INDIANAPOLIS – There are a couple dozen teens using their summer break to spark change in the Butler-Tarkington neighborhood.
From 9 a.m. – 2 p.m., you’ll find a group of teens working hard to clean up the streets. They’re picking up trash, but what you don’t see is that they are working on their mental health and focusing on how they can be better to inspire their friends or family.
As the Supervisor of the Tarkington Teen Work Crew, Damon Lee watches these young adults evolve from the start of summer to when they head back to school.
“Programs like this helped keep me out of trouble and that’s why I love being around them and I love giving back,” said Lee.
The work crew meet at the Martin Luther King Community Center each morning and start by grabbing a bag and gloves and heading out to an area that needs some sprucing up.
“There’s been a lot of trash at the park or people littering in general in our neighborhood,” explained Lee. “And it’s the way to combat that is give kids the ownership of that.”
For the teens, the experience has opened their eyes to the issues facing their neighborhood and what they can do to help.
“Angry and shock, because they don’t really care about our community,” said 14-year-old Hayden Burke. “The main thing that I want to be here for is to keep our community a better place.”
Christian Meriweather, 16, added, “I grew up in this neighborhood since the age of 10, playing football over here for the Indy Steelers, it was an idea for me to keep this neighborhood clean.”
But the summer program has a much further reach than just picking up trash. To keep it a better place, it’s important to have tough conversations and for Lee, he works with the kids on conflict resolution skills.
“Try to coach them through a lot of what’s going on in our city,” said Lee, “It’s a violent year for Indianapolis and we’re trying to keep these kids safe.”
There’s a code of conduct that Lee holds the teens to that would prepare them for a job and to be leader. The program also stresses gun safety and teaching kids to trust their instinct in a bad situation.
“If you walk into a room and someone has a gun, it’s okay to leave. It’s okay to be a leader and do the right thing you don’t have to stick around, because your friends are doing the wrong thing,” said Lee.
The group also talks about tragedy that they have experienced.
“We’ve been to funerals; we’ve lost people in the program and they see it every day,” said Lee. “Just having those conversations and being there for them kids and being somewhere where they can give each other advice and we can give them advice.”
Each piece of trash picked up by the work crew, signifying how these teens hope to lead by example.
“I feel like a family like, they’re my brothers. I would do anything for them,” said Burke. “I really do love this park so much and I really want to make our community a better place.”
The group is full for the summer, however if you would like to get involved in the programs happening at the Martin Luther King Community Center, click here.