Thursday, April 21, 2016

From trailer to center to 'home'

The Vance Avenue Youth Development Center attracts children from various
parts of Memphis. It's a home away from home for most of them, said Barbara
Ann Nesbit, the director. (Photos: Wiley Henry)
     Barbara Ann Nesbit feeds 150 children a day, six days a week – and senior citizens too – in a community tagged by poverty and blight and where many small businesses struggle to survive along the Vance Avenue corridor.
Nesbit runs one of those businesses at 670 Vance Ave., in a trailer housing the Vance Avenue Youth Development Center, which was organized and chartered in 1994 to serve at-risk youths in need of life survival skills.
Given the need, Nesbit would gladly serve even more youths, if she had the space and additional resources.
“Our rules say we can take them from (age) four to high school. But we got some 6-year-olds with 3-year-old brothers and sisters. They bring them over. So I can’t turn those children away,” said Nesbit, who treated youths, adults and a few Memphis police officers to a “salad and loaded potato luncheon” at the VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars) facility at 280 Cynthia Place earlier this month.
The luncheon was an opportunity for Nesbit to thank her in-kind and monetary donors, including the crew that transformed the trailer into a thriving youth center. The VFW building is a short distance from the center. Nesbit made the return trip hand-in-hand with one of the little girls.
Surrounded by some of the children in the program, Nesbit
thanks supporters for their contributions during a recent luncheon
at the VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars) facility.
 “I believe in these children. I know somebody had to reach out and help them,” said Nesbit, recalling the motivation to create the youth center when she was employed as a Shelby County Juvenile Court auxiliary probation officer from 1990 to 1997. She and a co-worker combined skills and resources to open the center. Soon after, the co-worker relinquished her role and responsibility to Nesbit, who became the center’s director.
“By me being an auxiliary probation officer – she was too – we knew how the system works,” she said. “These children are our future. And I was not going to give up.”
Her mother, sisters, brothers and husband, James Nesbit, made sacrifices and contributions to get the center up and running with very limited resources, said Nesbit, the eldest of seven children born in Hughes, Ark., and raised in Proctor, Ark., by a single mother “who worked three jobs to take care of her children.”
Drawing upon traits and life-lessons learned from her mother, Nesbit, who doesn’t have biological children, teaches the ones in her charge that giving and sharing are noble qualities.
“My mom would tell us, ‘If you want to share with your friends, go right ahead.’ That’s the way we were brought up,” said Nesbit.
The center, which received its 501(c)(3) tax exemption in 1998, is her life. She sacrifices to feed, educate, clothe and tend to the children’s personal needs, including counseling, if needed. She receives no salary and takes in just enough to keep the doors open.
Her immediate family, she said, initially detested the Vance Avenue location as a youth center, fearing for the safety of her and the children. She ignored their plea to retreat to safer ground.
“It’s bad everywhere,” said Nesbit. “But you see they couldn’t stop me. So they just blend in to help me. I don’t let nobody tell me what I can and cannot do unless I try it for myself.”
Each day the children return for food, fun, games, and programs and for help with their schoolwork.
“We started coming over here the first day,” said 15-year-old Keunna Morris, recalling her family’s move to the neighborhood in January 2013.
“They started telling us about it (the youth center) in school. So we would come over after school. Then I started coming over here every day,” said Morris, now a 10th grader at Booker T. Washington (BTW) High School,
Trinity Bradley, 12, has been a part of the Vance Avenue Youth Development Center’s program since the 4th grade. Now a 7th-grader at BTW Middle School, she said the lessons learned include “that it’s not good to hang around the wrong people. …
“I learned to stay focused and to stay out of trouble. (And) when we get confused about something, she (Nesbit) helps us until we get it.”
Taylor Gardner, 12, and her brother Trey Gardner, 10, confide in Nesbit and seek her help when they get stumped on a school project. A volunteer staff and teachers pitch in, making good use of two computer rooms.
“I get help with homework. I get tutoring. If I don’t have homework, she’ll make me study – like multiplication,” said Trey, a 5th grader at Westside Elementary School. He’s been part of the program for two years.
“I would be poor and wouldn’t have some of the things I need, like clothes, if it had not been for Mrs. Barbara,” he said.
Taylor said Nesbit’s giving extends to people on the street. “She feeds them breakfast, lunch and gives them snacks,” she said.
“I don’t leave anybody out,” said Nesbit, noting her Christian upbringing. “I’m not going to let nobody go hungry; I’m not going to let nobody go without clothes.”
And she keeps a ready supply of kind words. Demesha Bradley, a 5th-grader at LaRose Elementary School, is a witness.
“If you need somebody to talk to,” said the 11-year-old, “Mrs. Barbara is the one to talk to.”

