Why a West Philly org is ‘putting everything on the line’ to buy a home of its own

YEAH Philly mobilized to give away food, protest and do other community work during the pandemic. (YEAH Philly/ Facebook)

YEAH Philly mobilized to give away food, protest and do other community work during the pandemic. (YEAH Philly/ Facebook)

Kendra Van de Water and James Aye believe young people in the city need their own space. So, in 2018, the two founded Youth Empowerment for Advancement Hangout (YEAH,) a nonprofit that offers teens a place to thrive. 

But for the last two years, YEAH has not had a space of its own.

Through that time, the West Philadelphia group worked with nearly 300 young people in neighborhoods and local recreation centers, training teens to mediate conflict and providing other services. Now in the midst of a pandemic and record-breaking surge of homicides, Van de Water and Aye say the group has outgrown those spaces — they need a home base to settle into and focus on their mission to disrupt the cycle of youth community violence in West and Southwest Philadelphia neighborhoods.

“The more we do things, the more our own space is vital,” said Van de Water. 

Van de Water and Aye have been on the hunt for a home for months and against the backdrop of rush on local property, they were outbid multiple times. Yet now the search may be over: The nonprofit is under contract for a two-story property in West Philadelphia that will serve as a headquarters and community center.

There, the Black-led organization will continue its work in offering a holistic approach to helping teens involved in or otherwise affected by violence, with as many wrap-around services as they can. That includes paid work, family financial assistance, peer mediation, and of course, a place to hang out.

Between April and June YEAH mediated 24 conflicts and trained 35 young people in conflict resolution. They plan to train 100 more at the brick-and-mortar space to help keep peace in some neighborhoods.

“That training has really just been vital in how they socialize with people and how they find alternative ways before they go get a gun,” said Van de Water.

Plans for the 1,860-square-foot home also include a music studio, rooms for therapy sessions, a conference room and respite space for young people who need to get away from a dangerous situation.

YEAH also does a weekly food giveaway, so the kitchen will be used, as will the storage space. Aye says the property will provide them the opportunity to increase the frequency of the giveaway.

“It’s perfect for the stuff that we need,” said Van de Water. “It’s good because we focus on West and Southwest and it’s right in the middle of both.”

“It can be a true community center,” Aye added.

A safe space amid violence

Van de Water and Aye are still looking for a loan to finance the $215,000 building after a down payment of $90,000, which the two are still working to secure. They’re also looking to raise $150,000 with a GoFundMe campaign to help purchase and renovate the building. So far they’ve raised more than $11,000. The two are also pulling from their own personal bank accounts to help finance the building.

“We’re putting everything on the line,” said Aye.

If all goes well, they’re on schedule to close the deal in mid-October and plan to open their doors on November 1.

Nafis Zollicoffer, 18, has worked with YEAH since February and lives two blocks away from the property. He is a first-year college student taking all of his classes online in a home he shares with five siblings also going to school online. This can be distracting, he says. So the new space would be a place where he can work in peace.

“The reason we need this space is comfortability, safety, and concentration,” says Zollicoffer,

“If we have that space, I can just go over to that space and go to class.”

The house YEAH hopes to make its own sits in an area that’s been hard-hit by the pandemic and the city’s ongoing surge in gun violence.

“I don’t know what’s going on around West Philly right now, but it’s shootings two or three times a week in this particular neighborhood,” said Zollicoffer.

YEAH has had to adjust with virtual programs to give teens a chance to vent and process the trauma.

“They’re struggling with, in addition to this pandemic, that fact that they’re losing a lot of loved ones and friends and there is nowhere to go process that,” said Aye. “There are no spaces for them to feel comfortable talking about what’s going on, in addition to their struggle with shifting to virtual school. A lot of those things have been impacting [them].”

YEAH’s long-term goal is to continue expanding their services to bring the organization closer to being a one-stop shop for young people’s needs. Van de Water envisions a medical and mental health component, complete with doctors, nurses, and therapists.

“It’s all about getting the root causes,” said Aye. “If you can penetrate that, it’s a lot less heavy stuff on the surface to deal with.” Broke in PhillyWHYY is one of over 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push towards economic justice. Follow us at @BrokeInPhilly.

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