When the doors of the COA Holton Center locked at 9 p.m. on a recent Friday night, dozens of teenagers flocked to the basketball court where hip-hop jams were playing. Many were dancing while others shot hoops. The smell of tacos permeated the air and drew the youth from the court to the food in the multipurpose room.
About 50 people participated in the second annual Harambee Youth Soundbox Lock-In at the COA Holton Center, 510 E. Burleigh St. The event, sponsored by COA, Solomon Community Temple and Riverworks Development Corp., is geared toward keeping youth off the streets and having a night of fun, according to the Rev. Afi Dobbins-Mays of Solomon Community Temple.
The cost of entry was two canned goods to be donated to a local food pantry.
Teens were provided with a taco bar dinner and snacks. The youth could choose to play basketball, sing at the open mic, record music, shoot pool or participate in other activities.
“This is all about the kids,” said volunteer Javon Dean. “We try to keep them as occupied as possible so they can enjoy the night with each other.”
Aqil Joseph encouraged his best friend, Haley McRoy, to come to the first lock-in last year to meet new people. “Aqil made me get out of my comfort zone and it really helped me grow as a person,” McRoy said.
Before getting involved with COA, McRoy, 17, felt like she didn’t have a say in anything. “My voice was never heard growing up,” she said. “I was definitely on the shy side but I felt like when I tried to speak up, no one would listen to me, so that was really frustrating.”
“I like that the Holton Center is a place for youth,” said Rick Banks, community coordinator for Riverworks Development Corp., who worked with Dobbins-Mays to plan the lock-in. “This all started with a game night back in 2015 so it is awesome to see how much progress we have made as a community organization.”
Dobbins-Mays’ passion for youth started in 2009 when she began her career in ministry in Madison. “Becoming a pastor gave me the opportunity to connect with the community in a meaningful way,” she said.” Dobbins-Mays added, “In Milwaukee, youth are challenged with a lack of resources; my job is providing these kids with the support that they need.”
“This is just the beginning,” Dobbins-Mays said. “The kids are looking to make this program bigger and better; I am all for it.”
McRoy, a student at Milwaukee High School of the Arts, said that she would like to see events such as the lock-in continue, along with other activities. “How cool would it be to have a dance where we can all go, hang out and get to know each other better,” she asked. “There are endless routes we can take this program.”
Today, McRoy is not afraid to share what is on her mind. “I would encourage more youth to get involved with COA,” she said. “We are like a family here; we always support one another and I can’t wait to see where we go next.”