(For more information about the Vance Avenue Youth Development Center or its director, Barbara Ann Nesbit, call 901-527-1145, email or visit

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

JROQSOL rocks The Dizzy Bird

Jay Smith, who goes by the stage name JROQSOL, wows family and friends at
The Dizzy Bird in Midtown on Sunday (April 3) evening. (Photos: Wiley Henry)
Local pop artist Jay Smith, who goes by the stage name JROQSOL, has a lot to be thankful for. He survived homelessness, bouncing from house to house, and struggled with a weight problem that crimped his vocal cords and caused deep-seated angst.
He’d fallen on hard times after his employer laid him off. Left to fend for himself, he couldn’t find enough work that would afford him a place to stay. He also was in school at the time and dropped out.
“It didn’t feel good,” said JROQSOL, who, despite having no place to call home, managed to compensate the people who wrested him from wretchedness and a life that could have taken even more of a turn for the worst.
Through it all, including losing 110 pounds, JROQSOL was determined to survive. He righted what was wrong in his life and now makes reference to some of those experiences on stage and via message-laden songs.
“I couldn’t tell stories if I hadn’t gone through some of that,” he told an intimate group of family and friends at The Dizzy Bird in Midtown on Sunday (April 3) evening for JROQSOL’s inaugural fan appreciation show, “#For The Survivors: The Take Off Edition.”
Singing a medley of pop and R & B songs, JROQSOL and his backup singers – Sequoia Gray, Kevin Pierre and Dillon Banbenhoek (who played guitar some) – stirred the crowd to hoot and clap.
JROQSOL unleashed three sets of songs, with intermission between each set for a get-to-know JROQSOL interview with the show’s announcer.
JROQSOL and his backup singers – Sequoria Gray, Kevin
Pierre and Dillon Banbenhoek – perform a medley of pop
and R&B songs.
Q: Describe your sound?
A: I love all types of music. Memphis is one of those cities where everybody can sing. … I’m a pop artist with an R & B edge to it. It’s me. It’s who I am.”
Between sets, several gift cards and “huge prizes” were given away to the audience for answering questions correctly about JROQSOL’s life, career and passions. At one point, the announcer asked, “How many people came to JROQSOL’s first show?”
 “Eight people!” someone blurted out about the 2012 show at The Renaissance in Midtown.
“I expected about 500 people, but only eight people showed up,” JROQSOL said. “And I still had to perform like it was packed to the brim. It was actually great training for me.”
Since then, JROQSOL has performed on stage six other times, “at least two shows a year,” he said, adding, “There really isn’t a big platform for pop artists the way that I do what I do.”
Sunday’s “Survivors” performance was “a fan appreciation show for everybody that supported me throughout the years,” he said.
The year 2012 was JROQSOL’s official launch as a pop artist. He’s been singing since childhood, he said, recalling keeping tune to a song on the radio when he was 4 years old.
“My aunt had heard me. She said, ‘Josh, cut the radio off.’ I cut it off but kept singing and she thought it was still the radio. So she kind of was the one who was like, ‘hey, you can sing.’”
Before he was JROQSOL, he was Jay Smith, a preacher’s kid growing up in the church. His father, Dr. Larry Smith, senior pastor of Empowerment of Faith Christian Church in East Memphis, was beholding to gospel music. Secular music was a no-no. 
“Absolutely no secular music was allowed in my home – unless you were with mama (Barbara Smith), who is divorced from his father – or snuck it in whenever you could,” said Smith.
At seven, Smith’s talent registered at Temple of Deliverance Church of God in Christ. “Actually, Bishop (G.E.) Patterson gave me my first solo,” Smith recalls. “I did ‘Talk it Over With Jesus’ with my grade-school class at Bountiful Blessings Christian Academy).”
Smith started his own group at 17, which placed him on a trajectory in gospel music. He sang primarily at his father’s church, where he was “praise and worship leader, youth choir director, everything that a preacher’s child does, I did.”
It was the late gospel legend Daryl Coley who overwhelmed Smith and took him to school with his music and musicianship.
“Daryl Coley is one of the few singers that I can say is the reason why I started singing in the first place,” said Smith. “He made it cool for you to have range and his ear was impeccable.”
Smith got a shot with Andrew Knox and New Change, a local community choir. He sang background on the group’s first album. He also sang and recorded “Be With Me” with Donald Walker and Company.
From group to group, Smith plied his vocal skills – in the background. Then he came to an intersection in his career. He wanted to make a switch to pop music, change his persona, and take the lead.
“I knew I was supposed to do something solo. I prayed about it,” said Smith, who consulted his godfather, Bishop Gerald Coleman Sr., senior pastor of Faith Keepers Ministries in the Raleigh/Frayser community.
“He told me to stick with God, listen to God’s voice, and that I should be fine,” said Smith.
Following that course, Smith came upon a green light that led him to make the move to the next phase of his life as JROQSOL.