On the outside of Demetrius Waples’ dream building, rusted iron bars guard the door and a sun-faded window-unit air conditioner balances between small square window panes with recently painted red frames.
Inside, Waples balanced a 3-year-old on his right knee and another, older, sleepy child on his left.
The former juvenile justice corrections officer smiled, squeezed them both in a hug and tried to send them off to play with the other 28 Waco children who needed somewhere to stay that summer day. Only the younger boy scampered away.
“If something were to happen to one of these kids right now it would hurt me internally, because they’re my kids now. I claim these kids,” Waples said Tuesday. “The average age a child starts to get in trouble if they have no place to go is 9 and 10 years old. The streets eat them up. The streets eat them up.”
His nonprofit community center has been open about a month.
Neighborhood Lights Community Resource Center, 1207 E. League St., started as a place to offer resources, including job hunting services, computer access, printing and fax services, diapers and toiletries at no cost.
But a week into operation, the almost 1,000 square-foot building has turned into a free safe haven to help keep the children of those families out of trouble for the day during summer. It’s not the Taj Mahal of child care facilities by any means, but that’s not what’s important, Waples said.
Waples, who worked for the state’s juvenile justice system in Mart for 17 years, always knew he wanted to do something that gave at-risk youth a little hope for a better future after living through his own rough childhood, he said. Using $18,000 in savings out of his own pocket and a network of supportive friends to get Neighborhood Lights up and running, he has become known to neighborhood children as ‘Mr. D,’ he said.
“I grew up in a dysfunctional home, abused. Mom and Dad weren’t really concerned, so when I got older, I said if I could ever help a kid, I would,” Waples said. “So at TJJD (Texas Juvenile Justice Department), kids were leaving and still going and getting into trouble, so I said if I ever got a chance, I’d protect these kids. When I got the opportunity, this is what I did. I’m hard on them, but they come every day.”
The center has been a dream for about seven years, but only after getting injured on the job as a correctional officer could Waples finally find time to pursue it, he said. Earlier this year, he bought the building, which was once a bar and more recently was home to a religious organization.
The doors opened May 20. A phone call a week later from a mother of four trying to hold onto her part-time job led Waples to change the original operation. He agreed to take the children in for free.
Two weeks later, he had 30 children coming from as far away as Elm Mott spending the day in his community center, he said.
“These kids don’t have any other options. They do, but you know, Mom’s trying to find a job. They go from house to house,” Waples said. “If Mom is home, she may be asleep, and they go out. Or they might just be out playing, and they have a drive-by shooting. At least I know these 30 kids are safe. They’re in a safe haven and they can’t go out the door until their parents come in.”
The handful of computers originally set up for adults to apply for jobs and find information quickly became stations for children to play and learn through the Public Broadcasting Service’s pbskids.org.
Card tables meant to be used for adults filling out paperwork quickly turned into board game stations and lunch tables. An empty, beige wall filled up with scribbled-on pages from coloring books, and Mr. D soon started carrying around little notes written by his children, thanking him for a place to go.
He can only have 40 children in the building at a time. With seven close-knit volunteers taking shifts, mostly senior citizens who once worked in child care or the juvenile justice system, the service is able to operate from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday. He tries not to turn any child away, Waples said as the older boy still sitting on his left knee started to nod off for a nap, using Mr. D’s broad chest as a pillow.
He and his volunteers arrive at 8 a.m. and don’t leave until 7 p.m. each day, making sure everything is in working order for the next day, he said. As the boy began to snore, he adjusted to cradle the child in his arms.
The volunteers are also teaching the kids about goal setting, sharing, hygiene and other life skills throughout the week, Waples said.
“It’s different than working with the TJJD kids. I feel working with the younger kids, we can keep them from being locked up,” volunteer Jacqueline Groce said after she checked on children at each game table. “They need to know how to share. They need to know how to mingle with others, and I just feel we can try to save them and keep them from going to TJJD.”
The center still offers resources for adults, with volunteers and Waples keeping track of which adults come in asking for supplies each week and how often, he said. Adults are only allowed to come in once a week to get something if they need it, he said.
He hopes to continue offering services into the school year and to open a training center in the building next door to offer financial guidance, resume preparation services, interview practice and more, Waples said. He is working to find donors, grants and volunteers with experience to establish and grow both facilities, he said.
Until then, he is focused on the children he has come to call his own, he said as he placed the sleeping boy in a chair and started to walk through the community center to check on other children. He was expected to end Tuesday’s education time by letting the children paint a mural on the side of his small building. Asked what the mural would be of, he said had no idea.
“What better way to have them feel like they’re part of the community center than let them put — it doesn’t matter if it’s big or small, or what we consider ugly or what we consider good, it’s their mind I want (to develop),” Waples said. “I want them to be able to come back in five or 10 years and say, ‘That was me.’ I don’t expect them to fill the wall up, but I just want them to get in the habit of doing something.”