'We Have To Do Better For Our Children': Oak Cliff Educator Launches Youth Program, Despite Pandemic
If you could quit your job and do something that feeds your passion, would you do it? Damon Tyler did. He followed his dream and lived it for one day until COVID-19 hit. But he found a way to work around the pandemic and is again pursuing his passion.
A longtime educator with Dallas ISD, Damon Jamil Tyler decided to transition out of his long-term job as a teacher in early 2020 to go into community service work full-time, launching a youth education empowerment program at a middle school in Dallas.
E.Y.E.S., or Educating Youth Empowerment System, had just run its first after-school program at Kennedy Curry Middle School on March 14, 2020, the last day before DISD was set to go on spring break.
Tyler couldn’t have predicted that the children would never return to school that semester.
The program originally started as a community service program in 2018 with the Juvenile Justice Department as a means to mentor at-risk youth in the justice system. It consisted of 10 weeks of workshopping for two hours a week, teaching children to be of service to their community.
“They gave me a referral list: the kids who were in and out of the office,” Tyler said. “The bad boys.”
Through a partnership with Kennedy Curry Middle School and the Dallas Police Department, Tyler hosted the first program with middle school boys in Oak Cliff.
“Once you get to know them, they’re not bad children,” Tyler said. “They’re rebelling against school, the way it’s been run, and I can’t say I blame them.”
Although Tyler had just launched the program and was just starting a business in education consulting, all of that came to a halt when the pandemic hit. Contracts with DISD were pulled, and Tyler had to go back to square one.
Desperate to come up with alternatives, Tyler looked to partner with other local community leaders and organizations to do breakfast and lunch for children all summer long.
“People rolled by and probably thought we were crazy, sitting out here in this heat,” Tyler said. “It’s so backwards and upside down that you’re crazy to put so much energy into the children.”
One in 5children live below the poverty line in Dallas, and 70% of students who dropped out of school were economically disadvantaged.
“When I first started teaching, one or two students were in special education,” Tyler said. “Now, most students are below grade-level. That’s how the classrooms look in Dallas ISD right now.”
Tyler, hit financially by the pandemic, came back to substitute teach at Young Women’s STEAM Academy in Balch Springs. Although he has been with Dallas ISD for 17 years, no permanent positions were available to him during the pandemic. To make ends meet, he began driving for Lyft at night.
For Tyler, it’s a balancing act between being financially stable for his family while also throwing himself into community service.
By September, Tyler and his business partner, Shareef Isom, had begun setting up camp in a tiny recreation center at Sunrise Village Apartments, an apartment complex in southern Dallas. They began hosting a re-entry program for formerly incarcerated adults, a housing program for the homeless and in October they launched a youth empowerment program for the children of the community.
As the program launched and more children consistently attended, Tyler was volunteering at least two hours a day to provide mentorship, coaching and education to the 20-plus children that came out every evening after school.
"What we decided to do was to get in the space and try to create a community center slash safe house for the children where they know they can come and get time with an adult," Tyler said.
From vocal coaching for the kids who love to make music to coloring for the younger kids, math and other card games, and supervised sports activities, Tyler hopes to continue uplifting the youth at Sunrise Village.
"The kids will tell you there's all types of gunfire going on," Tyler said. “I just get emotional because the children ... we have to do better for our children."
The program still does not exist without its challenges. The building does not have heat or WiFi, and they don’t have the funding to supply bigger items like a passenger van for field trips or music production equipment for the kids.
If you would like to donate, you can use their GoFundMe here.
Keren Carrión is a corps member with Report For America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. Got a tip? Email Keren at Kcarrion@kera.org. You can follow Keren on Twitter @kerencarrion8.
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