Basketball, music and improv: How new West Side after-school programs are helping students succeed
By Duncan Slade
On a recent weekday afternoon, over 200 students, parents, teachers and community members gathered in the West Side Middle School auditorium and experienced brief unplanned displays of the imagination of children in a comedy improv performance.
“Say ‘frog’,” said seventh-grader Aaliyah Watkins as she improvised a character controlling the actions and speech of another young actor pretending to be Frankenstein.
“Frog,” he responded.
“Say, ‘I’m an idiot,’” she said, causing the audience and both actors to burst into laughter.
Marquita Bukovinsky, Watkin’s teacher at West Side Middle School, said she loves seeing her students’ faces light up when they realize they can make people laugh with improv.
“It never really gets old,” she said.
This year, Bukonvinsky started a new after-school program to get kids involved in the performing arts. The program is grant-funded and teachers from the Alban Arts Academy come to the school every Wednesday to teach classes in acting, comedy improv, musical theater and stage makeup.
In recent years, there have been several new programs that offer activities for kids from Charleston’s West Side. Most of these programs are focused on athletics and draw kids interested in playing basketball and football, but there have been fewer programs that help kids who are interested in arts or sciences find a place to belong.
Community leaders in Charleston say after-school activities, like the new performing arts program and others, are essential for keeping kids from getting into trouble with gangs or drugs as well as preventing the loss of more young people to gun violence.
Last year, 18-year-old Capital High School student-athlete K.J. Taylor was shot and killed on the West Side, rocking the community, in what the mayor called at the time a “senseless act of violence.”
“We just want to see these kids have an opportunity that we didn’t have, or that we took [away from] ourselves because of bad choices and decisions.” -Andre Nazario
“We just want to see these kids have an opportunity that we didn’t have, or that we took [away from] ourselves because of bad choices and decisions,” said Andre Nazario, longtime Charleston youth football and basketball coach, whose own son was murdered three years ago.
In the wake of his son’s death, Nazario was in a dark place, mentally. He credits his nephew Jamaal Davis with saving his life.
Andre Nazario, left, and his nephew Jamaal Davis, run Creating the Advantage, an AAU basketball program, which holds practices in the basement of the First Baptist Church on Charleston’s East End. Though the church isn’t in the West Side, a lot of kids come to the program from that area.
Davis said they saved each other’s lives as he was in a bad spot after spending five years on federal probation for dealing heroin. Both men say they were brought together and out of the difficult times in their lives by the desire to see the kids in their community have a better future than they did.
“I did a whole lot of things in my life that I wasn’t happy about. Then I started having kids, and I wanted to break that chain, [from] my family curses, and I wanted to change those curses into family generations of blessings and wealth…and all of it doesn’t have to be financially, it can just be a mental state.” -Jamaal Davis
“I did a whole lot of things in my life that I wasn’t happy about,” Davis said. “Then I started having kids, and I wanted to break that chain, [from] my family curses, and I wanted to change those curses into family generations of blessings and wealth…and all of it doesn’t have to be financially, it can just be a mental state.”
Together, Davis and Nazario started coaching basketball and now run Creating the Advantage, a youth basketball program that aims to teach health and wellness while also providing mentoring and life skills. They mainly practice and exercise at First Baptist Church on Shewsbury Street while also utilizing gyms around the city.
Andre Nazario is pictured in the weight room in the basement of First Baptist Church where students work out for his AAU program, Creating the Advantage.
James Walton, who grew up around the Kanawha Valley, said his own experience being mentored inspired him to become a mentor.
“I always remember the mentors and stuff that I had as a kid that helped keep me on the ‘right path’ and establish certain principles and standards within me to live by,” Walton said. “I always remember those people, and I’ve always just wanted to give back and be that next mentor that can help establish the right principles and stuff in the youth and the next generation.”
He played youth football, often coached by his dad, and went on to play college football in California and Arizona. Today, he is carrying out the decision he made when he was 9 or 10 to one day work at a community center in Charleston.
At the Roosevelt Community Center, Walton runs after-school programs for Step by Step, a longtime local nonprofit organization focused on improving the lives of children. Around three dozen kids go to the center for after-school activities, playing sports, practicing and recording music, learning computer programming and working on homework.
The music room at the Roosevelt Center includes a variety of equipment as well as a recording booth where students can play and record music during after school activities in the Step by Step Program.
Walton said arts and sciences programs are more difficult to start because they have less exposure in traditional and online media, and they don’t have the longevity of AAU basketball or Little League baseball, which are ingrained in American culture.
“I may be ignorant, but I don’t know of any Little League cooking teams,” he said. “I mean there’s not a Little League arts program. If there is, it’s probably expensive, but with a lot of Little League teams they look out for people. They’re gonna get that kid; they’re gonna make sure he has a spot on the roster. So, it’s easier to get them on a football and basketball team than into an arts program or an art school.”
But even kids who love to play sports need more than just practice and games. Jeff Biddle, the director of the Midian Leadership Project, got started as a youth pastor running an after-school program. He has worked with youth in Charleston for over a decade, and he said it takes a village.
Earlier this year, the Project opened a new community center in a vacant industrial building across the street from West Side Middle School. Kids can stop by after-school, play games, shoot hoops, or just hang out.
The center operates on a drop-in model and is open daily from 2 to 9 p.m., longer than after-school programs, to accomodate the schedules of student-athletes. Biddle said the center, which was planned in partnership with the Christian Community Development Association, is about more than just sports.
“Enrichment, leadership development, college and career prep, looking for trade school, you know, that kind of thing,” Biddle said. “They’re not accessing those in the sports world. And so what we aim to do is to create a safe space for them.”
The Midian Leadership Project raised $500,000 in the last year to open the center and has been recommended by Charleston Mayor Amy Goodwin for an additional $60,000 in federal COVID relief funding to finish building out the center and hire more staff.
“The kid and their parents really need to be in the driver’s seat. So creating an environment where mentorship is connected with the other systems in the kid’s life is really important.” -Jeff Biddle, director of the Midian Leadership Project
“You really want a situation where the kid’s football coach, and their AAU basketball coach, and their pastor, and the person who helps them with their homework, and their mom, and their dad and grandparents are all on something of a similar page about what this kid wants for their life,” Biddle said. “The kid and their parents really need to be in the driver’s seat. So creating an environment where mentorship is connected with the other systems in the kid’s life is really important.”
Biddle works closely with Eddie Whitehead, who runs youth football teams sponsored by the Charleston Police Department. The purpose of the police football teams is twofold: building trust between the community and the police department and mentoring kids to become productive citizens.
“Success doesn’t look the same for everybody,” Whitehead said. “I think a lot of people, when they start to get into mentor and stuff like that, they expect everybody to be a doctor or a lawyer and all of that, but, you know, there’s nothing wrong with a kid who’s in his program, and he goes to trade school, and just find a success that way.”
Before I began working on this story, I worked with a team to research the community on Charleston’s West Side. Our initial research on age and demographics showed the area is one of the poorest communities in West Virginia and has a higher percentage of Black residents than the rest of the state.