Believe Center to open at Aurora González Center
By Kevin Milliken for La Prensa
The newly-created Believe Center at the Aurora González Community Center is scheduled to hold its grand opening on Saturday, May19, 2012, from noon to 6 p.m., just in time to help give at-risk youth plenty to do during the summer months. A special ceremony is set for 1 p.m. that day.
Tonya Duran, the center’s executive director, said the vacant space affords her an opportunity to realize a long-held dream to put all the programs she’s involved with in one central location. Prior to this, a feeding program and sports activities were spread among several of Toledo’s neighborhood parks.
“My daughter Juanita wanted to name it ‘Believe’ because she believed she could make a difference in somebody’s life,” she explained of a lesson she has tried to teach all three of her own kids.
The city has leased a significant portion of the Aurora González Community Center to the board of directors of the Sofia Quintero Art and Cultural Center (SQACC), which, in turn, is subleasing the space to the non-profit Believe Center as it ramps up operations, raise funds, and establish its own non-profit status.
The space is being used to house youth sports, educational, and cultural programs, as well as other related community activities. Right now the Believe Center is serving as respite for Ms. Duran in her personal life. Her mother recently suffered a stroke which put her in a coma. Her uncle also suffered what she described as a massive heart attack. Ms. Duran also has maintained her full-time job at a nursing home.
But Ms. Duran’s three adult children are enlisted in the effort to get the Believe Center ready for its grand opening. One recent evening was spent sorting through artwork that will be hung in the center, while a girls’ basketball team practiced in the gym.
So why do all this for others, when her own life is already filled with personal and professional trials and tribulations?
Ms. Duran has been coaching one youth sport or another for 20 years. She started on the sideline of her daughter’s basketball team when it lacked a coach. One team led to another.
“I was coaching two teams, then it went to four teams. Then it went to volleyball, softball,” she said with a grin. “Then my boys started playing sports—football, basketball, soccer. I got fired after my first soccer game. I’m not a good soccer coach.”
Coaching her kids in sports activities not only kept her family together, but helped the children of other families as well. Soon thereafter, she found herself feeding her teams at various parks.
“I think the saddest thing I’ve ever seen was last year, when football players would put food in their helmets, so they could take it home and feed their brothers and sisters,” she said. “They didn’t have any food at home. I cried.”
Ms. Duran responded by having football players invite their siblings to practice, so they could play on the swings and other park equipment—then join them when she prepared a team meal.
“That way, I told them they could all eat together and go home together,” she said.
The zip codes that make up the Old South End are among the most poverty-stricken in the city. So Ms. Duran will offer a summer feeding program at the Believe Center, where kids can come to eat a well-rounded breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Many children won’t get a decent meal when school lets out for the summer break and free and reduced lunch programs end.
Ms. Duran pointed out the increased need for the Believe Center, now that Toledo Public Schools has cut elementary-level sports programs for kids. Otherwise, many central-city youth won’t have an opportunity to play organized sports and learn the valuable lessons in teamwork, sportsmanship, and respect that go along with it.
“They just need somebody to organize it and that’s what I’ve been doing,” she said. “I think this would be small if there were more programs out there, especially for girls.”
But the sports programs at the Believe Center will have an additional twist—community service, something she always has emphasized with her own children.
“They hate my saying: ‘Service to others is the reason for living,’” she said. “So I tell them that just because you play in sports, you’ve also got to do community service. Whether that means picking up garbage in a neighborhood or doing laundry for your mom because she works all day, do dishes. I always ask them ‘What good deed did you do this week?’”
The sports programs—soccer, football, basketball, wrestling, BMX bike racing, and baseball—also are a means to keep kids active and away from other potentially negative influences, such as the Internet, cell phones, and video games. Homework and social skills will be emphasized among program participants.
“This is an Internet-free zone,” Ms. Duran said. “I’ll also ask them to leave their cell phones at home. Even though many of the kids are old enough to be at home by themselves, I don’t think many parents are comfortable with them being home alone. So when they come with me and I’m coaching, I know they’re safe.”
