WHITMIRE — Club 180 Children Feeding and Development Center was first launched two years ago by Xavier Baez, the organization will now open a location in Whitmire this fall with hopes of providing guidance and mentorship to at-risk children in Newberry County.
Baez, originally from Nicaragua, grew up in Miami, Florida, his family lived in at-risk areas where there was a heavy influence on gangs and drugs. At the age of nine, Baez and his cousin became involved in gangs. With a father who was an alcoholic and a mother who worked three jobs, Baez said with the lack of guidance and mentorship, gangs became his big brothers and mentors.
“At 14, it was the first time I saw somebody get shot in the face, it was when another gang tried to stab me and my cousin, my cousin got deported and at 15 the gang Bloods, they needed a chapter leader to run their section, because I had been involved for so long they made me one of the leaders of the gang,” he said. “From 15-17 was when things got really bad in my life, the gangs started to become more aggressive, they found out where I lived, they started to harass my parents and siblings.”
It was at the age of 17 that Baez felt like there was no way out and attempted suicide.
“I hurt a lot of people and I hurt myself and moving here in 2009 I realized that there was also a great need, especially with some of the young kids. Club 180 was birthed through the past scars that I have due to gang relations, lack of mentorship, lack of some guidance,” Baez said. “We (Baez and his wife) did it for the purpose of trying to be the median for the kids that are already involved in gangs and the little ones, it’s not only a center, but a safe place for them. Club 180 is a children feeding center that we decided to open Monday-Friday 3-5 p.m. I remember growing up, sometimes my parents wouldn’t have enough for dinner or food, so we would sometimes eat cereal for dinner, sometimes we would eat during school hours.”
There is currently a Club 180 location in Richland County, with a future location to open in Lexington County. There are over 47 children registered in the Columbia location, providing over 2,200 meals. Baez hopes the Whitmire location will draw the same number of kids.
One way that Club 180 is reaching out to the youth is through Block Parties. Club 180 will be holding a Block Party in Whitmire in the fall.
“We’ll invite the Newberry County Sheriff’s Department police officers and just interact with the kids, the at-risk children, and let them know the men and women in blue are there to protect them, to guard them and to also respect and honor them. To do that, there has to be a middle ground. In Richland County, through the Block Parties, the police officers come and play and dance with the kids, bring gifts and interact with them and build the trust within the community,” he said.
With Club 180 making a home in Whitmire, Baez wants to reach as many kids as possible, letting them know that there is hope.
“The reason why I tried to commit suicide at 17 is because I didn’t find hope, I didn’t have hope until somebody shared it with me. That’s what we want to do, reach the children that are small enough and still have an opportunity, help them with making the decisions of not joining a gang and not consuming the first drug to those children who are already involved in gangs or doing drugs, to let them know there is hope to get out of it as well,” he said.
Club 180 is also an opportunity for high school and college students to earn community service hours by tutoring kids and helping with homework.
“When they (the kids) come to Club 180 we give them an opportunity to take out their homework and we help every single one of them, so through the high school and college students who do need community service, that would be one of their main jobs to help them love not only doing their homework, but also help them through subjects like math, English and writing. We want to make sure it is a full package when they come, not only do they get their belly filled, but also the homework gets done,” Baez said.
In addition to feeding children and helping with homework, Club 180 works to develop children’s minds through activities such as board games.
“Last year, we started teaching the kids how to play chess, a mind game that will develop their strategic mindset, we help them with games that will build their mind, build their confidence and build what they have been learning, we invest in meals, but also in a safe place that their parents know they are not in the street and that somebody is looking after them in a bully free location,” Baez said. “We don’t want to be an activity center, but we are a children feeding center and if our clubs could continue to open in every town and every city we want to continue doing that, every location that needs a feeding center in the state that has a great need, we want to be there, we want to be that light when there is no light and a place that parents can trust.”
Club 180 is funded through partners that make Club 180 operational and free for children and their families. It will be located at 102 Main Street, Whitmire. For more information on Club 180, visit www.club180columbia.com, the website will later be converted to www.club180kids.org when all current locations are added. Club 180 can also be reached on Facebook – Club 180 kids.
“We want to be an asset to the community, we want to make sure that we link side by side with the law enforcement here in Newberry County, as well as businesses, I know that if we are able to transform a child from being involved in gangs and drugs it will help the community,” Baez said.
Reach Kelly Duncan at 803-768-3123 ext. 1868 or on Twitter @TheNBOnews.