After-school program offers a reality check

By Maggie Bridgforth
UNC Co-Editor
the Durham VOICE

At one end of the basketball court, a rambunctious group of middle school and high school boys plays an intense game of basketball. Above the hoop hangs a colorful banner that reads, “I am for you” in capital letters.

During "Half Day Hang Out," high school boys from DSA, Riverside and Jordan take over the basketball court at the Reality Center. (Staff photo by Maggie Bridgforth)

The other end of the court is cluttered with backpacks, coats and a rowdy group of kids gathered in a circle exchanging stories and jokes from the day. Meanwhile, two teenage girls transform the stage into their own personal concert as they sing and break it down to the latest Katy Perry song blaring through the speakers.

Other students roam up and down the hallway as if they own the place, stopping to say hello to friends whose noses are buried in homework. Those in the game room throw fist pumps and slap high-fives as they release pent-up energy by shooting pool and playing foosball.

And in the midst of all the chaos, Jeff McSwain, founder and executive director of the Reality Center, calmly sits chatting with a student about his day.

“We want every student and person to know that the deepest reality of his or her life is God’s love for them,” said McSwain.

Reality Ministries is a nonprofit committed to serving the overlooked and underserved by developing friendships specifically with teens and people with disabilities. The center, located in a former church on the corner of Gregson and Lamond, opened its doors in August 2008.

“Reality is a place where I get away from all my problems in life,” said Tahmique Cameron, a 13-year-old student at Durham School of the Arts (DSA) located just across the street. “I come here to have fun with my friends, to play games and to play basketball.”

“Half Day Hang Out” is just one of many programs this youth ministry has to offer the Durham community. It only happens once a month when Durham Public Schools (DPS) release students early from class for teacher workdays.

On any weekday afternoon, 40 to 70 students from all DPS schools flood the building during the after-school program, which offers tutoring, SAT prep classes, discussion groups, cooking and photography classes and a place to just hang out with friends.

“It’s pretty unusual in Durham,” said Steve Larson, the Reality Center coordinator. “I don’t know of too many drop-in community centers where they have this many programs.”

Originally, the organization began as a ministry for people with cognitive disabilities in attempt to serve the marginalized, but it soon flourished into a ministry for urban teens. One afternoon, McSwain said, they decided to throw open the doors to see who would come.

Sophmores Shamika Garrett and Kanisha McNeil dance onstage as the newest hits blare through the speakers. Both are sophomores at New Horizons Academy located in the Reality Center. (Staff photo by Maggie Bridgforth)

“All of a sudden, we found ourselves in the middle of inner-city ministry,” he said. “Forty to 70 [under-served] youth would walk in the door every afternoon.”

To continue academically supporting the students, Larson began a program called REBOUND for short-term suspension students. Often, if a student has been suspended for three to 10 days, he or she falls further behind which usually leads to the student dropping out, said Larson.

In order to break that cycle, Larson offers tutoring during those suspension days to help students stay ahead of the game.

“All of our students come with a lot of challenges; there are setbacks and some victories,” said Larson. “We want students to know, whether they are having a tough time or a great time, we are still for them.”

Jessica Ibañez, a 15-year-old at DSA, has been visiting the Reality Center for two years seeking homework help, mentoring and new friends. In early February, Ibañez had her quinceañera, the Latina celebration of a girl’s fifteenth birthday, at the center because she had nowhere else to host the event.

Her family, friends and peers from Reality gathered to dance, eat and celebrate Ibañez. She and a volunteer from Reality baked an extravagant cake with four layers and pink feathers.

“I think her party shows a lot about the heart of the ministry,” said Olivia Korman, the volunteer coordinator. “It was a celebration of who she is. It’s about forming relationships, walking through tough times together and knowing that friendship is the most valuable thing you have. That is what the heart of Reality is meant to be.”

Look for a story about the Reality Center’s disability ministry in the next edition of the Voice.

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