There are glimmers of hope on the Westside though, places where at-risk youth can turn for help if they so choose.
MY Project USA Youth Empowerment Center is one organization offering a way out. The unlikely hero behind its creation and leadership is Zerqa Abid or “Sister Zerqa,” who describes herself as an “activist all my life.”
She is diminutive in stature, but she has already proven to the Westside and to Sullivant Avenue that a woman can move mountains where most men have barely moved the needle.
MY Project USA is a national endeavor and recently moved its Sullivant Avenue headquarters of five years into a former grocery store further up the street. The new location is in many ways strategic, situated between the Hilltop and the Wedgewood Village apartment community where immigrant families and others have been coping with drug-dealing related violence for years.
The good news is, MY Project USA’s new digs – going through an extensive rehab – is far more visible to the community than the previous location.
“We needed a new place. It was too small and wasn’t working for us anymore. So I bought this property,” said Abid to the Free Press.
For five years Abid sought a new home for her brainchild, the Columbus Foundation and others have helped, and she received an Small Business Association loan for instance. The City has assisted financially with grants for programs but not with the purchase of the property.
“We are going forward with all of this expansion and renovation because we have asked for a space for the last five years. For five years we have been serving Wedgewood and saying, ‘We don’t have any space,’” she said. “We didn’t have a space where we could go to in the evening. This was a need. We borrowed loans and did whatever we needed to provide a safe space for our children.”
The new building will not be a drop-in for homeless youth who need overnight shelter, but “anyone who walks in the building we will try to help,” said Abid, who has also advocated for victims of sex trafficking and prostitution, a huge problem up and down Sullivant.
Abid also has success in tearing apart what seems unbreakable.
“From what I have heard, our programs have severed the pipeline that was fueling young people into gangs before. Our programs have made that disconnect,” she said. “Our young people are choosing to play soccer, choosing to come into our program.”
She believes there are several factors why 13-year-olds join gangs like the MBKs.
“But the most important factor is that there was nothing for them to do here in the neighborhood. There was no recreation, there was no programs. Their parents are working three jobs so they are left alone,” she said. “The children are easy prey for all these criminals out there. For drug dealers, who spend a few dollars on their meals or offering them something very low, and using them as drug mules is so easy.”
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