PORTLAND, Oregon — As Portland city officials struggle to curb a rise in gun violence, organizers of a free summer camp in northeast Portland are hoping to make a difference of their own. The goal here is to empower kids in some of the neighborhoods hardest hit by gun violence.
For the youngest kids at Highland Youth Leadership Academy summer camp, it may start as simply as playing by the rules; a game of “red light, green light” is good for that.
However, the ultimate goal is to counter the violence in our streets, said Highland Christian Center Senior Pastor Dr. Shon Neyland.
“And so the purpose behind this camp is to build self-esteem, to build entrepreneurship — ideas to counter and change the narrative ... and as I often say, it begins with mentorship,” said Neyland.
Most of the mentors at the summer camp are older teens and young adults.
"These kids, these kids ... I love them, they put a smile on my face," said 15-year-old Antwaun Spencer.
Spencer says this is more than just a summer job for him. It's about connecting with kids who, like him, may not live in the safest neighborhood.
“I just want to make them feel included — and if they have problems at home, I want them to come here and feel free to be happy and laugh," he said.
19-year-old Davion Cunningham, who everyone calls "D," said he's lost two friends to the city's gun violence, and he doesn’t wish it on anybody.
“I'm here to just give back to the community, to be with the kids — have fun, of course ... and just get them onto the right path where they don't have to be on the streets or go to the wrong way of life,” said Cunningham.
Seventy kids up to age 15 are enrolled, and there is classroom time at camp designed to help them explore who they are and want to be.
“One day I want to play in the NBA and so that's why I have this picture right here," said one young boy as he presented his vison board to the class.
Inyla Hollis is back from college in Atlanta, mentoring kids who in summertime can have too much time on their hands.
“When they're here they have something constructive to do. They have food, drinks every day, they're here making new friends we teach them stuff — like right now they’re in there making vision boards, writing down what they want to be when they grow up,” said Hollis.
Dreams both big and small are supported here.
"One of the lines in our motto is ‘I believe in myself and others believe in me,’ said camp director Donya Frazier. "So it's very much important to me to let the kids know that I do believe in them, I believe that they can be great, I believe that they can achieve their goals, I believe that they can be who they want to be and be an asset to their community."
Frazier shared that she, too has been affected by gun violence, and her work on the camp and with the kids is her way of giving back and processing her own loss.
The Highland Youth Leadership Academy summer camp runs through August 19. Highland Haven, a separate programming branch of the church, got a grant that pays for camp and other programs for kids through the end of the year.
The Highland Haven is also raising money for The Johnson Family Scholarship, which was created to assist students in lessening the burdens associated with attending college by providing financial and advisory support to students seeking higher education.