Washington Heights

New Level: Helping boys and girls learn what's important for success

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series.

While others talk about getting kids off the streets, Pastor Christopher McCoy wants to get the children and young people he ministers back on the streets of Battle Creek where they will have opportunities to produce, own, and educate.

McCoy is the executive director of New Level Sports Ministries and senior pastor of Faith Assembly Christian Fellowship Church, both located in a complex at 400 Michigan Ave. McCoy founded New Level 17 years ago to address problems and issues that male and female African American high school athletes were experiencing.

Over time, its scope and reach have broadened to address a whole host of issues that block the community’s African American youth from having access to opportunities that will help them to achieve success.

In 2001, McCoy says he did research going back some 20 years to find out where the city’s high school student athletes were and what happened to them. “We found out that a lot of them did not have college degrees and were not prepared for the academic challenges that come with college and being a student athlete,” he says. “Being a college athlete is a job where you only have time for sports and study. You have to be doing what athletes do in college even if you’re not yet in college.”

Many of the high school athletes he came across placed their emphasis on winning. For many of them, it wasn’t until their senior year of high school that serious attention started to be paid to the tools they would need to successfully navigate the rigors of a college education and life as a student athlete in college.

“Kids are very impressionable and if I can convince a kid that all you have to do is win and you can get to college and get an education without doing the necessary things, by their senior year it’s too late to start talking about what else they need to do,” McCoy says. “Many of these kids had parents who weren’t educated and didn’t know how to get their kids to college. I had some kids that hadn’t had a core class in four years, but they were 'star' athletes.”

While this may sound like a failure on the part of the education system, McCoy says it’s not. “You can’t blame the schools. This is a community issue, particularly a black community issue,” he says. “We like to blame the schools, but when a kid goes to school, they should be prepared to learn. We should be doing things to bring villages together.”

New Level has become the one bringing people together. While some in the community refer to it as a community center, McCoy says it’s an empowerment center focused on getting the youth it serves to know that they are exceptional and their families to know that they have unconditional support and a wealth of resources.

Students eat snacks, work on homework worksheets provided by the organization, and participate in activities such as a robotics workshop.Among those resources is an afterschool program offered Monday through Thursday in the New level building at 400 Michigan Avenue. Students are picked up at their respective schools by staff who transport them to New Level where they are provided with snacks, work on homework worksheets provided by the organization, and participate in activities such as a robotics workshop, or watching a movie.

On any given day, there is 50 or more youth from schools in Battle Creek, plus schools in Albion, Marshall, and Kalamazoo. They receive help with homework or words of encouragement and from staff. Groups such as the Kellogg Community Baseball team also come in on Tuesdays and Thursdays to spend time with youth in the program. 

For the baseball team, it is an experience that many of them say changes their lives, says Jeff Cotton, who mentors youth in the afterschool program called Big Homie Cotton says some of the kids are highly challenged.

“We’re dealing with kids who go from house to house every night and then they’ve got to go to school and take a test and be happy about it and they’re not. They’re angry,” Cotton says.

McCoy says his empowerment center helps fill the void in households without a father or mother.

“Single moms with two or three kids are exhausted. They work every day and then they come home and cook, and help their kids with their homework and have to deal with the kid’s behavior issues at school,” McCoy says. “That can become taxing. We make a place where children can come and learn, and mom knows that they’re in a safe place and that they’re going to get what they need to succeed. If mom is tired and needs to drop the kids off, she can do that.”

Every element of the program is designed to underscore the importance of getting a good education as a pathway to success and developing the belief that they are exceptional.

Eric Hines, who has three children attending the afterschool program says it’s been a blessing. He and his family live on the city’s southeast side.

“It’s definitely a blessing,” he says. “My wife and I both work full-time during the day. To have an organization that picks them from school and brings them back here with a focus on academics is definitely a blessing. The fact that it’s a mission-driven organization is a bonus. We didn’t expect to find a faith-based organization for after-school care.”

That faith component is also very important to Hines’ daughter Leah, 11-years-old, who attends Endeavor Charter Academy. This is her first year at New Level and she says she likes the opportunity to make new friends and get her homework done so that she has more time in the evening with her family, which includes a younger sister and brother.

“Mostly I like that the people here are Christians and are very kind,” Leah says. “At my old school, I didn’t know a lot of kids who went to church. It means a lot to me that it’s a faith-based place.”

