WATTS — The Watts Empowerment Center, a recreational and educational hub in the Imperial Courts Housing Projects, has emerged as a beacon of light for hundreds of local underserved youth who would have nowhere to play if the center did not exist.
The center, which opened in March, is located in the Imperial Courts, one of the largest housing projects in the western United States. It is the home of African American and Hispanic residents who struggle daily to survive.
The only recreational site in the Imperial Courts, the center was on the brink of closing due to nationwide budget cuts. A “Save the Watts Empowerment Center” drive was launched last March, and dozens of donations poured in, with reality television stars Kim and Kourtney Kardashian and their mother Kris Jenner donating more than $100,000 to keep the doors open.
The donation not only helped keep the center afloat, but the facility, located at 2250 E. 114th St., was upgraded to a state-of-the-art facility. Dozens of children excitedly played basketball in the new indoor gym, watched cartoons on several big screen televisions, hung out in the brand new performing arts room equipped with microphones and speakers, clicked on new computers donated by Adidas in the computer room and received help in the tutoring room, which were all unveiled at the grand opening.
Observing that no playground existed at Imperial, Jenner, who attended the grand opening with daughters Kim and Kourtney, has vowed to build one on an empty lot located near the center.
On Nov. 23, the center welcomed dozens of volunteers from Zoe Church Los Angeles and the Dream Center who participated in a turkey giveaway and cheerfully served coffee and doughnuts to eager residents.
Darting back and forth in the center was the executive director and youth activist Justin Mayo, 35, who is also the director of Red Eye, a nonprofit that connects those in the entertainment industry with charitable causes.
A ball of kinetic energy, Mayo happily helped distribute bags, lobbed basketballs in the gym and hugged dozens of kids who came up to him with huge smiles on their faces.
Mayo once said that he strives to “Treat everyone like the true VIP that they are. It doesn’t matter if they are living in a penthouse in New York City or on the streets of Skid Row.”
Mayo is true to his word. He once lived on Skid Row in an effort to help the needy and has rolled up his sleeves to help orphanages in Africa.
Mayo’s goal is to offer educational, creative and athletic programs to the youth and adults living in the Imperial Courts projects year round.
The Watts Empowerment Center is Mayo’s pride and joy.
“I love the kids,” he said simply. “I’m very grateful that the city of Los Angeles has allowed me to build this center so that I can give back to the community.”
The youth living in Imperial Courts have adopted the center as their own, many saying that it is a safe haven from the gritty streets outside.
“I enjoy coming here,” said Breanna Jenkins, 11, who was raised in the Imperial Courts and comes to the center every day. “There’s always a lot of fun stuff to do. We have Christmas parties, giveaways, jumpers and food trucks.”
Jenkins, who attends Markham Middle School, added, “It’s a place where I can feel safe. It’s not that peaceful in this neighborhood,” she said, adding that the P Jay Watts Crips have a stronghold in the projects.
“There’s a lot of shooting and high-speed chases,” Jenkins admitted. “There’s always a lot of police. If I’m outside and they start shooting, I get real scared and run inside the house.”
Mister May said, “I like to come here to play basketball and fix stuff.” The energetic 7 year old was fiddling with a set of pliers. “I want to become a mechanic,” he added.
Timothy Leonard, 13, who was relaxing on the green metal benches outside, said, “The center is cool. They have a basketball court, a game room and a computer room. They’ve got soft couches and play music from the speakers.”
He, too, felt the center was a haven from gangs.
“Yes, there are gang bangers living in the Imperial Courts,” he said.
During the past year, the center had a “Party in the Projects” toy giveaway where 3,500 toys were distributed and a slam dunk contest was held during a celebrity basketball game.
The youth also were treated to a back-to-school backpack giveaway in September.
An Easter egg hunt at the center in April attracted the attention of rapper Travis Scott, who donated five golden eggs found by lucky children.
The center also hosted a Watts Empowerment Center Resource Fair where 175 companies interviewed local residents, hiring many on the spot.
There also are cooking classes. A professional chef recently taught the youth how to prepare healthy pancakes.
“We just had a soccer tournament,” said Gabriel Mendoza, 18, who said he had been coming to the center ever since it opened. “It’s fun being here. You learn new things and meet new people.”
Mendoza said he is eager to see the soccer tournament grow.
“I hope to work with the soccer program,” he said.
The center also attracts dozens of volunteers from the Zoe Fellowship Church and the Dream Center, many of whom have adopted the center as their second home.
“I fell in love with the Imperial Courts,” said Isabelle Basha, 19, a volunteer who attends the Dream Center Leadership School.
“I help with the after-school tutoring. We play games with the kids Mondays through Saturdays.”
Basha grew up in a family plagued by drug use.
“My dad was addicted to heroin and crystal meth,” she said. “I remember we were always moving from place to place.”
It was as a volunteer at the Watts Empowerment Center that Basha regained a sense of family.
Basha grew close to a family that once lived in the projects.
“It was a single mother and her five children,” said Basha. “They changed my perception on everything and changed my life. They easily welcomed me into their lives.
“Just seeing how happy they were with what little they had really made me feel humble,” said Basha, who added that the family moved to Texas a few months ago. “I still keep in touch with them.”
“I love the people here,” said Madeline Kennedy, 19, a recent Texas transplant who also attends the Dream Center Leadership School. “I come here every Saturday. There’s definitely a community feeling that you don’t feel anywhere else,” added Kennedy, who hopes to join the ministry.
Drew Smith, 24, a member of the Zoe Church Los Angeles, called volunteering at the center an “amazing opportunity.” The musician said he looks forward to coming to the center once a month to interact with the children and to donate his time.
“I’m very grateful that the city of Los Angeles has allowed me to build this center so that I can give back to the community,” said Mayo, who added that he is also grateful that volunteers from the community keep the center running smoothly.
By Shirley Hawkins