Mavs Foundation unveils reading & learning center at Park Ninety Six 90

Devin Harris and the Mavs Foundation unveiled a new reading and learning center at Park Ninety Six 90 in Northeast Dallas.

DALLAS – Over two dozen kids jubilantly walked into the brand new Park Ninety Six 90 Reading & Learning Center in Northeast Dallas this past Tuesday. And the immense enthusiasm shared by 12-year old Alaysia Hill is probably the same passion shared by the other youngsters.

Hill said: “I thought I was in heaven.”

Indeed, this spacious Reading & Learning Center comes with a lot of bells and whistles, and opened this low-income community to a world of opportunities. The center is equipped with six laptop computers, a reading library, several games, tables and chairs, a large couch, bean bags, a kitchen, a custom-painted tree on a wall, and other fine paintings.

The center has all the cozy features that will allow a kid to be a kid in a very comfortable and heartfelt setting, which is the whole idea.

Representatives of the Mavs Foundation – the private foundation arm of the Dallas Mavericks –announced the unveiling of the new center on Tuesday. They were joined by sponsors Pro Players Foundation, Glidden and BNSF Railway.

Floyd Jahner, the Mavs’ chief operating officer and president of the Mavs Foundation, was more than delighted that his organization could put a few smiles on the faces of impressionable kids who are less fortunate.

“These kids that may not have access to computers in their own homes are just a few buildings over and can come over here,” Jahner said. “Just being taken care of after school, being tutored, being mentored — it’s not just all about learning. It’s also about being mentored in life so they can do a great job.”

The youngsters are a part of Kids U, which is a free after-school tutoring program that’s set up in low-income apartment communities. The goal of Kids U is to provide a gateway out of poverty for students who are most at-risk of not completing their education by providing tutoring in reading, math and language arts.

An emotional Diana Baker, the Executive Director and co-founder of Kids U, said: “We started Kids U back in 2002 and our main purpose was that we wanted to make sure that every child had the opportunity to succeed. I get a little emotional when I talk about this because I’m very passionate.”

“But the thing that’s most important to us is that it really doesn’t matter the color of a child’s skin or the language they speak or even how big their parents’ wallet is. Every child should have that opportunity to succeed.”

This particular Reading & Learning Center was assembled when of pair of two-bedroom apartments were combined into one. It also had the total blessing of the apartment manager.

“I’ve been on the property for about seven or eight months and became familiar with the Kids U program that was here when I got here and what they did for the children in the after-learning school program,’’ said Anthony Nicolosi, the community manager for Park Ninety Six 90. “(Baker) was wanting to expand, and when Debra (McElhaney), my new regional (manager) came on board about three months ago, we were able to convince (management) to keep moving forward with the new agreement and give them more space. So we gave them two units and made it one. Prior to that, they were in half that size.”

Like the kids, even Nicolosi was blown away when he saw the center’s finished product on Tuesday.

“I didn’t really see the end result until (Tuesday), so when I walked in I was equally as surprised and shocked as the children were,” he said. “I was like, ‘Holy Cow.’”

After walls came down to open the space, construction was handed over to the Mavs Foundation and volunteers from the Mavericks, Pro Players Foundation, PPG/Glidden and Kids U/AmeriCorps who painted all the walls in Mavs blue and silver, installed new flooring and brought in all new furniture including tables, chairs, computers and a special Mavs library and lounge area.  The Mavs wall mural provided the wow factor along with a hand-painted tree where kids could make it their own by adding their own hand prints.

For Baker, this project is akin to a labor of love that she takes very personal.

“When I first approach any apartment owners or managers they’re like, ‘Wait, what, you want to do this, and you want us to give you an apartment for free and free rent and free utilities?,’ ‘’ Baker said. “And I’m like, ‘Yes.’ If they tell me no, I understand that’s really not an apartment ownership whose really involved in the residents of their community. We won’t work with every apartment community, but most communities I can convince them that this is what their community needs.”

This particular Reading & Learning Center certainly fits the needs of nine-year old Olamide Brown.

“What I like about this place is that they have new games and they have new computers, they have new TVs, and we have a tree (on the wall) with our handprints on it,” Brown said. “We have new posters on the wall, new chairs and tables.”

Whenever she rushes to the center after school, Brown said she’ll first sit down and play her favorite game – Connect 4. Meanwhile, eight-year Noah James has also made a connection to his new (play) home away from home.

“I like that I get to be in a new building and I like the bean bags,” James said. “And we get to talk too much, and we can be as loud as we want.”

James said he’ll also spend some valuable time on the computers googling and in search of his favorite game – Cool Math.

“That’s where you learn math,’’ James said, “and you play games.”

At the ribbon-cutting ceremony, Mavs guard Devin Harris was the person who cut the ribbon, signaling the official opening of the Reading & Learning Center. The entire proceeding brought back fond memories for Harris.

“We had community centers, but nothing with computers and things that would have lived up to this type of level,” Harris said. “But we had somewhere where we could play – a safe place.”

“I think this is my third learning center dedication. It’s always exciting to see the kids, how excited they are about what they have and to call it theirs and to be able to use these types of tools to learn and to get better as a person and grow. It’s always exciting for me and I’m just glad I can be here.”

Dallas Police Department officer Courtney Collins, who is the neighborhood police officer for Park Ninety Six 90 and the surrounding area, discussed the value of having a Reading & Learning Center.

“What it does is it services the community and the students that live here,” Collins said. “They work and they learn career skills and life skills and academics, and they have us come in and we talk to them as well, as mentors and instructors, which helps them to get a heads-up on the future and prepare them a little bit better for the world.”

That notion of getting the kids better prepared for the future is what got Jahner’s attention and why he was unconditionally on board with the Mavs being a part of this kid-friendly project.

“With the Mavs Foundation, we receive so many grant requests and this was one of them that bubbled up to the top,” Jahner said. “The number that we have to start with and filter down until we get to the people that get awarded is huge. And it just shows that the level of the value that they’re adding to the community here and the progress they’re making with their kids is just incredible.”

That progress, Baker concluded, is the backbone of why the Reading & Learning Center the Mavs Foundation helped put together is so invaluable.

“We currently have nine different communities that we’re in, and we’re breaking down all those barriers,” Baker said. “Whether it’s transportation, whether it’s cost – because we provide our programs for free – we’re breaking all those barriers for the low-income families.”

“But we also look at providing crime-watch programs, because part of that child’s growth is being able to play outside. And if he can’t do that, then he’s missed part of his learning opportunity, because children playing outside is one of the best things that they can do. It’s all about having a holistic approach and providing opportunities for every single child.”

Baker said classes for parents to learn about cooking, housekeeping, financial literacy, parenting skills and a GED are also part of the equation.

Harris, meanwhile, is definitely mindful of the kind of impact the Reading & Learning Center can have on any kid, especially those who otherwise would not have the opportunity to have one of these centers in their neighborhood.

“I kind of think it gives them a leg up to kind of catch up to some of the other kids who are more fortunate to have it right here in their neighborhood and somewhere they can come to at all times,” Harris said. “And like I say, at a place like this they really can have the tools to really grow and navigate themselves.”

Harris certainly won’t get an argument from Alaysai Hill.

“We have a lot of new games and there’s a whole bunch of room and you can watch movies and there are bigger TV’s,” Hill said. “It has more things to do instead of just one thing. There’s a whole bunch of different rooms. So if you want to chill out and relax, you can just chill.”

And to paraphrase Hill, relax and chill and wonder if heaven really must be like this.

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