure the youth was safe before getting off the phone.

“He graduated from high school last year and is pursuing a career in the music industry. He is in community college right now,” Nawi said with pride.

In another late night call, a kid called to say he’d been kicked out of his house and had been staying for days in a homeless shelter, but had missed curfew that night and was planning to sleep outside. Nawi didn’t ask if the student needed help, he left immediately to pick him up.

“How many kids are struggling with stuff like that, and they don’t say anything to anyone? Building relationships. That is why I do what I do,” Nawi said.
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Dawn Neuses.

Dawn Neuses is a transplant Memphian and part-time freelance journalist from the Midwest who spent the past year exploring her new home in the Mid-South. Dawn was a reporter for 20 years, covering everything from education to community activism, and enjoys learning something new from every person she meets.