Staff at Massey-James

MASSEY-JAMES YOUTH CENTER — In front of the Massey-James Youth Center in Lake Helen are, from left, Youth Coordinator Tanya Hall, longtime activist and mentor Brenda Cusack, and Director Johnnie Chavis. While the pandemic has made hosting some activities at the center difficult, the women said making sure children have a space where they can stay physically and mentally active is important. Cusack, who loves to teach children history, said teaching one-on-one is very important to her, even during the pandemic. “I can still bring a child in here and teach him from 6 feet away,” she said.

In the heart of historic Lake Helen, at 364 Church St., is the Massey-James Youth Center. Among many goals of the community organization that runs it is one central mission, described by Youth Coordinator Tanya Hall.

“We take the time to reach these kids as much as we can,” Hall said.

The Massey-James Youth Center is a part of the Mount Zion Northeast Coast District Association of Florida Inc. The association owns the land, but the center operates on donations from individuals, the City of Lake Helen, and other organizations, like the Volusia County Sheriff’s Office.

“We wouldn’t be able to function without donations,” Director Johnnie Chavis said.

If someone has $50,000 they don’t know what to do with, Chavis joked, the center would be happy to help.

Youth programs at the center include field trips and reading contests, among countless others. Rides to the center and meals are also provided to children.

The center also hosts events for senior citizens, including bingo, and computer-literacy classes.

As with so many other community programs, COVID-19 has been a challenge.

While gatherings for senior citizens had to stop, programs for youth, by and large, have continued, though the activities may look different.

“We are still serving them,” Chavis said.

At Halloween, the center offered a drive-thru event where kids could still get goody bags and books to take home. The center offered a similar event for Christmas — bags of goodies, baked goods, and, again, books.

Books and reading are very important to the women in charge of the Massey-James Youth Center.

“We always encourage reading,” Chavis said.

Reading builds confidence in children, Hall said, but books are sometimes in short supply.

“We could always use more,” she said.

Expanding vocabulary and building confidence are key goals.

“The biggest thing is basically getting them to stand up in front of folks and talk without hesitation,” Hall explained.

There are many ways to teach literacy, and Brenda Cusack, another person working behind the scenes at the Massey-James Center, is a self-described history buff.

“I believe Black history is 365,” she said. “There’s just so much to get to.”

In the coming year, the center wants to continue offering its youth programs and learn from the challenges of 2020. Talking to children about the death of George Floyd and the subsequent protesting was difficult, but, Cusack said, meeting the children on their level is important.

“We’re not know-it-alls,” she said. “Kids get to appreciate the fact that sometimes they’re teaching us, too. I think that’s one of the winning things.”

It’s those kinds of lessons Cusack said she and the others want to take into the new year, and to use as a guiding principle for the Massey-James Youth Center.

“I’m looking at 2020 as my bridge to clarity,” Cusack said. “That’s going to give me my direction for 2021 and where to lead this next generation.”