words by Noor Hindi, photos by Chris Harvey

It’s a cool July day in Akron. Past the drumming of construction on Main Street is a group of teenagers huddled together at Lock 3. There’s a football flying under the summer sun as the teens playfully tease each other, chasing their friends through Lock 3 while the city’s backdrop hovers over them.

This is SWAG, which stands for Students with a Goal, a youth after-school program based in Summit Lake.

“It’s like a big old family,” says DaVionna Singleton. “We get to connect with others and get closer.”

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DaVionna has enrolled in the program for five years. During the school year, she gets to socialize with friends after school and is mentored by positive adults who help her with homework.

The program started in 2013, and since its inception, it has counseled hundreds of kids.

“I love these kids,” says Director Eric Nelson. “If you’re having a bad day, just come talk and hang out with these kids. They’re amazing.”

The program is intensive. During the school year, they meet from 3:30 pm until 8 pm Monday through Friday. The teens are picked up and dropped off, given a snack and dinner, and provided with structured playtime and academic mentoring. For Iyannah Sykes-Edwards, the homework help has been essential. 

“It’s the reason why my grades are better,” she says.

The last hour of the day is spent meeting with professionals and doing career exploration, which is instrumental in helping the teens set goals for the future.

“SWAG is the place where we start to change their attitudes toward becoming heroes in their own narratives,” says Nelson. “We love them, we expose them to a lot. ‘You are so much more than basketball,’ I tell them. Every low-income neighborhood probably has a 1,000 basketball hoops, but who’s investing in these kids’ characters? Who’s investing in the future of our voters who will vote on legislation for things that will affect us? That work has to be done.”

Nelson says one of the most unique parts about growing up in Summit Lake is the continuum of care they’re able to provide for youth. Between Akron Metropolitan Housing Authority’s (AMHA) early childhood programming, South Street’s Rich Kids program, which serves kids from kindergarten through fifth grade, and SWAG, which serves students from 6th grade to graduation, kids receive “layers of layers of support,” he says.

“I feel driven to do this work because our kids are consistently being passed up,” Nelson says. “It’s not all of our kids, but a good percentage of them, their parents or caregivers are either the working poor, or they’re generationally poor, or situationally poor. And so, what’s missing in that is, ‘I invest this here, and this is what I get down the road.’ It’s the farmer’s mentality. The farmer knows to plant seeds in a certain season in order for a harvest down the road. That’s what we do with our goal-setting. We talk about the choices we’re making.”

But the program isn’t all work. Most of the time, it’s fun, with volunteers slipping learning opportunities into play. Right now, it currently has about 100 students enrolled. This summer, they’re meeting Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays from 10 am  to 2 pm. When I join the teens, they’re telling program director Brittany Bates about wanting to meet on Mondays and Fridays too.

They rave about some of the field trips they’ve taken to haunted houses, movie theaters and Kalahari. Because of COVID-19, they’re home more than usual, and they tell me if it wasn’t for SWAG, they’d probably be sitting on their phones or watching TV.

“It’s a getaway place for me because there are people my age I can have fun with and talk to instead of just being home,” says SyrJustin Pruiett.

“It’s all good vibes here,” adds Dariyah Adams. “There’s never a dull moment.”

To learn more about SWAG, visit www.studentswithagoal.com

Noor Hindi covers equity and inclusion for The Devil Strip. Reach her at noor@thedevilstrip.com

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