South City

Vance Avenue Youth Development Center is a free safety net for South Memphis children

This article serves as an introduction to High Ground News' On The Ground engagement in South City. For the next three months, a team of embedded journalists will create coverage about the challenges and strengths of this changing neighborhood and the people affected by the demolition of Foote Homes, Memphis' last traditional public housing complex. 

Barbara Nesbit isn’t a childcare provider. She’s a diplomat, and she helps her kids navigate the barriers that arise from living in poverty.

From a double-wide trailer at 670 Vance Avenue, Nesbit has created a year-round safe haven for children of South Memphis. She provides tutoring, a home cooked meal, a place to play and other resources to help them get ahead.

She’s the executive director and founder of the Vance Avenue Youth Development Center, which is located across from the shuttered Vance Middle School. The youth center has had a constant presence despite drastic neighborhood changes. All of her services are free, and the center sees around 150 kids each day.

The Vance Avenue Youth Development Center serves children and adults in the community.

“They come to me like a food pantry, and I give these children the world at their hands. We have a computer lab. We have homework tutors. We have field trips sometimes," she said. 

Since her center opened in 1991, Vance Middle School and Georgia Avenue Elementary School closed and the nearby public housing projects of Cleaborn Homes and Foote Homes shuttered.

Nesbit said those changes haven’t affected the center’s traffic. If kids move away, they find a way to come back to the colorful trailer. And most of the time, they bring their friends as well.

On a June afternoon, elementary school children chased each other and older kids played basketball. A swing set, child-sized car and a raised garden bed fill the lot.

While being interviewed, Nesbit clutched a few plastic vials of glitter. Presumably, a young child swiped them from the arts and crafts cabinet, though no one playing in the backyard will assume responsibility.

“They’re not bad. They’re just mischievous,” Nesbit said, flicking some glitter off her hands. “They’ve been misled, misguided, mistreated and misunderstood. These children have missed out on a lot. But all they are is mischievous.”

Jamiya Richmond, 6, plays a recorder while other kids play in the computer lab at the Vance Avenue Youth Development Center.

Nesbit adopted that philosophy while working as a juvenile probation officer for the Juvenile Court of Memphis and Shelby County.

She said that she saw how the system gave up on young offenders. In opening her center, she wanted to provide a place where children could feel needed and supported.

In her criminal justice work, she noticed that ZIP 38126 was one of many neighborhoods that drew a lot of juvenile offenses. Nesbit wanted to show that there was an alternative way to spend one’s childhood.

So, she sold snow cones.

A handmade concession cart parked on Vance Avenue built the foundation of the center. She raised over $600 by selling snow cones and other treats to neighborhood children. It was enough to purchase the first trailer in 2007. When she opened the center in 1991, it was operated out of a nearby two-story building that was later demolished.

Kids hang out on the playground near a tree that fell following a late May storm at the Vance Avenue Youth Development Center.

The inside of the trailer is filled with art made by children and the smells of Nesbit’s kitchen. Every day she provides a well-rounded meal to anyone who comes in the door.

A sign outside reads “No house shoes and no pajamas.” This is Nesbit’s house, and she doesn’t tolerate misbehavior as she'll suspend kids who commit a grievous offense. But even when being a disciplinarian, she wears her heart on her sleeve.

“One boy who’s been suspended permanently keeps coming around. I tell him to eat some food and then head home,” she said. “But I think he’s really sorry. Maybe he can come back. I’m going to make him sweat about it a little bit.”

Nesbit lives in Whitehaven with her husband, Henry. They both consider running the center full-time work. She sees her childhood spent with six siblings in West Memphis, Arkansas as inspiration for opening a center for at-risk youth.

“At Christmas, we shared our toys with the children in the neighborhood maybe that didn’t have mothers and fathers. And my mother never said, ‘Stop. Don’t do that because that’s yours.’ She said ‘That’s yours and you can do whatever you want with it. If you want to give it away, give it away,’” she said.

“That’s how we were raised, to share.”

Kimberly Norman, a volunteer at the Vance Avenue Youth Development Center, works at a computer.

“When my mother or my grandmother said, 'come in and eat,' that doesn’t mean just us seven (children), it means everybody, our friends and everybody in the yard,” Nesbit added.

She and her husband have bootstrapped the facility using retirement pensions, their savings, a touch of faith and occasional gifts from residents and corporate partners. In 2017, the center received its first grant. The Women’s Foundation for a Greater Memphis donated $15,000 to support a summer apprenticeship program.

The six young adults participating in the program are paid hourly to help manage the children and teach lessons covering subjects in computer studies, Spanish, French and Korean. Other teachers from the community that used to teach at the now-shuttered schools also lend their instruction.

Andrew Clark, 24, has been coming to the Vance Avenue Youth Development Center since he was in high school. He’s now a participant in the summer youth apprenticeship program.

“She takes care of her community, keeping them safe and feeding them. It helped me graduate with honors,” Clark said of Nesbit’s support in his studies at Booker T. Washington High School.

Barbara Nesbit walks through their damaged back trailer at the Vance Avenue Youth Development Center. The space served as their kitchen, dining and activity area and sustained a lot of damage after late May's storm.

“My hope is that the children here can grow up and join the middle class, or at least as many as possible. Although what we do here is beneficial, it’s only a stepping stone to something greater that they can achieve in their lives,” added Carder Forbes, a student apprentice at the center.

Children in the surrounding 38126 ZIP code face a host of obstacles. The community just south of Downtown Memphis has a poverty rate of 62 percent, which is more than double the poverty rate in other Memphis ZIP codes. Most of the households are female-led and 76 percent of children live at or below the poverty line.

In August of 2016, the Nesbits purchased a second trailer to be used as a kitchen, classroom and dining facility. The new building was destroyed during the straight line wind storm that swept across Memphis in late May. A tree fell on the roof and the trailer's interior, including laptops for the children, were subjected to water damage.

"It hurts my heart to just look at that," said Barbara Nesbit of damage to a recently-purchased trailer at her youth center. “It hurts my heart just to look at that,” Nesbit said. The building was minimally insured, and she estimates damage to the property and possessions to be around $90,000.

To get ahead on repairs, Nesbit has pulled out the concession cart and is back selling snow cones and treats on Vance Avenue. She also plans a fundraiser some time in November.

Kimberly Norman, a Frayser native, has six grandchildren, aged 1 to 13, that attend the center. Norman is also a regular volunteer.

“It provides education and social skills and a lot of mentoring. Ms. Barbara, she feeds the children in the evening time every day. It provides a lot of different resources,” Norman said.

Nesbit has taken the kids on field trips to sites outside of South Memphis, as the Memphis Zoo. She believes these field trips help expand their horizons if only a little bit. Nesbit estimates that about 60 percent of center’s children come from the immediate area.

“Half of these children haven’t been out of this neighborhood in probably a ten-block radius,” Nesbit said. “You have to let them know there’s something for them outside of the wall.”

Read more articles by Madeline Faber.

Madeline Faber is an editor and award-winning reporter. Her experience as a development reporter complements High Ground's mission to write about what's next for Memphis.