Providing a Safe Space for Teens

Youth can find lots of resources, activities through Ferguson Youth Initiative

By Nicholas Elmes

Whether it is providing a safe, and fun, place for teens to hang out after school, sponsoring special events for teens at area rec centers or providing support for a variety of school clubs, the Ferguson Youth Initiative (FYI) is a rich source of resources for youth in the Ferguson-Florissant School District.

“We started in 2010 as a effort to better engage teenagers between the ages of 13 and 19,” said FYI Board President Dwayne James. “We found that as a community we were doing a lot for the senior citizens and we were doing a lot for the little kids, but that middle component, teenagers, we were not doing a whole lot for collectively.”

FYI works closely with  a number of other organizations like the YMCA, Ferguson Parks and Recreation Department, and area churches, but James said one of its most unique and important partners is the Ferguson Youth Advisory Board.

“We wanted to make sure there was a teen voice in everything we did,” he said. “Historically we have had members on that board from Ferguson Middle and McCluer, but this year we are reaching out and inviting students from the entire district to participate. We are also reaching out to private schools and home schooled students to make sure is not just one clique of teens figuring out what needs to happen.”

“The Youth Advisory Board meets once every week,” said FYI board member Jackie Lewis-Harris. “They help us plan out ideas for what we are doing. They have a lot of say in what we do.”

Located in the former fire department building next to city hall at 110 Church Street, FYI provides a space for a number of teen-driven activities.

“We have our Backbay Drop-In every Friday from 2 p.m. until 6 p.m. and we will be expanding that to Thursdays from 3 p.m. until 7 p.m. in October,” said James. “That is a program where any teen can come by and have access to Wi-Fi, games, music, food, and tutoring.

“We also do Spot 394 every quarter, which is a traveling teen center,” he added. “We open up a YMCA or a space at UMSL for a night and they get access to basketball, movies, swimming and food all for just a couple of dollars. That always goes very well and we try to move it around. We also have a variety of educational programs and art programs. We do stuff like SLAM which is an open-mike night the first Friday of each month.”

Lewis-Harris said one of the arts-based programs held recently involved bringing in artist Annie Martineau to work with teens to paint a giant mural called “One Love” in response to the protests after the Michael Brown shooting in 2014.

“She asked if the kids would like to work on a mural to work off some of their angst,” said Lewis-Harris. “They all worked together on the design and then they laid out each of the four-foot by eight-foot panels upstairs and painted it in the bay.  We had about 60 kids who worked on that.”

FYI also provides a community service program to help area youth have an alternative way of dealing with potential fines or incarceration as a result of misdemeanor charges. The program includes counseling services for the youth.

“It gives them a way to give back to the community,” said James. “It is also a way for the community to see them in a different light and for the kids’ work ethic to grow. I personally know a number of kids who have gone through that program and are now working at area stores. We have done a variety of projects ranging from working with the farmers’ market to doing clean up work with the flower club and doing clean up and flower work near the train trestle.”

James noted that the program is designed to put the kids in leadership, not just manual labor, positions.

“I want them to be thinking and planning,” he said. “A couple of years ago they organized a summit on police-youth interaction and most of the students who helped with that went through the community service program. They were going out and marketing it and setting the agenda and then running the event, and after the summit they continued to meet with the police department and neighborhood associations to continue that message.”

James said that while FYI already has a lot to offer teens they are working this year to expand their message into as many schools as possible and to also help provide support for existing school clubs.

“We are hitting the engaged students, but now we need to hit the unengaged,” he explained. “We have all of the groundwork laid, now we are going out into the schools and supporting them. We know that we have to go to the youth and go to where they are.”

James said he is also appreciative of all of the other support local teenagers get from parents, teachers, and other organizations.

“Thank you, to everyone who is supporting teenagers and young people,” he said. “It is a hard job, but it is also a rewarding job.”

For more information, or to find out about upcoming events, please visit

CUTLINE: Photo by Nicholas Elmes Ferguson Youth Initiative Board President Wayne James plays foosball with a youth at the FYI facility located a 110 Church Street.

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