Working It Out

Teams who participated in Team ANGEL tell how it bettered their lives

Kamiya Huggins sits at a long wooden table as she finishes a plate of food provided for her by the Southwest Community Center. She is 18 years old and a senior at George Fowler High School. She has a hearty laugh and an infectious smile and has only positive things to say about life. Yet she says that only three years ago, she was going down a path that, if she had not changed, would have her dead by now.

Huggins said it was the summer of freshman year when she got off track. A native of the South Side, she had applied for a job at CNY Works — a nonprofit organization that helps people learn job skills — but didn’t get it. She said that left her with simply nothing to do. She was bored, and that was where it started.

“I used to fight,” Huggins said candidly. “I used to fight a lot. I was around a lot of drama, partied all the time. I would get in cars that weren’t mine, hassle people’s kids. I was always in trouble just because I didn’t have anything else to do. I did things I knew I had no business at all doing.”

Huggins’ story sounds a recurring theme for the youth of Syracuse. Teenagers apply for jobs, but there are none. Many fill their time as Huggins did.

According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, the youth unemployment rate across the nation is 16.9 percent; for the state of New York (16 to 24 years old), it is 18 percent; and for Syracuse, it is around 19 percent.

The community continues looking for answers.

People’s AME Zion Church pastor Daren Jaime held a press conference Sunday, Sept. 22, to rally the community. And on Oct. 13, the Mary Nelson Youth Foundation organized a “Get Your Kids” Rally at Kirk Park, in response to the slaying of Jim Gifford, whom authorities believe was beaten to death by an 18-year-old in a 7-Eleven parking lot on the South Side. The message: If they don’t “get their kids,” the police will. The next day, there was another street slaying on the South Side of the city — 65-year-old Marvin Bryant — and three teens were charged.

Midland Avenue resident Emmanuel Snipes told a story at the September event the teens would have related to: He’s been approached by youngsters wanting to learn more about home maintenance and related skills, the business he is in. But the hard reality is many small businesses on the South Side of Syracuse don’t have the money to hire them.

“Children are looking to do what is going to make them a fast dollar,” said Dale Harp, volunteer at the Mary Nelson Foundation. “But because many of them can’t get jobs, they go out on the streets and sell drugs.

“If children have something to do during the summer they will have less time to hang in the streets. It also gives them the opportunity to learn responsibility. They’re children. They don’t know better. They need someone to teach them.”

Andre Baptista, a 16-year-old student at Corcoran High School, said he hoped for a job at Syracuse Parks and Recreation, but didn’t get it.

“I have many friends who have been rejected from jobs,” Baptista said. “They just hang out. They gamble and get caught by the police. If they had jobs they would have something to do instead of just walking around the block.”

Both Baptista and Huggins are involved with Team ANGEL, which stands for Avoid Negative Garbage Enjoy Life. It is a group for teens run by Ed Mitchell Jr. every day from 3 to 7 p.m. at the Southwest Community Center.

Huggins says it’s the sole reason she was able to turn her life around.

It was already 6:30 p.m. as Huggins chatted on a recent fall day, but she was in no hurry to leave the community center. She said she hates leaving, and it’s become a home for her.

“The center changed my life,” Huggins said. “It was like I always have things to do. My grades went up and I was able to get help finding jobs. I always tell Ed thank you so much because Team ANGEL saved my life.”

Huggins believes if she had gotten that summer job freshman year she wouldn’t have gotten into nearly as much trouble. She said she had no adult figure in her life.
Mitchell, only 26 years old, started Team ANGEL because he had grown up around the Southwest Community Center all his life, and he has seen what can happen on the streets.

“I started this program because of my own experiences in life, guns, drugs, death, violence,” Mitchell said. “I’ve watched a little kid take his last breath and die before my eyes. I’ve been shot, seen a friend die. There is rabid violence but no programs. You need to give kids things to do or they go to the streets.”

Mitchell, dressed in a gray sweat suit and blue Orlando Magic hat, pulled back the sleeves of his hoodie and revealed a tattoo that goes down the inside of his left arm. It’s the acronym for his program: Avoid Negative Garbage Enjoy Life.

He says his mission is not to save the world, but simply to show kids that there is more to life than the streets.

“I tell them, ‘You got school, work, jail, or the grave.’ There are four options and I ask them, ‘Which one are you going to choose?’ ”

Ed and Team ANGEL were able to help 20 kids get jobs last summer, something he believes is extremely important because it offers them the opportunity to get people to believe in them.

Huggins is now working jobs at Tim Horton’s and a daycare center on top of her schoolwork. She is taking a few college-level courses and hopes to attend college in Virginia, where her aunt lives. She wants to study criminal justice.

“I’m at home by 8 now and getting ready to go to bed,” Huggins said, laughing. “I don’t have time for anything else. I got school in the morning and I got work. I’m a busy person.”

Harp says jobs for youth are also important in helping to solve the problem of bullying.

“We definitely need to find a way to get these kids jobs,” Harp said. “Bullying happens to kids who don’t have as much as the others. It’s causing the bullied kids to drop out of school because they can’t take it. Jobs would help the child buy things for the school year and there’d be not as much bullying.

“Violence is going to happen regardless,” he said. “But you can lessen it. Many of them are lost, like walking zombies. If anybody has something to do, they won’t be getting into trouble.”