For about a decade now, Diamond Solomon of Buffalo’s Riverside neighborhood has looked up to the staff at Northwest Buffalo Community Center as mentors.
They have provided Solomon with a variety of social, academic and recreational opportunities aimed at keeping him and scores of other neighborhood youth constructively engaged and out of harm’s way during after-school hours and over the summer recess.
At 20 years old, Solomon remains engaged almost daily at the center, where he is determined to reach back and give to the youngsters coming up behind him.
“I’m sort of like a mentor now, and I also try to guide the kids that are here,” Solomon said.
The Northwest Buffalo Community Center at 22 Lawn Ave. is one of 44 nonprofit agencies across Erie County that were each awarded 2013 “Summer Primetime” grants of between $5,000 and $10,000 to expand their youth enrichment programs in July and August. Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz recently announced recipients of the funding.
“ ‘Operation Primetime’ takes advantage of the prime summer months to provide new opportunities for children to enjoy structured, healthy activities during the time they are away from school,” Poloncarz said.
It is a year-round endeavor for Northwest Buffalo Community Center, which caters to a large proportion of at-risk youth, many of whom live in one of three public housing developments – LaSalle Courts, Jasper Parrish and Shaffer Village – that are all within less than a mile of the center. The center also receives block grant funding through the city, as well as private donations from the Buffalo Bills and Wegmans.
“What ‘Primetime’ allows us to do is expand the programming for kids during the day and allow them a lot more activities, which will improve their academics,” said Executive Director Lawrence T. Pernick Jr., a former Buffalo Public School teacher who has headed the agency since 1992.
“We provide them a lunch, a breakfast and we do provide academics that are required. So the kids do participate in an intensive reading program, as well as work with our staff on their report card deficiencies,” Pernick added.
On the staff are several certified teachers, some of whom also teach in the Buffalo Public Schools during the school year.
Frank Cunningham, the agency’s youth services director and also a school district employee, said recreational activities, arts and crafts, as well as field trips are included in the program, but academics are paramount.
“Education is the key to all successes and we emphasize that a lot. Homework is mandatory,” Cunningham said.
“They stay on you about everything,” added Solomon, “They make sure you stay off the streets and are not doing all the negative activities that are out there, no gang-banging, no drugs and all of that.”
They are lessons that have stayed with Solomon, including his continued participation in the center’s sports program.
“I also help Mr. Frank coach flag football and basketball, too,” said Solomon, who now has a young nephew attending programs at the center.
Morgan Williams-Bryant, deputy commission of the county’s Youth Services Division, said the application process for “Primetime” funding is rigorous, whether the youth being served are in Buffalo or one of its suburbs.
“Number one, we want a safe haven for kids to be this summer. During prime time hours – say between noon and 9 p.m. – we know many unsupervised kids are getting into trouble. So we want kids to have a safe place to go where they can have character development and learn life skills,” Williams-Bryant said.
The agencies are regularly monitored by county Youth Bureau staff, who conduct unannounced on-site visits.