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Frank Gray

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Samuel Hoffman | The Journal Gazette
The Eagles Nest Youth Centre on Hessen Cassel Road sits empty.

Eagles Nest needs adults to keep youth center alive

Sitting at a round table in a huge, empty room at the Eagles Nest Youth Centre on Hessen Cassell Road last week, three individuals talked about the center’s accomplishments and its hopes for the future.

There was George Middleton, the man who 15 years ago took his retirement money and bought an old CVS drugstore building and established the center. His plan was to create programs that would teach kids on the southeast side skills and attitudes that would lead to productive lives, “To be the best you can be and pass it on.”

There was Vondale Washington, who was the first kid to show up at the Eagles Nest 15 years ago. He was 13 at the time, and Middleton taught him how to hang drywall, strip floors, lay tile and do landscaping. Today Washington has a job as a machinist and also has his own landscaping business.

It was hard work, Washington said, but that’s what it takes if you want to accomplish something, and his work ethic rubbed off on other people at the center, he said. One of them was his brother, who had had some run-ins with the law. Washington would take him on jobs and put him to work.

“I tried to get into his head,” he said. “I planted a working seed.” Now, Washington’s brother has a construction job, working 12 hours a day. He has been doing that for two years.

That’s an important part of life, Middleton says, a strong work ethic.

“I worked for 40 years at Slater Steel, and I tell people I never had a job,” Middleton said. “I enjoyed it. It was a challenge every day.”

Middleton hoped to point kids in that direction through the Eagles Nest.

“For those who wanted to go to college, we did the math and the reading,” he said. “But the ones who made the most noise were the ones who weren’t going to college.” For them, he built a kitchen that would serve as a snack bar. Kids would run the store. It was a job for them.

On the night of this conversation, though, the Eagles Nest was deserted. It has been closed for a month now, but just temporarily.

“Why is it not flourishing?” he asked, a little frustrated.

The conversation turned to problems that kids and the community are facing.

“When a 7-year-old kid comes up and asks, ‘Who’s my father,’ it takes it out of me,” Middleton said. “The father is missing.

“We need to educate men,” he said. “If you know better, you can do better. If you don’t know better, you can’t do better.”

Roderick Hood, a local applications engineer who specializes in database development, lamented that the 16-to-25 age group has been discarded. Hood said he created a program to teach kids how to use computers to create things such as databases, a skill that virtually every business needs, he said. “But I can’t find anybody who’s interested. I can’t even volunteer to teach it.”

“It’s a shame for this place to sit here vacant,” Middleton said, but “we can’t get adults to help. These are our kids. We need to raise them.”

Middleton had struck a deal with the county. He cuts the grass on 76 lots owned by the county. The county pays $12 a lot, but it pays $18 an hour to remove debris. He runs the mower because kids younger than 16 can’t use gas-powered equipment. The kids remove debris, and they share what the county pays. It’s a way to put them to work and let them earn money.

But he says he can’t find adults who are willing to volunteer an hour or two a week to run a mower, so the kids don’t work.

“Where is volunteerism?” Middleton asked. “We need structure. We need staff. The Rescue Mission has volunteers. If kids are our most valuable resource, where are the volunteers? Our kids are dying like dogs on the street.”

Ultimately, that’s the message Middleton wanted to try to get out, that people need to come forward. Decade-old successes are nice to talk about, but life in the here and now is hard.

Frank Gray reflects on his and others’ experiences in columns published Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. He can be reached by phone at 461-8376, by fax at 461-8893, or by email at fgray@jg.net. You can also follow him on Twitter @FrankGrayJG.

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