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Molding Minds

The MLK Center Helps Children and Teens Read, Learn and Improve
Writer / Christy Heitger-Ewing
Photographer / Michael Durr

MLK CenterWhen Allison Luthe first started working at the Martin Luther King Community Center (MLK Center) in June of 2015, the organization was in a transition phase. Faced with some financial troubles, they paused to restructure and get clear on their purpose.

“As a community center, we have a mission to focus on social services, but at the same time, we don’t just want to be providing band-aids and temporary solutions,” says Luthe, executive director.

In a five-year stretch, they grew from a single employee to 22, thereby expanding the capacity of the organization.

“We talked to parents to find out what they wanted, and they said they desperately needed after-school care, so we partnered with local child care providers to get kids connected to quality child care between the ages of 0 and 5,” Luthe says.

They also focused on youth education. Students at James Whitcomb Riley School 43, located one block from the center, were struggling academically. Having had five principals in six years, the students desperately needed help with literacy in particular, so the MLK Center secured a highly competitive four-year grant from the state to partner with the school, which helps them provide literacy, coaching, tutoring and reading support for kids. The goal of the program is to get students reading at grade level by third grade. The program has been a success, and the grant was recently renewed for an additional four years.

“We combine that after-school program with our summer program and provide year-round literacy support,” Luthe says. “We believe in literacy because education is power. Keeping people connected can be a solution to systemic racism, empowering others, and building up the neighborhood. We’re really focused on the feeder area of School 43, which is the Butler-Tarkington, Crown Hill, Mapleton-Fall Creek and Meridian-Kessler neighborhoods.”

MLK CenterMiddle school and high school teens have access to the Best Buy Teen Tech Center, a national program in partnership with the Clubhouse Network, an international network of neighborhood-based technology hubs for kids. The Best Buy Teen Tech Center, which opened in January of 2019, enables students to collaborate in project-based learning to get hands-on training in coding, application development, digital music and film production, digital photography, 3D design, robotics and more. These teens participate in career pathway programs and can earn credentials, secure internships, and explore future education for career possibilities in technology. Though there are multiple centers around the country, this is the only location in Indiana.

Douglas Morris, coordinator at the MLK Center for the Tech Center, grew up in this neighborhood in the 1980s and knows firsthand how many of these teens feel.

“Like many of us, I can relate to these youth’s coming of age stories,” Morris says. “Whether it’s feelings of loneliness, due to absence of a parent(s) or just feeling misunderstood. Add the mental, physical and financial strains these teens are processing and it’s socio-economics 101. Technology is the hook for these kids, as they don’t have access to it elsewhere. Once I’ve got them in the door, we dig into who they are and what they want for their life.”

Morris hears personal stories on a daily basis, like when he learns that a teen’s lights have been shut off, or that there’s no food in their refrigerator. However, there are also stories of success and perseverance. One teen told Morris that the MLK Center helps him be the best version of himself.

The MLK Center is located across the street from Tarkington Park. In February of 2017, two teens were arrested for fighting there. One was put on probation for nearly two years, so the MLK Center partnered with the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department and neighborhood associations to create the Tarkington Teen Work Crew, a seven-week summer employment program that pays teens a $100 stipend per week to clean up the park, alleys and trash in the neighborhood, and also undertake service projects. Teens are required to participate in some professional development, conflict resolution and counseling, in addition to taking care of their neighborhood. When the program began, 30 teens applied. This past summer, that application number more than doubled.

“We do zero marketing,” Luthe says. “It’s all word of mouth.”

Those teens who triggered the program now work at the MLK Center as junior community builders.

“They are ambassadors to their communities and are carrying that voice back into the center,” says Luthe, noting that the center is also developing a youth committee that will have two seats on the board of directors. “We’re making sure that we’re putting our money where our mouth is. If we’re going to challenge things like gun violence, dropout rates or anything related to young people, they must be at the center of that decision-making.”

MLK CenterLuthe says a number of community members have expressed an interest in volunteer opportunities, but those are not currently available due to COVID-19. However, she encourages folks to visit their official website to learn how they can participate in the 16-hour nonviolent training, which will focus on values espoused by Martin Luther King, Jr.

“We will tackle those things that keep us divided,” she says.

The plan is to train all of their teenagers, partners, volunteers and board members, thanks to grants from the Butler Giving Circle and the Meridian Street United Methodist Church.

“When people ask what they can do about injustice or inequality, this is something – learn how to build community,” says Luthe, who participated in training at The King Center in Atlanta as well the Institute for Nonviolence Chicago. “We are developing a local version and building our programming around it.”

The MLK Center is located at 40 West 40th Street in Indianapolis. For more information, call 317-923-4581 or visit MLKCenterIndy.org.

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