SOUTH KINGSTOWN, RI — Erika Jackson, 41, is a single mother with six children who she cares for and she is a full-time college student studying social work. She barely makes ends meet and has no extra money for extracurricular activities.
“My kids, if they go to the recreation center, I don’t even have $5 for two of them for the machine,” she said of a game of basketball at the city recreation center.
She and her children live in low-income housing and have a budget compatible with little so-called “disposable” income. Money is most often spent on necessities.
So a proposed Jonnycake Center for Hope youth center not far from their home would be a dream come true.
“Kids being able to go somewhere other than the leisure center is great. The kids who go to the recreation center focus on basketball or sports,” she said, adding that kids who aren’t in athletic clubs or paid activities need something more in this city, she said.
School committee chair Paula Whitford, a longtime South Kingstown resident and woman of color, stressed this point. She also spoke about some underlying racial injustices and the disadvantaged in South Kingstown.
“Although South Kingstown has always had community centers in our town, we have never had a place where every child could go and feel welcome and where their personal needs were met. It really depended on where you came from and what you looked like,” she said.
For the city’s residents who are struggling the most with finances and balancing a challenging family life, this type of youth center would open another door for teens who need to learn social skills, help with homework, adult mentors, and friendships that closed in a non-competitive and supportive sense, Jackson and other advocates said.
Michael Coelho, Jonnycake board member and program manager for the Newport Boys and Girls Club, said: “The target audience would be the most vulnerable in the community. The safe haven should provide additional support for those who do not necessarily have a level playing field.”
He also noted, “There are a few youth organizations in the community, but [we’re] I’m not sure the services provided will support the needs of many.”
With these and other ideas in mind, the Jonnycake Center decided to close its nearly 50-year-old thrift store and transform this space at 1231 Kingstown Road, Peace Dale, into a youth center.
The opening is planned for spring. It would offer numerous activities and a meeting place, as well as educational assistance and counseling mentoring. All of this and more would be done under adult supervision.
It will also aim to address another issue. At this time of clearing to see the devastating results of Covid on teenage mental health, this center would also address a growing need to address these issues as well.
Nearly 40 percent of high school students have reported experiencing mental health issues during the coronavirus outbreak, according to published results of a survey by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Gay, lesbian, or bisexual high school students, as well as girls, were particularly likely to say their mental health suffered during the pandemic because they were cut off from needed support from friends due to limitations and social, according to a Pew Research Center review of CDC findings distancing.
In the survey, “poor mental health” includes stress, anxiety and depression.
Additionally, 44% said they felt sad or hopeless almost every day for at least two weeks in the previous 12 months and stopped some usual activities.
For parents like Jackson, these results are consistent with their observations. Jackson pointed out that it’s important to offer youngsters alternatives that don’t just hang out at home.
They also need to find meaning through other activities, like those planned for the youth center, which can help ease some of the feelings they’re expressing, they and experts said.
That kind of feeling was reflected in the Jonnycake Center’s 2021 survey of 300 members.
“We hear in the community that children need a safe place,” said Jane Hayward, Jonnycake’s board chair and former secretary of the State Department of Health and Human Services.
Kate Brewster, managing director of Jonnycake, agreed.
“This survey has shown the need for this. Members recognized the need to focus on physical health, affordable housing and youth and child enrichment, which this center contributes to,” she said.
Brewster recalled a small but telling example with kids in South Kingstown who live minutes from many area beaches with surfing opportunities along the Atlantic Ocean.
“This summer we took her surfing in one of our programs. These kids have never been exposed to surfing. Most never went to the beach. After this summer they want to get surfboards and wetsuits,” she said.
“Some of these kids have never been to Point Judith,” she said, referring to the scenic oceanfront spot that’s seven miles away — a 15-minute drive — from their low-income housing homes, rather than the expensive developments , which are just a few miles away where real estate values have skyrocketed.
She envisions the center having activities like those described by Jackson, as well as learning woodworking, screen printing, and graphic design. She also sees programs with yoga and self-defence for the youth center on the horizon.
“I also think it’s important to have some bean bags and a ping-pong table here to play or sit on,” she said, especially for kids who may not have adult supervision at home until hours after school is over.
Those moments can create problems of any kind, whether it’s the amplification of mental health problems from loneliness or other causes, or the temptation to abuse drugs without getting caught, youth counseling experts and Jackson said.
“I know at least 15 mothers who would want that kind of place for their kids because maybe it would help them have a better life,” she said.
“I grew up in Providence, I grew up in the ghetto. I moved here so my kids could have a better life,” Jackson said.