MICHIGAN CITY — Kenny Fly said everyone seems to be talking these days about the struggles of youth in Michigan City, especially African American youth. But all that talk might just be part of the problem.
“Everyone is saying what the youth need to be doing, or need to stop doing, but it stops there. They offer no alternatives, no programs to help. We need more people to stand up and do something instead of just talking about it.”
Fly is one of those doing, according to his sister, Kay Fly, who raved about her brother’s “passion for youth and community” while loading up a grill with hot dogs and hamburgers to feed some of those youth.
African American students face more than their fair share of barriers, according to Kenny, who started a youth-oriented service organization in June aimed at helping them overcome those obstacles.
Fly High Youth Services will “prepare students to take flight towards success,” he said. The goal of the 501(c)(3) foundation is to “ensure all students have a strong start, not just a privileged few,” he said.
“We want our youth to achieve and excel,” he said, while watching kids shoot hoops, create painting, play on the swings and look over the prizes and giveaways that Fly High was providing at Saturday’s Back 2 School Giveaway event at Water Tower Park on the east side.
It’s the neighborhood where the Flys were born and raised, according to Kay, who serves as vice president of the organization.
“This was his vision. He put all of this together on his own and got the rest of us motivated and organized,” she said of Kenny.
Fly High wants “to keep kids busy and out of trouble,” said Natalie Parker, Kenny’s girlfriend and organization treasurer, “but that’s not all. We get mentors to come and talk to the kids, to help give them direction and keep them on the right path. We want them not to think small.
“By giving back to these kids, we are teaching them empathy and teaching them to give back. Instead of bullying those less fortunate, they learn to want to help them.”
Kenny Fly knows how critical that can be.
“We need programs for these kids, because there’s a lot violence out on the streets,” he said, referencing a recent murder not all that far from the park where the kids were playing.
“I was a victim of gun violence myself. I was shot in 1999; I was paralyzed and I haven’t walked a day since,” he said from the motorized scooter he used to get around the park.
And it was partly his own fault, he said.
“I was a college graduate but I just went down the wrong path. I had a criminal record you wouldn’t believe and I spent a lot of time behind bars. My background was so bad that I couldn’t do anything like buy a car or get a job,” Kenny said.
“Then one day I decided to turn myself around,” he said, and eventually, he got his record expunged and started doing things to help the community he loved.
“African American youth have a lot of issues to deal with,” he said. “Black students have some of the lowest graduation rates and highest dropout rates in Michigan City ... and those are just some of the barriers students of color face. There’s also poverty, hunger, even homelessness...”
And while there are programs out there for more-privileged youth, the less-fortunate can’t get in, he said.
“We want to provide safe havens where inner-city youth can participate in athletics and academic tutoring to promote the physical, educational and life skills to empower them for leadership in their communities and success in their lives.”
Students participated in several such events Saturday – from three-on-three basketball tournaments to a Double Dutch contest to positive themed art sessions – all for monetary prizes.
“When I started this we did a car wash fundraiser and the response was great,” Kenny said. “And now we are giving it all back. All the money we raised went into buying uniforms and school supplies and food for this wonderful day.”
Free hair cuts were also offered, as well as raffles for prizes including a new bicycle, all thanks to donors from the community and the generosity of board members, Kay Fly said.
“We all grew up on Carroll and we played in this park when we were kids. This is our first big event so we chose this place for that reason. It’s just so great to see the kids getting outside and having a good time – and staying out of trouble,” said Kay, a health care provider who worked at St. Anthony Hospital for 10 years before moving to Indianapolis, where she still works for Franciscan Health.
“Helping young kids has always been Kenny’s passion and he has a big vision – keep these kids off the street and give them something positive to do. Next year we might even try an urban farm to teach them about healthy eating and provide some good stuff in this food desert.”
Her older brother, Ryan, who still lives in Michigan City, said Kenny “does it all for the kids. All the programs and giveaways are just to do something good for the ‘hood.’ I couldn’t be more proud of what he’s doing.”
“This is just one of many events Fly High Youth Services will be conducting to give help and inspire student leaders,” Kenny said. The next will be a free community Thanksgiving dinner, and after that the possibilities are endless, he said.
“Our focus is to support youth toward their dreams,” he said. “The community needs this. You just don’t see the black community coming together to do things like this enough.”
“We want to make these kids feel like they’re part of something,” Kenny said. “Everybody needs to feel like they’re a part of something. We care, and we want to reach out and let them know we care.”