By Dylan Deprey
The Kente clothe draped around the Atkinson Park sign, was a flag that signified change in the park. What used to be the triangular plot where community issues would spill over into, now had kids sprinting across the playground.
In the basketball court, volunteer coaches worked on fundamentals with youth ranging from six-years-old to early teens.
The Helping Kids Better Themselves (HKBT) basketball program was community lead for years, shaping the neighborhood youth. As Summer 2018 rounded the corner, HKBT was the skeleton program for neighbors and community to extend their talents to the youth, and eventually change the face of Atkinson Park.
Just as Vaun Mayes had done with Program the Parks in Sherman Park, and Ajmou Butler had done with Heal the Hood, The Village Group and HKBT wanted to include the community in revitalizing Atkinson Park.
Keyon Jackson, WNOV producer, is one of the main organizers for the additional programing in Atkinson Park. As he grew up in neighborhoods all across the city, he was inspired by local events and programs making change.
“When I came over here I did not realize it was so desolate,” Jackson said.
After mediating a situation between local families in the area last year, he realized that the park was a perfect meeting place, but not suitable enough because of the emptiness.
“I kind of jumped off the diving board on this one,” Jackson said. “I hadn’t even planned a barbecue.”
After attending Heal the Hood, Jackson was inspired. He spoke to the residents and they wanted local programming. When Jackson put the message out, the community came back with everything from karate classes to reading circles.
Vanessa Winston, a volunteer, had been helping out at the park for the past three weeks. She said that unlike what people thought, the children were well behaved, and the organizers were hands on with the youth.
“I really just came to check out the program, to see what it was really about,” Winston said. “When I got here I was just blown away.”
From 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., Monday through Friday, rain or shine, HKBT volunteers come out to teach, coach, parent and interact with the children.
Diane Strawder is an Atkinson Park local and runs the food program.
“We feed them breakfast and then lunch at 12:30 p.m.,” Strawder said. “We just watch the kids enjoying themselves.”
The Village Group is supported by a federal ReCAST grant that helps support the food program.
“At first there were a lot of adults hanging out here, and now it’s back to a kid park,” Strawder said. “Kids are being active, not just with the program, but in general and it’s good to see them out here.”
She said that even after the scheduled programs are over they stay to watch the children and ensure their safety.
“We watch the kids even after the program, after 12:30 p.m., we are still sitting out here trying to keep the chaos down, which we haven’t had to do in a while,” Stawder said.
Sheila Haygood runs the literacy program, and said on the first day she had to explain to the youth about the importance of reading.
“If you want a job, you’ve got to fill out an application, to drive a car, you have to be able to read the signs,” Haygood said. “It’s all about self-control.”
On this particular day, the children were asked to write their own story like similar picture books they have read. She asked them to pick a word that described themselves and then draw a picture to go along with it.
“It taps into imagination, curiosity and creativity because reading is not just books, it is creative,” Haygood said.
She also had the Milwaukee Public Library come out later in the week to sign the kids up for library cards and track books they have read for the Summer Reading program.
Over on the court, boys and girls were still playing during their lunch time.
Brandon Trigg, a volunteer coach, said he had to keep the family tradition going, as his uncle and father were the founders of the HKBT.
“I got my son out here, other coaches son’s out here, but we’re also there for the kids that don’t have dads out here, whether they are locked up or whatever,” Trigg said.
He said that being out on the court with his son made him just as happy as he was when he practiced with his family during the program.
Tyhler Shields, 13, and Devale Randle, 13, were the oldest of the group. Shields had traveled from his neighborhood near Moody Park for the basketball program.
Both said the program was tough but fun and it gave them something to do during Summer vacation.
“If it wasn’t for this, I’d probably just be sitting at home playing 2K,” Shields said.
“Or sleeping,” Devale added.
For the most part, all the two wanted to do was hone their skills on the court and stay out of trouble.
Jackson had a smile as he watched the children enjoying their lunch. As he chatted with youth and neighbors, he invited anybody from across Milwaukee to come visit Atkinson Park.
“We’re rebranding and reestablishing community and family in Arlington Heights,” Jackson said.
For more information contact firstname.lastname@example.org or stop down at 936 W. Atkinson Ave.