The Believe Center will open in time to offer kids what is being called “Community Camp.” Each camp will run for two weeks, a chance for kids age 5-14 to engage in sports, art, field trips, educational activities, and plant and maintain community gardens. The day camp will run 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. each day under the guidance of camp counselors. Ms. Duran admits the camp is a first-time effort for her and the staff, but collaborating with other local agencies should make it work.
The key to the whole effort is funding. Ms. Duran is still seeking donors, even though the sports programs will continue to operate on a pay-to-play basis.
“Pay-to-play is getting really hard, because parents are starting not to be able to afford to pay,” she said. “So we have lost a few kids who can’t afford to pay.”
Ms. Duran recounted a few instances last year where she stood outside local stores with a handful of football players and cheerleaders holding a can seeking donations, so the kids could continue to participate in her programs. She would like to secure enough community sponsors to avoid kids having to beg for donations or not be able to participate because money is lacking.
“I just love coaching, because the kids appreciate us,” she said.
Ms. Duran recounted a story of a young woman who came to her home recently to seek out her and her sister. The two women had coached the young woman 14 years prior.
“’Do you remember me?’ she asked. ‘You bought me a winter coat,’” recalled Ms. Duran. “She brought her husband and she just had a baby. She told her husband if it wasn’t for me and my sister Melinda, she wouldn’t have had a hot meal or a warm coat. They still come back.”
But Ms. Duran openly admits what she does is simply paying it forward. She has even named various rooms in the Believe Center after people who have had an impact on sports programs—and her personally. One of them is named after Sue Campos.
“She’s a lady that saved me when I was a kid,” she said, tears welling up in her eyes.
Another room is named after a couple who own a McDonald’s restaurant at the corner of Hill Ave. and Reynolds Rd.
“If it wasn’t for them a couple of years ago to buy football equipment, we would have folded,” said Ms. Duran. “They saved us.”
Now Ms. Duran is trying to pay it forward, helping others because a handful of people assisted a single mom in unique ways. She even credits El Corazón de México dance troupe and its founder for giving her kids opportunities she couldn’t afford alone—traveling to festivals and even a performance at Disneyworld.
“She helped me raise three good kids,” she said. “I have three good kids.”
Chevelle Garrison, CEO of the Lady Ballers youth basketball team, stated the Believe Center gives her girls a place to practice and play. The two women used to play basketball for rival teams in their youth and have coached together for years, becoming friends along the way.
“Rival is such a harsh word,” said Mr. Garrison with a laugh. “Let’s just say that we used to compete against each other.”
Ms. Garrison admitted she was skeptical when Tonya offered her team free gym time and space.
“Basically I wondered ‘what does that mean?’” she said. “Because nobody had ever offered us a gym before and so I was just a little hesitant. I just wanted to make sure the girls were going to be safe and it wasn’t going to take us out of any expense.”
“Tonya is actually a blessing. What she does is phenomenal-- just the fact that she’s always available,” said Ms. Garrison. “She gives kids that don’t have an opportunity to participate in just anything an advantage. She’s just everywhere. She helps everyone—boys, girls, anyone.”
So far, the Believe Center will either host sports activities or collaborate with programs such as the Toledo Ruff Riders, AAU Girls Toledo Lady Ballers, AAU Boys Cowboys basketball, Thunderbolts football and cheerleading, the Toledo Urban Football Federation (T.U.F.F.), Cowboys Football, South End Braves 14 under baseball, and SQACC soccer.
El Corazón de México dance troupe also will be housed at the center, a program that teaches its participants the history and culture of Mexico through folkloric dancing. The group performs at many different events locally and nationally.
Other kids will be enrolled in a hip-hop dance class, to channel their energy in a positive way. Participants will be making a three minute video, to submit to a dance camp.
In addition to its grand opening event, the Believe Center will host a Family Day Festival on Aug. 17 from noon to 10 p.m.
With the Boys and Girls Club of Toledo moving its programs into a new facility attached to an elementary school, kids in the Old South End now have access to two gyms year-round and plenty of mentored sports activities. Coaches call it a double blessing.
“The South End needs sports to keep kids off the streets,” said Ms. Duran. “I know I’ve got 22 kids at practice, in the rain, but they’re safe. That’s a good blessing.”
“Just basically saving kids from being on the streets—and that’s what we’re all about,” echoed Ms. Garrison. “That’s it—saving kids.”