Every Wednesday night, there is a gathering of youth in the city of Racine, … underground. Well, not quite literally.
If you hear wild squeals of laughter coming from the Living Light Community Center on College Avenue, rest assured that there are a couple diligent adults who are engaging in the art of “kickin it” with middle-school and high-school students in hopes to give at-risk kids a safe place to have fun, build friendships, work on homework and learn life-skills.
Not all participants are considered “at risk”. In fact, the genetic make-up of the underground huddle is incredibly diverse. There have been several waves of kids consistently attend this grass-roots program, started by two individuals with a vision to encourage, inspire and equip the youth of Racine. And kids keep coming. So what is working!?
When I sat down with Tay and his wife, Anshanet Ball, I lit up with questions. (As a mom of four kids all close to or inside the middle-school and high-school bracket, I find myself more invested into the generation as a whole. ) So I started firing away: “Who is being influenced by what?” “How do we connect with this generation in a positive and meaningful way?” “What makes Underground Huddle work versus some of the programs out there?”
Sitting across from Tay and Anshanet @thebranch, formerly a nightclub, both of them looked around snickering, listening intently to my questions – but somehow trying to process this major change in the building we’re sitting in.
“Ohhhh, man- this is where I spent my 23rd birthday. Getting into trouble”, says Tay.
“And I wasn’t even invited!” Anshanet chimes in.
As a Racine transplant, I’m unaware of the turn-over of certain businesses, but know this building used to be a nightclub; a place of all sordid levels of trouble, according to Tay. It was during a time that he was running the streets in Racine.
I ask Tay, who is no longer living the hard-knock life, but is now a family man with three kids – the fourth baby on the way, a faithful husband, a mentor to kids, a business owner, and a member of Living Light Christian Church, “How is it that you have so much connectivity with kids?”
He locks in.
“Well, I’m well connected. I paid a lot of dues in this community; inner city dues. – You know, been there, done that. I ran the streets – and had credibility. I had credibility on the basket ball court. And I know what these kids been thru. I had the unique experience of being the minority in a lot of different situations in my life, and had white friends – and black friends. I have had friends of different socio-economic backgrounds. And it’s given me this ability to be a bridge across diverse groups.”
I ask him: “What changed your life?” I want to know how the cycle was interrupted for him and reversed to the point where people refer to him as a “street pastor”. What was so powerful that turn his life around on a dime?
It wasn’t prison. That system didn’t reform him.
It wasn’t a woman. Although Anshanet is a stone-cold fox.
It wasn’t money. That stuff was shiny for only a short time.
Tay says he stumbled thru high-school at Park. Made poor decisions. Got kicked out. Attended Horlick. Met a guy called Jon-Aaron Nelson who worked for a campus life ministry. Tay says that Jon-Aaron used to play basketball with the kids his age. Invite him along to a church with a basketball court and eventually built enough of a friendship with him that it wasn’t unusual to have him around the house for dinner. “There was no big, fancy, talk about Jesus.” says Tay. “He just treated me like a person, and spent time in my life. And I could tell there was something different about him. I came to faith after attending church with him a few times.”
So naturally, I ask him: ” Are you changing people’s lives?”
He pauses. He looks at Anshanet and says: “Absolutely, 100% we are changing kids lives.”
Anshanet jumps in here. “I instantly think of a young girl who was coming along to group and got pregnant as a sophomore – 15 years old. We saw here through that. Sometimes you wonder what kinds of seeds you’re sowing. If you’re saying the right thing or not. But our job is to love these kids – not to judge them. And now, when I look at her life. This beautiful young woman, years later – working hard, engaging as a mother with her child and living with a standard in her life, I think – we helped with that.”
Tay says: ” A lot of programs out there are all about keeping kids out of prison. Keeping them out of gangs. Dealing with the behavioral stuff. And it’s good- don’t get me wrong. But we’re interested in dealing with the heart. I want to know what kind of parent this person is capable of being. I want them to see the benefit of faithfulness in marriage. I want them to know that they can still have fun, and love Jesus and follow His ways. We believe in getting to the heart and giving them real life skills so they can live different. Better. We invite kids to our house all the time. And when kids come, I think they’re seeing that it can be done. You can stay married. Be a good dad or mom and do things right.”
Currently the Underground Huddle maintains around ten core participants and those who graduate out of high-school sometimes come back in a leadership capacity to help out with mentoring. The evenings together keep fun central with games that engage kids and a simple message about life’s choices to keep kids accountable to good-decision making.
Tay and Anshanet are hopeful that more adults will step in to help with school tutorship, homework, life-skill application workshops, team building exercises, and mentorship. And there is always the benefit of donations and free-will finances. Since Tay and Anshanet are aware that some of these kids may or may not have food security in their living situations, – they are faithful to feed the group each week, often using their own finances to fund these types of needs; in fact, often in spite of their own needs. Anshanet shares that they have lived in 11 homes in 12 years, facing eviction at times due to a lack of financial stability and still have never wavered on their commitment to Underground Huddle as a weekly service to these kids.
“No”, says Tay. “This is part of our life. It doesn’t move.”
We dabble around a few ideas for fund-raising. Tay is currently running a 3 on 3 basketball tournament for (hopefully) 12 teams. A competitive game of basketball is something that makes it easy to connect with the youth of Racine. And with a last name like “Ball” – it’s hard to say no. Tay would love to have local businesses sponsor his effort to engage these kids and throw $80 into a game. Eighty dollars would buy each kid a teeshirt, and help hire concessions.
We also talked about a poetry slam. Celebrating the young artistry of our youth, and engaging in a few “writers workshops” is a great way to boost confidence in our young writers. Plans are in the making. We’re on the cheering side for our youth. And are asking more to join.
For more information about Underground Huddle and how to support this grass-roots effective initiative – email: