By Maggie Lee
Over on Cameron Alexander Boulevard, across the street from a site where more than a dozen houses are under construction, Tashumbi Jones gave a tour of his own space.
There’s a room with a pool table, where bikes and chairs are also stacked out of the way. He named friends in pictures on the walls. There are video games, plus a basketball court and little garden out back, and an art room. And the room where he’d been studying in the morning.
His tour included cubicles for video and audio editing like you’d find in a school. There’s also a laundry room, a shower, and a kitchen serving three meals a day.
But this isn’t anyone’s personal house. It’s the Westside At-Promise Youth and Community Center, for people aged 12 to 24. Maybe they’ve been in some trouble with the law, maybe breaking into cars, maybe stealing from cars at gas stations.
And folks at At-Promise are helping to keep these young Atlantans from getting into a routine of offending, by showing some care, attention and a different way.
It’s “changing lives one by one, we’re at-promise, not at-risk. And that’s a great thing,” said Jones, 18, known to all as T.J.
Now the Atlanta Police Foundation and sponsors are going to open two more At-Promise centers.
Yes, it’s got space for creativity and relaxation, but it’s also got T.J.’s classroom in the Urban League suite, where he and others work on GEDs. It’s decorated with college pennants and admissions brochures. T.J. wants to be an automotive engineer and he’s thinking of the University of Georgia or Valdosta State University.
T.J. pointed out a photo of his teacher, Ms. White: “She’s like a mother type to me. She makes sure I do what I’m supposed to do.”
There’s also a computer lab where TechBridge is about to start classes that result in certifications for things like web design. And there’s a suite for Chris 180, the mental healthcare provider. Next door to the Police Athletic League, the Boys and Girls Club suite includes a sunny little classroom where younger kids do their homework and T.J. helps out.
“We teach them to be men, young men, growing up today,” T.J. said.
He was one of the first to enroll in the center when it first opened about two years ago. He said he asked his probation officer if he could be part of it. And he has been in a little trouble with the law even since he’s been here.
But when T.J. said he was doing “good,” center director Aaron Nicholson stopped him and said, “T.J., you’re doing great.”
The Atlanta Police Foundation helps the Atlanta Police Department get ready for policing in the future, via things like technology and training. Nicholson is its director of youth programs.
At-Promise started out as part of a whole Westside security plan that includes cameras, license plate readers, off-duty police patrols and getting police officers to move into the neighborhoods around there — including into those new houses across from the center.
Historically, crime rates have been high around there, Nicholson said.
So At-Promise would be for young people in the neighborhood whom APD had seen maybe a few times, and didn’t want to keep seeing.
Atlanta cops and courts see a lot of young people who have few or no stable adults in their lives. Or young people who go through things that are unimaginable to some people in the very same city: homelessness, empty cabinets, staying in places without electricity or running water.
Hence the amenities at At-Promise. Not just GED classes and job training and recreation, but also shower, laundry, clothes, deodorant, a food pantry, a cook in the kitchen and mental health professionals.
“Yes somebody stole a bag of chips from the store, but why?” said Nicholson. “Because they have no food at home.”
So At-Promise is also helping families with counseling and help getting utility and housing assistance.
It goes back to the proverb, said Nicholson.
“It takes a village to raise a child. What we’ve done here is created a hell of a village,” he said.
One of the new villages will be the Andrew Young At-Promise Center, beside the existing Walter and Andrew Young YMCA on Campbellton Road; construction will probably start sometime next year. The other will be at 836 Metropolitan Parkway, about two blocks from Adair Park. Construction there should start this fall.
At-Promise donors include big Atlanta names like the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation, the Loudermilk Family Foundation, the Falcons, the Hawks, AT&T, Bank of America, Chick-fil-A, Cushman & Wakefield, GE, Georgia Power, Regions Bank, The Coca-Cola Company and more. Invest Atlanta, the city’s economic development authority, just voted $1 million for the Campbellton Road center via a grant from a special property tax zone.
It’s unusual — and maybe unique — to have so many services right there in one building, said Nicholson. The building is arranged like a wheel: there’s a kind of round room in the middle, with other suites arranged around it. And then there are even more nonprofits that do work there, even without an office.
“We have our family, but also our extended family that’s responsible for this one youth,” Nicholson said.
The new centers will at least be the same size as the current one, said APF’s Communications Director Rob Baskin. Some 400 young Atlantans have been enrolled in the Westside center since it opened.
And enrollees start with a full evaluation of what they need: maybe therapy, maybe mentoring, maybe education, maybe all of the above.
“The idea here is to try to create a bond between the young person and mentors or therapists or professionals who can genuinely help them and take them out of out a life that clearly is wayward,” said Baskin. “And we think that’s better than locking them up in a juvenile detention center.”
Now since it’s only been open two years, Baskin doesn’t have a good longitudinal study on what young people do after their time at the At-Promise Center. What he does know is that nationwide statistics suggest that juveniles arrested for felonious activity have something near a 70 percent recidivism rate. That’s more than two-thirds who become repeat offenders. But so far, the recidivism rate among those 400 young people who have been at At-Promise is just 4%.