By Dedra Cordle
As soon as the dismissal bell rang at her elementary school, Raquel Perry would jump out of her seat, find her friends in the hallways, locate the nearest exit and then race down the streets of the west side of Columbus in order to be the first to reach the doors of the J. Ashburn Jr. Youth Center.
“This place was our haven,” she said. “Our home away from home.”
While there, Perry said she and her friends were inundated with positive messages and given emotional or educational support from the adults who volunteered and worked there. She knew from that young age that she wanted to follow in their footsteps and help those who walked through the doors of the center.
At the earliest opportunity, Perry volunteered at the Youth Center and helped with the after-school program. She continued in that volunteer capacity until she was offered a paid position over a year ago.
“I never thought that would happen to me,” she said.
She said she loves coming into work each day and lending a helping hand or sympathetic ear to anyone who looks like they need it.
She said the only time she has ever turned down the opportunity to help out around the Youth Center was last month when local artist Richard “Duarte” Brown came by with a dozen volunteers with Honda and HandsOn Central Ohio to paint a mural celebrating the rich history of the Youth Center.
“I can color in the lines really well, but I can’t do what they were doing,” she said with a laugh.
Though the mural was created in only a few hours, the idea for it started last summer when the J. Ashburn Jr. Youth Center teamed up with HandsOn Central Ohio for a summer reading program. There, a partnership was formed and the two community staples promised to do more service projects together. Fast forward to late November when representatives with HandsOn asked Michael Cole, the CEO of the J. Ashburn Jr. Youth Center, whether he would be interested in a mural project that would celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King’s call to serve the community and those who have answered.
Cole said he was immediately sold on the idea.
Shortly thereafter, the organizations began brainstorming with Brown about the themes they would like to see depicted in the mural. They decided a recollection of the rich history of the Youth Center was the way to go.
In the first portion of the mural, it depicts the five “pillars” who were intrinsic to the development of the Youth Center. They are Rev. Jacob Ashburn Jr., his son, Rev. Dr. Jacob Julian Ashburn, Jaymes O’Neal Saunders, Keith Neal, and Clenzo Bell Fox.
“Rev. Jacob Ashburn Jr. had a profound impact on this community,” said Cole.
He said the origins of the Youth Center are tied back to his decision to allow kids to use the basement and free space at the Oakley Baptist Church as a place of respite from the streets.
“Back then, this area wasn’t integrated so black boys and girls didn’t have a lot of places to go sociality to interact,” said Cole.
He said Rev. Ashburn created a safe haven and his son, Julian Jacob Ashburn, expanded upon that by envisioning an educational campus with a recreation center for all in the community to enjoy.
Cole said Jaymes O’Neal Saunders was instrumental in getting the capital for the Youth Center and oversaw the opening of the current building in 2001.
Keith Neal’s first job was given to him by Jacob Ashburn and he was charged with keeping the facilities spotless and welcoming. In 2006, he was named executive director of the Youth Center and has been credited with mentoring hundreds of children and adults, including Perry.
“He’s my favorite person,” she said.
Cole said Clenzo Bell Fox, an alumnus of West High School, had “broken the glass ceiling” by becoming the Nationwide Insurance’s first African-American corporate attorney in 1973. Fox also helped the Youth Center’s navigation toward becoming a non-profit organization.
All of these community leaders have left an indelible mark within the community, said Cole, which was why they were honored as “The Pillars” of the J. Ashburn Jr. Youth Center.
The second portion of the mural has a drawing of the church and center with a group of individuals embracing.
The third portion of the mural displays the face of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., along with a tree emblazoned with a saying from Rev. J. Ashburn – “It’s better to mold a boy than to mend a man.”
Brown said that the theme of the mural is a visual representation of the message that when a community comes together, it bears fruit.
“It’s a reproduction of the meaning of family,” he said.
Perry said she couldn’t agree more.
“We’re like a family here and we all want to see how we can help each other out,” she said. “We have to continue to show that no matter who we are or what we are going through in our lives, we always have each other here at the Center.”
The mural will be on permanent display at the J. Ashburn Jr. Youth Center starting this week. The community is encouraged to come out and see it.