It’s Saturday afternoon, and the Austin Town Hall is buzzing with excitement from the Westside Beat the Street Spelling Bee.
Ald. Ed Smith (28th) is in the house, as is state Sen. Kimberly Lightford (4th). Both have come to check out the latest creative endeavor of Austin resident Danette King, and her husband, Brian, co-founders of Young Creative Minds that put together the three-day event. The historic auditorium at 5610 W. Lake St., was filled with about 50 kids and adults, and bunches of bright, yellow smiley-face balloons.
“I think Miss King is doing a phenomenal job and encouraging our youth through academics,” said Lightford, there with her son, Isiah, and their friend Christian, both 8. “The smiley faces (balloons) brightened up our room, and I hope it brightens up our children.”
About 50 kids from eight schools competed in the second annual spelling bee taking place April 8-10. One winner who was definitely brightened up was Marteena Duckins, an 8-year-old, third-grader from Nash Elementary School, who won a trophy and $100 savings bond.
“Everybody was talking like I was a celebrity,” said Duckins, whose loves reading author Barbara Park’s Junie B. Jones books. “Everybody wants my autograph.”
Other winners, such as Otis Dawson, 10, from Tilton Elementary School, had a different reason to smile.
“I just did it to impress my grandma; she said she was happy I was in it and hopes I can be in it next year,” said the fourth-grader who won a $200 savings bond for spelling “January” in a wild card round. “
The spelling bee was the brainchild of the teens at Young Creative Minds, a nonprofit organization run by and geared toward troubled kids ages 13 to 19. Founder Danette King sent packets to every school in Austin about participating, but she got few responses and some were even negative about the event. Still, she liked that the turnout was fairly substantial.
“We need the schools to be more involved,” she said. “We don’t have a spelling bee like this in the community, and we need it.”
King said she feels standards are “very low” in Austin, and kids are interested in sports and entertainment, “but not education in this community.”
“This is not going to get them to college,” she added. “We need schools and parents more involved. How can you expect kids to want more and set high goals? These kids are representing their schools-somebody should have been here.”
Austin resident Bridgett McGill was happy to come. McGill volunteered as a judge last year and had so much fun she came back.
“We really need something like this to uplift our children,” she insists. “It’s something more to talk about than just the bad things that happen.”
An event like this benefits everyone, added Yev Kozachuk, a sponsor from Avalon Management, which hires the Young Creative Minds teens for landscaping, snow removal, and occasional clean up at about 15 of its buildings.
“This is a big testament to start the movement to give them educational tools,” said Kozachuk. “It’s a validation of their efforts and makes a world of difference.”
Entertainer Blaze On and performer Shawn Banks are two young men also trying to make a difference in Austin. The pair performed together, and apart, and had the crowd rocking.
“I love reaching out to the kids … and showing them that I came from their environment and this is what you can be,” said Blaze On, a popular West Side performer.
Banks added, “It’s something for the kids that shows them motivation and dedication, and to be the best that they can be.”