FERNDALE – The young people involved in Affirmations' Youth Empowerment Program were treated like divas the evening of Sept. 11 as they walked a red carpet lined with photo-hungry paparazzi on their way to a glitzy awards program in honor of the brightest stars at the community center: them!
For the first-ever YEP Awards, the elders of the program went all-out, decorating the community room with silver and gold, arranging for a table full of donated food and a sparkly (non-alcoholic) drink center, a big screen musical presentation of the nominees and engraved trophies to honor the winners.
"For a lot of these kids, this is the only recognition they'll get all year," said YEP staffer Liz Griggs. "They get ignored or picked on at school, or they feel like their families don't support them. It's really important that young people feel valued, especially when they are doing good things."
The YEP program ensures that all teens who hang out at the center are known to the staff and familiar with the rules. It also provides different levels of involvement, so that youth can learn volunteering and mentoring skills. The awards ceremony recognized many youth who can often be seen at the center – playing pool, using the computers and library, participating in group activities, studying, cleaning or working at the cafe and interacting with their peers.
"I started coming here was I was 15," said Highland Park teen Curtis Leaverson, winner of the Ruth Ellis Youth of the Year Award. "That was three years ago. I'm here just about every day now. I've gotten a lot of help and made a lot of friends."
Leaverson says that he loves the dance programs and being able to hang out with his friends, and that he really enjoys being involved in the peer-to-peer outreach program and working as a peer educator. He adds, "I want everyone to know they can come here if they need a place that's supportive."
The award recognized Leaverson for being a role model and for achieving academic success.
The awards opened with Javion Cashmere reading his poem "We Were the Last."
Griggs then told the youth, "Sometimes you see (YEP staff) as the bad guys. We catch you saying words you shouldn't or doing things you shouldn't do. But we want you to know we catch you doing good, too."
Fellow YEP staffer Victor Walker gave out the Bayard Rustin Award for Community Activism, stating "The point of the youth program is to get skills here and use them someplace else." YEP teens get involved in groups at the schools, churches or other volunteer organizations. Aff youth DeShawn Walters received the activism award.
Anthony Adams was honored with the Pittmann-Puckett Arts Award for his artwork titled "Youth Montage." Henry Hoskins received the Affirmations Founders Award for being Rookie of the Year in the YEP program. Desmond Turner won Volunteer of the Year and Angel Carrion won the YEP Distinguished Youth of the Year.
Carrion was recognized as a model youth who came into Affirmations wanting help with his financial aid forms for college. "He came from a family where English is a second language, so school and being able to communicate were hard," explained Ryan Oliver, YEP manager. "He brought in his report card every semester and moved to the top of his class. Angel is proof that all it takes is the initiative to step up and ask for help when you need it."
Oliver ended the night with a teary-eyed speech. "I didn't have Affirmations when I was a kid," he said. "You have Affirmations. You have this place. You have to take care of Affirmations so that we can be here to take care of you.
"Everything we do here is for you."