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

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