SAFE Center Gives Baltimore City Youth Hope

Van Brooks, center, with members of the Franklin Square community. (Photo by Tiffany Ginyard)

Boys and girls in the Franklin Square community can expect the doors of the SAFE Center to be open after school, every day. They can also expect for the adults there to love, listen and hold them to high academic standards. But more importantly, young people in this West side neighborhood can expect for the SAFE Center to be a place where their voices matter.

In late August, Safe Alternative Foundation for Education (S.A.F.E.), a non-profit community outreach organization, opened the doors of the center with the goal to further its mission to provide after-school, weekend and summer learning opportunities for Baltimore’s young people. Physical fitness, literacy, and S.T.E.A.M. (science, technology, engineering, art, and math) are at the core of regular activities at the center, including robotics, video gaming, coding, field trips, and sports.

But academics come first.

“This center belongs to the kids. Anything they want in here to make this a place where they want to be everyday, I will make it happen for them,” Van Brooks, Safe Alternative’s founder and executive director told the AFRO. “All we ask of them is that they commit to an hour of school-related work every afternoon.”

One of the facility’s programs, Yards for Success, brings together local law enforcement officers, fire department personnel and middle school students for a six-week flag football program to teach  teamwork, positive conflict resolution, personal accountability, and  leadership. The goal is for the young people to develop positive relationships with leaders in the community.

The vision for the youth facility came from Brooks’ passion to share his story with the young people in his neighborhood, teaching them to value education and to have a backup plan.

It’s not uncommon for inner city youth to look to sports as a means to change the trajectory of their lives–to keep them out of the streets and to eventually lead them out of poverty. But this game plan often proves unreliable since, according to the National Poverty Center, less than two percent of all high school youth go on to play professional sports.

Brooks a three-sport athlete with promising talent, was injured while making a tackle and broke his neck, paralyzing him from neck down. He was 16. His family had high hopes that he’d go to the NFL–it was his dream.

“God has a reason for everything, and he pushed him towards kids to help them fulfill their dreams,” Annette Cole, the maternal presence at the center and Brooks’ cousin, told the AFRO.

After making an unexpected recovery, he finished high school at Loyola Blakefield and later earned his Bachelor’s in mass communications from Towson University. Shortly after that, he was given another dream.

“When I woke up I said I’m going to start a foundation. I kind of just put it out there and people reached out” said Brooks. “And from there the network started to build.”

The August grand opening of the center was a timely response to long unanswered cries of hopeless youth that led to the unrest that erupted in Baltimore last April.

“The kids want something to do,” Van Brooks, “They want to feel safe. And they want to feel loved. And that’s what we’re offering them here. But on top of offering them that, we’re also offering them opportunities that they wouldn’t’t experience in the community.”

The SAFE Center is the product of what can happen when a community comes together to protect the future.