EDITOR’S NOTE: This story was produced as part of the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University’s South Jersey Information Equity Project fellowship and supported with funding from the Independence Public Media Foundation.
By Ahnyah Pinckney | For AC JosepH Media
SICKLERVILLE — Five years ago, Ernest Brown of Sicklerville was coaching a local team as part of a church basketball league.
Afterward, one of the kids approached Brown and asked if he might teach him to play. He agreed to share some pointers and brought his son for practice on a Saturday at New Brooklyn Park. The following week, more kids joined in.
“Every week, I noticed more kids started coming,” said Brown. So he decided to make these meetups official in 2017, with the launch of the nonprofit Building Up the Youth.
The organization currently serves at least 600 children between the ages of 10 and 19. With the help of volunteer leaders, Brown runs fifteen group chats on Instagram, each with about 32 kids.
The ongoing conversations allow the youth to keep in touch, so no one feels alone, said Brown. And while the organization does not have a physical headquarters yet, he manages to organize a wide range of mentoring, athletics, academic support, and community development programs that keep the kids busy and out of trouble.
Whether it’s taking the kids to the gym or taking a group of girls to get their hair done at a local salon, Building up the Youth is all about getting young people together for fun activities in safe spaces. We caught up with Brown and some students during a recent football game at Winslow High School.
“Building Up The Youth is something that helps with your social skills, helps you get better and come out of your comfort zone,” said Tearanny Colon, a freshman at Winslow High School and youth leader for Building Up The Youth.
Michaya Dato of Winslow, is a student in the organization. Dato said she met Coach Brown at the park and began playing basketball with him and a group of kids. In time she said Brown became a mentor who helped keep her accountable for her actions.
“I don’t get in trouble like I used to because of Coach. He’s a great mentor and a great person to be around,” said Dato. “This organization is really good for you, especially if you’re going through something.” She added that parents, like her mother, trust Brown as well. “Today my mom didn’t want me to come out here, but I called Coach, and she said, ‘Oh yea you can go.'”
After spending much time with the kids, Brown realized that, outside of basketball training and other fun activities, many needed help with the problems life was throwing at them. He’s been there too. Growing up in Philadelphia, Brown fell victim to the street life, started selling drugs, and ended up serving time in jail. He shares his story with his mentees to help deter them from a path of destruction.
“Everything I teach them, I’ve been through,” said Brown. “Not having support and love and being in the streets my entire life … I was one of them,” said Brown.
Building up the Youth is a nonprofit organization with sponsorships from Chick-fil-a and Shoprite. He receives donations but also contributes to the organization out of pocket. When he’s not coaching kids and leading community efforts, Brown works full-time as a trash truck driver.
“My goal is to leave my job one day and do this permanently. I want to go to prisons to talk to kids and schools,” said Brown. For now, he works with coaches, parents, teachers, students, political figures, and community philanthropists to support local youth.
“A lot of people don’t care,” said Brown about what he sees as indifference on the part of adults in the community. He believes that if more community leaders set a positive example, fewer kids would resort to street violence.
About seven years ago, Brown met Jamie Gottschling, a Chick-fil-A franchise owner in Burlington. The two crossed paths during Brown’s regular run as a trash truck driver. They started talking about Building Up the Youth, and Gottschling said he was moved by what Brown does for kids in the community.
“I want to help him grow it and expose it to give him more visibility so he can be more impactful,” said Gottschling, who went on to assist Brown in getting a 501c tax-exempt status for the nonprofit. Since then, he said 13 other local restaurants have supported Building up the Youth fundraisers.
The backing of local businesses allows Brown to continue outreach to kids like Jabril, Saiid, and Mikail Simmons. The three brothers are all members of Building Up The Youth, and they say that Brown has left a significant imprint on their lives.
“He means a lot to me. He does a lot for the community, and when my dad passed away, he played that father role,” said Mikail Simmons.
His brother Saiid looked back fondly on the park meetup when Brown taught the boys how to tie a Windsor knot. “I went to an interview with a tie, and I got the job. He told me how to shake a hand right and how to dress for interviews,” said Simmons. I got my first job, and I’m doing good.”
Brown reminds kids that despite challenges, they can frame their future: “You gotta stay strong and stop thinking things are going to change without you putting the work in.”
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