The roads leading to the Christian Activity Center tell a story. They are unkept, filled with potholes, and the buildings that line these streets are empty. There used to be life here. But as we drive along deserted streets, we start to feel deep in our hearts that the buildings are not the only things that have been abandoned. Just before reaching the center, the landscape changes. There are people, everywhere. There is a palpable energy and it seems to be pulling us forward.
The drive to the center is not sufficient preparation for what exists just beyond an enormous housing complex. There is a gated park that could be found in any upscale neighborhood. The playground equipment is new and cared for. There are fresh sidewalks, the grass is mowed, and bounce houses have been inflated for the day. The building across the street is where the real beauty happens, though. This is where we catch up with Chet Cantrell, the executive director of the Christian Activity Center. The first words out of his mouth sum up the entire purpose behind the center. “We raise kids here,” He humbly shares. And it is obvious that every decision is made with kids in mind. It is a colorful building filled with computers, books, a gymnasium, and a staff that work to raise the self-esteem and GPA of all students.
Children wander in and out of the building, stopping to smile or joke with Mr. Cantrell. It is apparent that relationship building is an essential part of this operation. “We are in East St. Louis, and the doors of our building are made of glass,” he said. “But we have never been vandalized or robbed because our families take care of us. They know the center is helping their children reach their full potential.”
He is correct. The families are fully aware that the center belongs to them. This center is the bridge between poverty and success for these children. Sitting in a quiet area of the park, it is obvious to see that the sounds match the sight of the twenty two acres belonging to the CAC. Mothers are sitting with babies at picnic tables as their sons and daughters laugh and play in a carefree way that poverty often steals. This space is an escape. It is the path away from a citywide graduation rate of 10% toward a CAC graduation rate of 97%. The center is equipped with medical personnel extending wellness care to students and offers on sight trauma therapists to assist children with their healing.
Many individuals from Metro have caught the beautiful vision cast by the Christian Activity Center. Stay tuned for the stories of how God called them to serve the families of East St. Louis. And prepare your heart for the possibility that you will also end up exchanging high-fives and hugs with some beautiful souls in the urban oasis known as the CAC.