Live6 area offers wealth of activities for Detroit children

Darnetta Banks is on a mission to ensure the children in Detroit's Fitzgerald neighborhood have fun and engaging things to do. A resident of the northwest Detroit neighborhood since 1966, she's now president of the Prairie Street Block Club, as well as the community ambassador for a program called Activity Days in the Park.

For the last two years, she and other local block club leaders have been sponsoring the event series at Ella Fitzgerald Park, a 2.5-acre park located at the intersection of Prairie and Grove streets. Held every other Saturday in the summer months, the community coalition holds supervised events at the park. Past activities have included face-painting, music, arts and crafts, yoga, and hustle dance instruction. Activity Days in the Park is supported by the Kresge Foundation and the Detroit Collaborative Design Center

"Everyone is excited. They always want to know, 'When is the next event?'" Banks says. "We believe in community unity and we want it to be at its best."

During the fall, the coalition has also been sponsoring movie nights. Their next is planned for Halloween and will have hot dogs and popcorn for moviegoers. The coalition is also interested in holding special events like Thanksgiving and winter holiday celebrations.

But Activity Days in the Park is just one of many local programs available to kids. When it comes to recreation and activity spaces, the Live6 area has a lot of options.

Stepping up to the plate

For the sports-inclined, there's At Bat, a baseball-and-softball-oriented nonprofit program that provides free clinics and low-cost programs for at-risk youth. The organization is offering after-school programming this fall and winter at Voyageur Academy, a Detroit charter school. 

Founder Delrisha Hayes got the idea for At Bat while introducing her nephew to baseball and noticing a decline in African-American players. After coming to the conclusion that this drop off was due to a lack of resources, she set off to create an affordable option for local youth and launched the program in 2015.

"I begin with teaching them how to throw, then we go to hitting," she says. "I put up a batting tee, so they can learn how to properly stand. And once they learn the tee, they can start throwing the ball and playing more." 

The program trains kids from ages 6 to 13. It's important to get children started early, says Hayes. "If you don't start young, it's hard to compete with other kids who've been competing all their lives."

The Voyageur program teaches K-8 students about baseball and softball fundamentals, health and nutrition, and makes use of STEM skills through sports-related drills to help improve their pitching and throwing. This year's program kicks off in November. 

And Hayes is determined to keep it affordable. Classes are $50 for six months or free to families who can prove they are 200 percent below the poverty line.

Martial arts, gymnastics, dance, and more

For children interested in improving their athletic abilities, Skills Ville is really in a zone of its own. Located on the grounds of a former bowling alley at Livernois and Thatcher, the family-owned multi-sports training center offers classes in gymnastics (trampoline and tumbling), cheerleading, martial arts (tae kwon do, kung fu, adult kickboxing), indoor baseball training, and personalized sports training.

The organization's founder, Rohn Baker, is a former semi-pro football player who also coached football at Saint Martin De Porres High School in Detroit. He was inspired to start Skills Ville in 1995 after encounters with a student who had the build play football but was completely turned off to sports, and then another with a very skinny student who begged to be on the team.

Rohn and Yvonne Baker, founders of Skills Ville
His curiosity piqued, he did some research and found that young people are often turned off from athletics by an accident or bad experience early on, as well as malnourishment.

"I started playing with the idea of creating an environment that worked to meet the nutritional needs and coaching needs early in life," Baker says. 

The 10,300-square-foot facility features rubber floor, bleachers, lockers, a batting cage, nets, multiple trampolines including a 40-foot-long tumble-track, and workout areas for martial arts. Classes are taught by skilled instructors. Skills Ville belongs to both the United States Tumbling & Trampoline Association and the Amateur Athletic Union. 

Gymnastics training begins with children as young as 2 years old, and martial arts as young as 3. For the center's competitive teams, the age range runs from about 6 to 12 years old. 

Although the majority of students are from Detroit proper, Skills Ville gets students from all over Southeast Michigan. And Baker says he and his wife are "overwhelmed and elated" by the opportunity they've had to work with each of them — and the success many of them have gone on to enjoy.

"I've had students who’ve gone to college on scholarships. There are some folks who've gone on to Cirque du Soleil," he says. "But probably the most heartwarming is the students who started out here many years ago and are now bringing back their own children. That's rewarding." 

Down the street from Skills Ville is another training space with a more musical focus: the Majik Touch Dance Company. Owned and operated by sisters Robin Newton and Kim Fragier, the company specializes in hip-hop and the team it sponsors is recognized as one of the top hip-hop dance teams in the country. 

"We opened up America's Best Dance Crew," Fragier says. "We've won national championships, grand championships, best performances. You name it, judge's choice, most spirited awards. We've won it all.

Magic Touch Dance Company practicing
"Most of our girls have went on to college," she adds. "They're on their dance teams at college. If they're not the vice presidents, they're presidents."

Newton coached cheerleading with the Police Athletic League's West Side Cub's football team for 25 years before deciding to follow her passion to start a dance team with her sister in 2008. 

The studio attracts students from all over Metro Detroit. Currently the studio's students are all girls, who range in age from 5 to 18. Seasons run from September to June. 

Reviving an old space

A potential space for kids could be coming back to the Live6 district: Maggie Lee's Community Center. Damaged in a fire in 2015, it served as a great resource for both kids and adults in the neighborhood. Located on Puritan Avenue near Greenlawn, the community center was home to a daycare center, two Head Start classrooms, a kitchen, special events room, and a gym that was used for exercise and kickboxing. It also featured after school kids programming and classes for a variety of subjects, including kickboxing, theatre, leadership training, and golf instruction.

The community center was a long-time dream for founder Maggie Williams-Hinton, who'd served on the city's Head Start board and is a strong supporter of early childhood education activities. After working for the city of Detroit for 30 years, she invested her life savings into making the community center a reality.

"I spent over a million dollars remodeling the place," Williams-Hinton says. "It had everything a community needs."

Maggie Williams-Hinton
The 2015 fire was a major loss for the community. And, to make matters worse, Williams-Hinton also suffered a stroke that pushed back her plans to reopen the center. 

She's now in the process of putting together a new board to raise money for the reconstruction of the facility, which suffered electrical and water damage, in addition to structural damage from the fire. She's currently searching for contractors to give free estimates on reconstruction, which she believes will cost at least $200,000.

With the support of the community, she hopes to have the center back up and offering vital services to neighborhood residents.

"When we were younger, we had programs like the YMCA for the kids, so they would not be in the streets," Williams-Hinton says. "I want to get the Maggie Lee Center back because we need a center like that, especially in this area. It got parents involved and it worked."

This article is part of a series where we revisit stories from our On the Ground installment and explore new ones in the Live6 area. It is supported by the Kresge Foundation.

Photos by Nick Hagen

Read more articles by David Sands.

David Sands is a Detroit-based freelance writer. He's covered the news for Huffington Post Detroit as an assistant editor and worked as a staff writer for the transportation news site Mode Shift. Follow him on Twitter @dsandsdetroit.
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