A Safe Haven

Krista Connor

Reeds Refuge Center helps at-risk kids grow through the performing arts in a secure, nurturing environment

The Arts as Activism: This is the third and final installment in a series of profiles about creating social change through artistic expression

Fred Reed was a teenager living in Riverside in 1996, sitting on a flight of steps practicing with members of his singing group, 4U. The group was partially invested in the song and half-focused on a nearby TV crew wrapping up filming the aftermath of a violent crime. It was then that Reed first saw how music could change a life.

The Channel 3 Philadelphia crew approached the guys and started filming their song. A few weeks later, the group was contacted by a Philadelphia music manager who had seen the performance and the group’s potential. Soon enough 4U was on tour through the U.S. and playing in London, opening for artists like Mary J. Blige, performing on BET’s Teen Summit and at the Apollo Theater in New York City.

In short, music transformed Reed’s life, and now he is in the nonprofit sector, and using the performing arts to help children who are growing up in circumstances similar to his.

“I didn’t think I would ever see outside of the walls of the projects,” Reed says. “But I began to see other places, and pursue something, and I thought that if I could just bring that back here, to create a desire in kids, it would ignite a fire in them.”

That’s where Reeds Refuge Center comes in. It’s a program Reed formed with his wife, Cora, four years ago after working in nonprofits and childcare centers even years before that. With a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education, Reed was an assistant teacher for Christiana School District for 10 years, and for the past two decades the couple has run two childcare centers, one next door to Reeds Refuge and another in Newport.

Located at 1601 N. Pine St., the center is adjacent to 23rd Street and around the corner from the East Side. It’s dedicated to providing a safe, nurturing outlet for inner city youth ages 6-15, enabling them to explore and express their creative ability through the performing arts—music, dancing, singing, even videography and photography. Right now approximately 60 children are members—through state-assisted funding—and there is also an open-door policy.

But more than teaching the arts through these outlets, Reed and the staff are emphatic about instilling self-discovery, discipline and self-expression, so that ultimately children leave as confident young adults with skills and knowledge that open avenues other than drugs and violence.

“As the saying goes, music soothes the savage beast—and it gives you the option for expression,” says Reed. “I can’t think of anything else that gives you that time to really express yourself. Music is in everything.”

Practical Steps to Change Lives

Instilling positive traits requires sensible day-to-day lessons and activities, says Reed, who admits that he can’t save the world, nor does he want to. Rather, he emphasizes that he wants to help the one or two kids who can then branch out, and so on. Aside from the performing arts components of the program, the children—who in the summer are welcome from 7:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. and during the school year before school at 6:30 a.m. and in the afternoon—spend time on character building.

“You not only teach music but talk about a lot of things, like life skills,” says Reed.
Every morning they have “Morning Motivation,” where kids and staff discuss their upcoming or previous day, or how they can approach daily situations. Then kids perform Rock the Stage, where they rap, sing, dance, etc. As long as it’s positive, they can do it, Reed says.

Kids at the center are served three meals a day, too. Reed says these may be the only solid meals they get all week.

The father of nine himself, he expresses dismay at the priorities of some parents. “I watch how some of them will take all their money and go buy a pair of Jordans. They’ll buy those, but when it comes to making sure kids’ teeth are brushed or stomachs are fed, they won’t do that—I don’t understand,” says Reed. “But we can stop it.”

Service is another key component of the program. On Fridays the kids and staff head out to feed the homeless and every other Friday they collect litter and trash on nearby streets.
Then there are social skills. One volunteer, Lisa McDonald, comes in every Tuesday to teach an etiquette class, where kids serve a meal to their parents.

And at Reeds, it’s never too early to get creative about the future: one curriculum builds off a small business concept, where kids make business cards, discuss ideas on how to gain customers, customer satisfaction, and more.

Field trips, too, are important. Last month the staff, kids and their families were invited to Dorney Park in Allentown, Pa., and Sahara Sands in West Berlin, N.J., for a day of summer fun.

Music at the Center

But of course, music rules, whether it’s performance, practice or recording tracks in the built-in studio.

“It’s our draw,” says Reed. “For a young person, music engages them and gives them a chance to express themselves positively. We do pop, rock and roll, hip-hop, poetry, everything.”

With a staff of nine professionals—a musical engineer, videographer, vocal arranger, photographers, music instructors, an after-school tutor—and great recording room equipment (one microphone cost $10,000), the kids are getting a quality experience.

(Reed notes that he is always looking for volunteers, particularly music teachers.)
“Nothing in here is cheap, we all put a lot of time and effort into it,” says Reed. “This gives them the opportunity to handle real equipment respectfully and we teach them how to properly use it. It’s all very hands-on, engaging, interactive.”

In addition to the kids, sometimes up to 25 young adults will come in and work on recordings until 10 p.m. They’ll come back, too, to do work with the summer camp kids and initiate rap battles, teach piano, and more, to increase the positive cycle of “pulling them away from the streets.”

After being surrounded by so much positivity, transformation is inevitable, says Reed. Kids often come into the program shy and insecure in their musical abilities, and come out as confident musicians, photographers, or dancers.

Various fall educational programs encourage kids to be leaders—S.T.R.E.A.M, Building Youth Leaders—and one effort in particular, the “Believe” project, is the main focus this autumn. “Believe” is a video under production, with the theme of encouraging kids to understand their worth through self-belief and unity. Video equipment was donated to the center for the project, which is quite the endeavor. Reed estimates that 110 people are involved, including police, business owners, the fire department, and several religious groups.

“We have to show the unity,” Reed emphasizes.

Kids and staff will work on all aspects of the video, of course: filming, organization, editing, background music. The plan is to premiere the video online (reedsrefugecenter.org) early next month.

Reed also mentions that he wants to refurbish the building’s facade, and he displays a rendering that shows bright colors and graphic designs with musical instruments. He hopes to employ young adults, 18-24-years-old, to work with the project contractors, so they can take pride in their neighborhood, and their work.

“It makes them want to see their streets clean,” says Reed. “I believe that’s what we’re doing with ‘Believe,’ too—pouring hope back into the community. People resort to drugs and alcohol but the problem is still there. Changing the minds of the youth is important, and this particular project helps give them a trade if they need it.”

Reed, who is often at the center for 12 hours a day, says he’s earned the nickname “Uncle Fred.”

“A lot of the kids don’t want to go home because they love it here so much,” says Reed. “I’ve gained about 300 nieces and nephews the past few years. I think that the center is the light in the middle of the block where people feel like they can come and seek refuge.”

So, what do you think? Please comment below.