Shortly after COVID-19 began to seriously impact areas around South Phoenix, Erik Hood and his AAU basketball team no longer had access to South Mountain High School’s gym, where they practiced.
While other districts around the Valley resumed with high school sports last fall and into this year to varying degrees, Phoenix Union High School District opted to forgo the fall and winter sports seasons because of unfavorable coronavirus metrics. COVID-19 had significant impact on areas around the district high schools, where many Black and Hispanic residents reside.
The district eventually opened up sports for the spring season this year, including basketball teams that normally play during winter but instead played in spring against other district schools.
The disparities in the way the pandemic affected South Phoenix compared to more affluent areas around the Phoenix metro area has prompted a group of community leaders to pursue an effort to open a new community center that would provide a place for recreation and life-skill mentoring for youths, and services for other residents as well.
“What can we do to create opportunities for these kids?” said Hood, a former assistant basketball coach at South Mountain High School who recently was hired as head coach of Chandler AZ Compass Prep’s second national team.
Hood has joined with several other community activists in the South Mountain area of Phoenix in the effort. They include Dana Burns, CEO of A Permanent Voice, a group she co-founded to help provide services to residents in the area; former NFL player Lorenzo Alexander’ and Brandon Hampton, vice president of Clear Sky Capital.
Together, they orchestrated the idea to create a community center addressing the needs for the community in all age groups.
Inspired, involved and invested — that’s the group’s theme.
The project aims to increase health within the South Mountain area in several areas: physical, mental, spiritual, educational and financial. They are working to secure a facility near 30th Street and Broadway Road, where they intend to offer recreational outlets for area youth, as well as tutors, and other mentors offering instruction on life skills.
Hampton said kids learn life skills from parents, not at school, but if the family lives in an impoverished neighborhood parents themselves may not have the tools needed to pass on to their children.
“We have very excellent, capable and superior young people that are coming up,” Hampton said. “There’s no reason that they should have any less than any other kid or any any less of an opportunity.”
Burns is from the South Phoenix area, but Hood and Hampton, are from North Philadelphia and Inglewood, California, respectively, areas where they had such a center growing up where they could get a free lunch or just a safe place to be accepted.
“We are ready for it,” Burns said. “I know our community is ready for it, and definitely our children are ready for it.”
‘Crying out for love in all the wrong places’
Burns said as a young girl growing up in South Phoenix, she did not have access to similar resources in the area. Her neighborhood near 24th Street and Broadway Road growing up had plenty of signs of an illegal drug culture, she said.
“As a kid, I’m 13, 14 years old trying to go and just have fun with some of my friends, and this is what we have to walk into?” Burns said.
Hood said school-age youth in the area have been in online school much longer than other areas of the Valley. Many do not have WiFi or a home life to support remote learning, he said.
A community center that can provide recreation or athletic activities would be a positivel outlet, he said.
“They’re stressing, they’re thinking about committing suicide,” Hood said. “They don’t know what’s next for them.”
There’s no sugarcoating the situation for Hood, he’s seen the trauma first hand.
While coaching at South Mountain High School, he’s knew of students or their family members who were victims of homicide. He said a high school player with a bright future he coached lost his sister and best friend within a matter of weeks recently.
“What do you think that kid is going to do?” he asked. “Can’t go to school, can’t go outside, can’t go to the parks, they got chains on the rims. The only thing he’s gonna do is go on the block.
“These kids want love, and they crying out for love in all the wrong places.”
Since the idea’s inception last spring the concept sprung into the development stage this year. After meeting with Phoenix Councilman Carlos Garcia, Burns said the project began taking off. Now, the focus is on securing the property and its funding.
Garcia acknowledged that the pandemic highlighted a lack of resources that the city should have been thinking about prior to the virus outbreak.
“Our inclination is to definitely support things like this that the community is asking for,” Garcia said.
Burns and the group have identified 70,000 square-foot building they hope will become the the community center.
To own the building and sustain it will take a hybrid funding approach, according to Hampton. They’re actively exploring options that include sponsorships from banks, private companies, NFL-connected corporations that Alexander’s can connect with, and the city of Phoenix.
Garcia said had such a facility been in place before the pandemic, it could possibly have served as a testing or vaccination site in an area that sorely needed one.
The group hopes its dream will help support the area as a whole, but ultimately, individuals who reside and grow up there.
“These kids, they are longing. They know there’s greatness inside of them,” Hood said. “We just want to be the catalyst for them to go out and spread their wings.”