A quarter-century ago, Keith and Sue Blake started the Emmanuel Baptist Church Youth Group. Although a new crop of youth now comes through the church's doors each week, those who have been a part of the group haven't forgotten their roots.
From 4-year-olds to high school seniors, 25 to 30 children attend the youth group each week. Under the supervision of volunteers, the group's members have enjoyed various activities, fairs and trips for the past 25 years. Many of them stuck with the group for a decade or more and remain in contact with the Blakes today.
"We don't classify our kids as 'at risk,'" Mrs. Blake said. "We don't classify our kids as 'disadvantaged' or anything like that. We don't label our kids. To see how these kids have become lawyers and teachers and nurses and how some have served our country, it's just remarkable. Most of them are black too. A lot of the time in Jamestown, you don't see this or you don't hear about this, and our kids are becoming very successful. We want Jamestown to see that we are doing positive things. We want other kids to see that, and know that they can do this too."
Current members of the Emmanuel Baptist Church Youth Group visited Washington, D.C., last summer. Students raised their own money for their trip.
Keishia M. Blake now teaches fifth grade at a charter school in New York City. She was involved with the youth group well into high school and later graduated from St. Bonaventure University.
"The youth group allowed me to see different things," said Ms. Blake, the daughter of Keith and Sue. "It allowed me to experience new things and broaden my horizons. It gave me lots of good references and good people to turn to, especially when I was getting ready to go to college. I still got references from people when I got my first apartment in the city. This gave me lots of good contacts."
The youth group allowed Ms. Blake to meet more friends while growing up. It also taught her the importance of community service and readied her for her future.
"I think as a teacher, it just prepared me to be able to do different things with all types of kids - older kids, younger kids," she said.
Teresa Walker-Gordon lives in Jamestown and works as an estimator at Hope's Windows. She was involved with the youth group from age 6 until she reached high school.
"It was definitely beneficial," she said. "It was a good experience all around. There was always something different to keep us entertained."
Cameron Howie-Leeper was a 10-year member of the group. She has worked in large corporate treasury management at Bank of America in Atlanta for the past eight years after studying political science at the University at Buffalo.
"The youth group was a consistent source of loving support and positive encouragement during a critical time in my development," she said. "They always acknowledged and praised my accomplishments, both academically and with other organizations I belonged to in the community. Because they were always so proud of me during my childhood, I became proud of myself, and that made me want to continue to strive for success as an adult."
Kristi Dean-Senske lives in Jamestown and works at Farm Fresh Foods. She is married and has a 7-year-old son. She was involved in the youth group for about four years and still keeps in touch with some of the friends she made.
"I just liked how it didn't matter where you came from or how much money you had or didn't have," she said. "It's just basically a safe place for kids to go, and the adults are very trusting."
David Hinson has worked with Cleveland Browns for the past three years and in the National Football League for the last 12 years, including several years apiece with the Buffalo Bills and New Orleans Saints. He works as a college scout for the Browns, traveling across the midwest. Before all of that, Hinson spent six years in the Emmanuel Baptist Church Youth Group. Through the youth group, he learned how to carry himself, how to treat others and more about the community itself.
"There aren't a lot of times that you get to give credit to the people who have helped you out," said Hinson, who attended the University at Buffalo. "The church was always big in my family. To go to youth group gave me the chance to learn about the Lord and learn about the word but also to be around other young adults and learn how to do things the proper way. I think it helped with my character."
Before Shonda Leeper became an assistant manager at The Resource Center, graduated from Jamestown Business College or started a family, she attended the youth group. Today, she volunteers with the group and her children, nieces and nephew attend.
"It's helped me be able to work with kids," she said. "I think that's helped me to get along with other people and not discriminate or judge people. They're all about teamwork, sharing and togetherness, and that's what I want for my kids to have too."
Alissa Walker Lopez lives between Pittsburgh, Jamestown and Buffalo, working as an event planner. Before she became a Jamestown Business College student, Lopez was a member of the youth group.
"I absolutely enjoyed it," said Lopez, who won the youth group's very first science fair. "We did a lot of things with Black History Month and a lot of things with the community. We got to know the community, and the community got to know us."
Renita Keith is an LPN who has worked at Heritage Village since September. She went to the youth group for about seven years, starting at age 7.
"It kept me motivated and let me know that only you can determine tomorrow," she said. "Every Tuesday we did different activities. Just getting together with the rest of the young people gave us all a positive hope. They took us to plays and shows and movies that otherwise we probably wouldn't have been able to enjoy. We did a lot of fun things."
Truman Leeper works at TitanX, building engine cooling systems. He has been there for two years and lives in Jamestown, where he returned after serving in the U.S. Army. Leeper stayed with the youth group until middle school and is still involved with the church today.
"I've been involved with the church since I was born," he said. "I started going to 'youth' when I was 4 or 5 years old. It gives you something to do. The kids can go to the church, have fun and get something to eat if they need it. It's just always something good to have."
The guest speakers highlighted Leeper's youth-group experience.
"I always enjoyed when people would come and talk about their careers," he said. "There was always something to look forward to. It gives the kids a little more structure in their lives."
Kiki James lives in Huntsville, Ala., where she studies at JF Drake State Technical College and interns at the National Children's Advocacy Center. She partook in the youth group until she became a teenager and attended Emmanuel Baptist Church for as long as she lived in Jamestown. She enjoyed the various activities, fairs and black-history programs offered by the youth group.
"The youth group definitely kept me disciplined," she said. "It kept me going in the right direction. I'm glad that I attended and was a part of Emmanuel Baptist because it definitely has made me a strong person and helped me accomplish what I want to accomplish."
Paris Bates was the first graduate of Emmanuel Baptist Church Youth Group. She was a part of it from age 4 until she graduated high school.
"It was always fun. There was always something to do," said Bates, who currently lives in Jamestown and is a single mother. "There was always stability. That next week coming, I knew that we were going to go to the park, have a picnic or have a guest speaker come in. There was always something to do or to look forward to."
Today, Bates uses what she learned in the youth group as she raises her daughter. She takes her out into the community and relives some of what she did years ago with her peers.
"The youth group helped me become a better parent," Bates said. "It's a great, great opportunity for any young child to experience."
With a history of youth group graduates reaching their goals in life, Keith and Sue Blake are pleased with how things have turned out.
"This is not really about what the youth group did for them," Blake said. "It's about knowing where these kids came from and knowing that they came out of Jamestown and were a part of this youth group that's been going on for 25 years. Do we think we had a part to play in it? Yeah, I think we did."
Without the support of volunteers and the church, the youth group's success stories may not have been achieved, according to Mrs. Blake.
"Our foundation is the church," she said. "The kids know that it's a church youth group. Maybe that has a lot to do with it. For my husband and (me), that has a whole lot to do with it."
The Blakes hope that more youth group members will move on to find what they're looking for in life down the road. The group maintains its weekly meetings and still takes trips, including one to Washington, D.C. last year, for which the kids raised all of their own money.
Mrs. Blake knows that not all of the youth group's graduates will go on to become lawyers, teachers or nurses. However, that doesn't mean they won't be successful in life. She believes that most of those who have moved on from the group have done well for themselves.
"So many of them are success stories," she said. "If they want to stay here and work at grocery stores, that's OK. We have many of kids who work in factories, and that's OK too. We think they're very successful for just being who they are. That's what we want the kids to know. We're very proud of them."