IONIA — Hundreds of at-risk teens are finding positive influence and new opportunities thanks to Soaring Above Teen Center; providing positive role models, food, homework help, and everyday life skills needed to overcome being disadvantage by Ionia’s high crime.
The county is home to three state penitentiaries with an 85% higher crime rate compared to most other U.S. cities, according to City-data.com. Ken Baker, a Detroit native who grew up surrounded by life’s difficulties, says his main focus was to open a space for kids, giving them the guidance and opportunities he never had.
“Most of the kids that come here come from broken homes, single parent dwellings,” Baker said. “They don't have the greatest influences.”
Over the past seven years, Soaring Above Ionia Teen Center has mentored more than 700 teens, ages 12-18. Baker has helped those students go on to serve in the military, land a job, walk them down the aisle in marriage, while achieving some of their most lofty goals.
Even their seemingly minor achievements are praised. Posted on the walls of the teen center are brightly colored stickers, each one is a child’s accomplishment, either big or small, positively reinforced and on display for all to see.
“I think the a lot of people don't understand that the kids are 12, 13, and 14; and whatever they're going through may not seem big to you and I, but that's their whole life,” Baker said.
The teen center came to life after the tragic death of Baker's daughter, who says lost her battle to depression. The faith-based center has dedicated itself to helping teens soar above negative influences that lie in wait on the streets of Ionia.
“They find themselves doing drugs, alcohol, shoplifting, things like that,” Baker said. “When they come in here, they realize they don't have to deal with any of that stuff.”
For 15-year-old’s like Ethan Fountain, hope for tomorrow looks like air-hockey, Nintendo, and community projects. Baker knows these relatively simple activities, fostered in the right environment, can help kids make friends, get better grades, and pursue a brighter future.
“The teen center has helped people who don't have a safe place to go, I've always noticed that,” said Fountain. “People are naturally attracted here because it's safe, it's comfortable. And it's done the same for me.”
Baker says the key to his success is in listening to the teens he mentors. He believes that when you take the time to listen, teens are willing to learn from you. Baker has plans to duplicate his teen center in Greenville and Lansing in the coming years.