Ypsilanti residents Yolanda and Keith Ragland were in shock after losing their 19-year-old son, Brandon Cross, to gun violence in 2017, but they channeled their energy into a vision for an arts education nonprofit that they hope will benefit local children like their son.
"He was an artist, and it broke my heart that I couldn't back his career," says Yolanda Ragland, co-founder of Elevation Youth Corp. "I really wanted to reach out to inner-city youth and create a safe space to help them do things they're interested in and be a distraction from the street. Elevation Youth is not just for children who are at risk, but we definitely want to create an outlet for kids, somewhere they can go to avoid negativity."Yolanda Ragland at Elevation Youth's fashion class.
Keith Ragland notes that he would have been considered "at risk" when he was young.
"As a teenager, I did a lot of wrong things, but what kept me motivated and positive was sports," he says. "I was good at football, track, and wrestling, and that kept me focused on keeping my grades up and graduating."
He says not every kid can be saved by sports, though. So he and his wife want to provide an outlet for children who are interested in media and the arts, but whose families might not have the money to help their children develop those skills.
The Raglands first began to form the idea for Elevation Youth in 2017 and obtained their 501(c)(3) nonprofit status earlier this year. They hosted a few events in 2019, including throwing a Halloween party, but 2020 was the year they were planning to hit the ground running with fundraising and programming. And then the COVID-19 pandemic happened.
The Raglands had to modify their plans, but a successful car-wash fundraiser earlier this year raised $1,100, which the Raglands matched with their own money. That allowed the organization to secure Dreamland Theater in downtown Ypsilanti as a venue for the nonprofit's first three months of small classes, which kicked off Oct. 24.
Those classes are aimed at teens, although Ragland says they may accept some younger children if their parents are on site as volunteers. The classes are provided free to participating youth with the expectation that youth will give back to the community through four hours of volunteer service per month.
Initial course offerings will focus on media and fashion, drawing on the Raglands' own expertise. Both Raglands have experience with making and producing music. Yolanda Ragland also has experience in fashion and modeling, and her husband has experience in photography, broadcast music, and audio engineering. Yolanda Ragland says they eventually want to bring in educators who have more experience in music and the performing arts.Yaw Gayan-Apenteng and Imani Gayan-Apenteng participate in Elevation Youth's fashion class.
She says she'll start by talking to young women about self-esteem, health, and fitness, and then talk about modeling poses for the catwalk. Keith Ragland plans to start with what he calls a "crash course" in photography, providing participants with tablets they can use both for taking photographs and manipulating those photos with pre-loaded software.
He says the goal is to get students up to speed and shooting their own photos soon after the course starts, rather than focusing on a lot of paperwork or class time.
"My goal is to show you how to set up a shot, maybe take a profile picture for your Facebook, have fun, and do a project together," he says. "Then, if you like it, you can continue your education in high school or even go to college to really learn it."
Elevation Youth Event Coordinator Dominique Johnson coordinates events and raises funds for the nonprofit, but also has enrolled two of her children in its programming. She says her 13-year-old is interested in the classes about media, while her 14-year-old is interested in both media and fashion.
"There are so many things out there for children who want to cheerlead or do sports, but there aren't as many outlets for artistic children," Johnson says. "Elevation Youth is starting out small, but hopefully they will find a way to reach out to a lot more children as we grow and encourage those children and give them an artistic outlet and a way to express themselves."
Elevation Youth Community Services Coordinator Hannah Mathia says she got involved with the nonprofit as a volunteer because she could relate to its mission on a personal level.
"I was one of those youth who had talents, gifts, skills, and interests in music, fashion, modeling, and media, but my family didn't have money to put toward that, so I wasn't nurtured in those areas. I kind of had to figure things out on my own," she says. Hannah Mathia.
Mathia was already involved as a volunteer at SOS Community Services' food pantry and has recruited Elevation Youth participants and staff to volunteer there as well. Additionally, the group signed up for the Adopt-a-Highway program and will be maintaining the carpool lot on Ann Arbor-Saline Road off I-94 in Ann Arbor.
Mathia says a long-term goal for the nonprofit is to give youth more of a role in organizing fundraisers and determining the nonprofit's direction.
"Definitely the vision is for the youth to be able to set up their own fundraiser events, help with creating flyers, and heading their initiatives and programs to give them a sense of purpose and accomplishment," she says. "I want them grabbing hold of the reins to make things happen and [to] give themselves a sense of pride in themselves and their work."
Two upcoming Elevation Youth events are open to the public. The first is a free Trunk or Treat Event from 6-9 p.m. Oct. 31 in the parking lot of YPSCITY, 2898 Washtenaw Ave. in Ypsilanti.
The second event is a winter coat drive, held in partnership with 734 Brewing Company at 15 E. Cross St. in Ypsilanti. Area residents are encouraged to drop off new or gently-used coats at the brewery between noon and 4 p.m. Nov. 22.
More information about Elevation Youth is available on the nonprofit's website or Facebook page.
Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
All photos by Doug Coombe.