McCoy says the church will always be the strongest institution for the black community. “It’s where we start businesses and kids learn how to speak,” he says.

In addition to the after-school program, dinners are offered on a regular basis and a standing Sunday meal gives parents an opportunity to talk with each other, find help for issues and problems, and get basic needs fulfilled.

“To negate what the black church is for the black community, we would be making a mistake to eliminate that,” McCoy says. “The black church has to change the way it delivers services to the community. It’s important that our programs or groups are connected to a progressive church, a church focused on community.

“This is a faith-based organization. All of our teachings are Biblically based. That has been our success and it’s the only thing that can actually help a community of people in peril right now.”

New Level operates on an annual budget of about $600,000. A large structure near the entrance to the building contains separate cubbyholes which hold fresh produce, such as zucchini, fresh fruit, juice containers and snack items for children and parents. Firekeepers Casino donates the food and the New Level also has received financial assistance from local foundations, including the Battle Creek Community Foundation.

In 2016, McCoy announced plans to create a Youth Village that will serve over 800 urban kids, from infants to high school graduates. Their current space will expand to take up 16 acres from Champion to Jackson and Kendall to Cass streets. The $3 million complex will house a football field, basketball court, a 24-hour daycare service for teen parents, a children’s garden and a licensed kitchen where kids can learn to cook and cater meals, in addition to housing and businesses.

Students eat snacks, work on homework worksheets provided by the organization, and participate in activities such as a robotics workshop.Funders, he says, have to be able to see you and see consistency. He says his organization has grown every single year since it began.

“We are looking for transformational investment, not a basketball program to bring African American boys in to play basketball,” he says. “Changing a community can only be done when you put the money in hands of the community. We can’t have someone outside of our community telling us what do with that money.”

As he navigates the funding streams to make the Youth Village a reality, a dedication was held In September for the football field which became a reality at a cost of $1 million.

“God is able to do exceeding abundantly more than you can ask and think according to the power within you. God didn’t tell us to raise money he told us to build a field,” McCoy says. “If you get caught up in money things can’t be built.

“We want to teach these young people what group economics look like. I’m going to help these kids become wealthy and prosperous and show them how to do that.”

His messages are getting through to the youth served at New Level.

Dennis Lenzy, a 9-year-old who attends Minges Brook Elementary, says he wants to be a professional football player but knows that it will take more than being a good athlete to get there.

“I want to get my education, so I won’t be living on the streets, so if I get an interview I would know what to do,” Dennis says.

David Harper, age 11, who attends Endeavor, says he’s pretty sure he started coming to New Level when he was 3-years-old. He says he was signed up for a Rocket Football League offered there and his involvement and interest has expanded to participation in the after-school program that supports his love of school.

“They treat us like family here. It means a lot to me that they care about us,” David says. “I want to get a good education. My mom always says there’s a time to work and a time to play and I think that’s very true. I have some rough times, but I always turn it around.”

As important as the after school program is to the more than 3,000 youth and families that it touches each year, McCoy says, it’s a band-aid, and he doesn’t want the programs offered at New Level to look good because there are larger issues and challenges that need to be addressed. He says giving clothes and food away doesn’t address the problem and, in some cases, perpetuates it.

“One has to be brilliantly wicked to have the resources to free those who are in bondage, yet direct those resources in a manner that appears to help those get out of bondage, but cleverly keeps them bound,” McCoy says. “The problems and issues and challenges in our community are multimillion dollar issues. Without wealth resources, ownership, your voice means nothing.

“Anybody can get a bunch of kids together. We want to change the social and economic structure and give them opportunities to run their own businesses. We want our young people to understand that they can do anything they want to do.”

Southwest Michigan Second Wave’s “On the Ground Battle Creek” series amplifies the voices of Battle Creek residents. In coming months, Second Wave journalists will be in Battle Creek neighborhoods to explore topics of importance to residents, business owners, and other members of the community. To reach the editor of this series, Jane Simons, please email her here or contact Second Wave managing editor Kathy Jennings here

Photos by Erik McCloud

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Read more articles by Jane Parikh.

Jane Parikh is a freelance reporter and writer with more than 20 years of experience and also is the owner of In So Many Words based in Battle Creek. She is the Project Editor for On the Ground Battle Creek.