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John “Chuck” Taylor with Vicki and Matt Whitehead.
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The Cedar Grove Chargers are more than a basketball team. The program holds participants accountable for homework, discipline and poor grades.
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A community garden is one of the offerings at the Common Ground Community Center.
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When volunteers began converting an abandoned parking lot into basketball courts, the young people in the neighborhood came alongside to help.
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The Chargers have Bible study, after-school snacks, homework help, basketball practice, and a nutritious supper.
Sandwiched between several affluent neighborhoods lined with large homes and plush landscaping lies a different sort of life in Shreveport’s Cedar Grove. Here, the majority of the residents are just above or far below poverty level. Here, drugs, violence and gangs are commonplace.
With a century long history, the evolution of Cedar Grove began in the early 1900s as its own town. Originally meant to be a place for the workers to live close to their trades in mills and factories, the town was annexed, along with prestigious South Highlands neighborhood, to the town of Shreveport in 1927.
However, this once bustling manufacturing suburb has been battling urban troubles for quite some time. More than 20 years ago, Brian Hunter and other volunteers began working in the neighborhood, inspired by the scripture Matthew 25:36: “I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison, and you visited me.” In 2004, Common Ground was incorporated.
Along with the Faith United Methodist Church, Hunter and the other founders began feeding those in need with a Food Bank. To supplement the food pantry, Hunter stored items in the trunk of his car. When Faith United Methodist closed its doors and deeded the property to Common Ground, big things started happening.
Common Ground Community Center offers several outreach programs, a community garden and feeds hundreds at the weekly meal on Thursdays. The main focus, however, is on investing in relationships with the Cedar Grove community.
“At Common Ground, we meet people where they are, we love everyone. Period,” said Abbey Rubel, director of volunteering and community engagement. “Relationships change the world. If everyone in the world made a relationship with someone that is different than them and invest in that person…how would that change our community and society at large?”
Which is exactly what Matt and Vicki Whitehead have done. Leaving their home in Benton, the Whiteheads moved to Cedar Grove to live in one of the seven homes Common Ground uses for ministry. The Whiteheads are completely immersed in the culture and meet the children of Cedar Grove right where they are.
“They get to be kids with us, because we are a safe place to land and take them outside of the Cedar Grove bubble,” said Matt. Matt wants the kids to understand that God does have a plan for them and there is more to life than Cedar Grove. He and Vickie pour time, love and energy into these kids with high hopes they will graduate high school and become productive members of society.
In an effort to keep the children from roaming the streets and being exposed to hard street life, the Whiteheads went searching for ways to engage the teenagers. After they noticed the teenagers playing with flat basketballs and buckets for hoops, the idea for a Youth Program at Common Ground started taking shape.
When workers began clearing off the empty parking lot directly across from the Common Ground Building, the children began showing up, interested in what the adults were doing. When they found out the intention was to make a basketball court out of the lot, they started helping. Common Ground volunteers got to know the children, they learned of their struggles. The kids were hungry. They needed homework help. They need clothing. Digging deeper, they found that the children had been abandoned over and over again and had no stability in their life. Common Ground made a pledge: We will never abandon you. Strong words for children eager to have something constant in their lives.
Thus, the Cedar Grove Chargers was born – not as a youth program, but a life program. Charger basketball coach John “Chuck” Taylor first learned about Common Ground as a young boy who attended the weekly meals as a resident of Cedar Grove. Alongside Matt Whitehead, the men treat their Chargers as family, with the players ranging in age from 11-18 years old. Both Coach Chuck and Matt Whitehead recognize that any time the kids are playing basketball with them, they are not on the streets.
The Chargers have Bible study, after-school snacks, homework help, basketball practice, and a nutritious supper. Used as a character building program, the Youth Program works to teach the kids by holding them accountable for homework, discipline and poor grades.
Some big things are happening for Common Ground, thanks to First Baptist Church. They have opened their gym doors to the Chargers, which means the children get to practice basketball in a real gym. Additionally, Willis Knighton Health System has donated a building next to the basketball parking lot which is the new educational facility for the youth.
As Bryce Williams, Common Ground’s sustainability coordinator said, “It is not about a hand out, it is hand up. It’s deeper, a shared liberation of humanity.”
More than the flowers planted in the Community Gardens are taking root; Common Ground is firmly rooted in changing Cedar Grove one person at a time.
For more information about Common Ground Shreveport, visit comongroundshreveport.blogspot.com.
By Angela Vinet