We hate to quibble with someone else’s business, but maybe the management of the Creative Life Enrichment Center should consider changing their name to something like “Oasis,” or “Fort Hope.”
Located literally at the end of South Memphis, the staff of Creative Life carry on their mission in a nondescript brown mini-warehouse off the gritty tip of West Riverside Drive and I-240, where next door, the last vestiges of the old Sealy Mattress factory are being cleared.
Talk about Desolation Boulevard. This place makes the scenery from The Last Picture Show look like Shangri-La. But like that famed valley, those who enter here are rejuvenated by the strong sense of purpose and spirit that permeates the place. Answering a Call Created in 1993 by Pastor Carolyn Bibbs, Creative Life started as a church that has grown to include daycare and after-school services, and in this reporter’s estimation, it's a million times better than most daycares I’ve seen.
Pardon me for gushing, but when an organization is as sincerely committed to serving children as Bibb's organization is, there’s not praise enough. With a staff of 22, Creative Life reaches more than 900 kids a year through its daily programs, which range from the performing arts and spiritual development to an annual summer camp and vacation Bible school.
Bibbs estimates they feed approximately 400 kids a day during the summer months, many of whom would likely go hungry otherwise. For recreation, they operate a little theater where a teen group called the Life Warriors produce musicals, concerts, plays, and shows.
Their commitment to kids is evidenced the minute you enter the lobby, where a prominently displayed flyer, now withered with age, instructs parents and visitors to report anything remiss to the Tennessee Department of Human Services, along with the DHS number. You’d never find that at the common, fee-greedy, bologna-and-cot-drop-off daycares that still plague too many Memphis neighborhoods. In addition, they have a full-time cook on staff from the Memphis City Schools who operates the cafeteria. Working to Reach Kids in Need Creative Life’s website lists a plethora of programs, including homework assistance, ACT prep, job readiness classes, abstinence education, leadership development, computer training, and literacy. On my visit, the place is buzzing with activity. Their team is also committed to an anti-gang street ministry aimed at the Riverside neighborhood, a short drive across South Parkway where old homes pockmarked from decay and neglect afford hiding places and a reason for gang recruitment. Executive Director Marilyn Williams regularly visits area schools, inviting kids to here as an escape from gang activity. “Everybody’s welcome,” she vows. “We don’t love them any less if they’re in a gang.” To reenforce that message, Creative Life stages a silent protest march through the Riverside community every April, ending with a mock funeral in rememberance of those who were lost to gang life.
On the day of my visit, Bibbs provides a glimpse into why Creative Life has gained such a strong reputation. “We have a daycare, but we are not a daycare. We are a dedicated childhood development center. Our curriculums carry the children from infancy to high school and the goal is to give these kids from the inner city the esteem to overcome the obstacles in this cruel, cruel world we have today, to graduate high school and continue on to college. We’re concerned with kids' entire lives. We’ve always provided abstinence training and support, and we’ve instituted an AIDS awareness training that drew a great response. We do not want to see these kids grow up to have four or five children they can’t take care of and then return back to their mother’s house in the projects to raise them.”
As we speak, a troupe of little girls come traipsing through the hallway, dolled up in white dresses and lace socks. Giggling, they are directed by an older teen who instructs them to practice their manners by acknowledging this visitor with a smile before proceeding quietly into the “adult” side of the building. They had just finished an old-fashioned afternoon tea, complete with real china service and cloth napkins, which Bibbs explains is an example of Creative Life’s approach to child care.
“They were just wrapping up a fund-raiser for the school, built as a tea party for the little kids,” she explains. “The girls were all dressed up in their hats and gloves, we had real china place settings, and the teachers served them finger sandwiches and cookies. Oh, it was a real tea party! It builds their self-esteem. Some of them have never been taught proper table manners and we do things like that to make the learning fun. Our kids come in here with their heads down and leave with their heads held high and believing that they can make it.”
Playing with her bubbly 1-year-old, Taneisha Robinson has had a lifelong tie to Creative Life, first as a student and now as a mother who brings her family of five here every day. “I was 12 when I first came here for the summer school, and I just love it.”
“See my bow tie?” 3-year-old Edward Holliday runs up to show me, and shakes my hand. His newlywed parents Tanisha and Kenneth are likewise enthused by what they find here. Both work at Cargill (one community support) and are now cheerleaders for the center.
“We first found out about it last year when we did the Day of Caring,” he says, and she finishes, “we were so impressed with the staff, the neatness, and the way the students act. We’re Christian, so when our son became age appropriate, this is where we wanted him to be.”
Laughing when I call her “a professional grandmother,” Bibbs recounts, “I’ve been doing this for more than 30 years and I will go to my grave doing it. Though I don’t do it anymore, I’ve written grants that have brought in more than $35 million to inner-city communities. When we started here 13 years ago with our charter school, we were 100 percent grant funded, now we’re 80 percent donor funded and we think it’s a reflection of our work.”
There are a lot of stories and positive outcomes being generated at Creative Life, says Bibbs. “Just last week, this kid attending one of our Saturday evening worship services quit the gang he was in. He knew about us from our working in the neighborhood. His cousin had just been killed and he came here and told us about it all and just gave it all up right then and there.”
It is those moments that keep Bibbs believing — believing that their work can make a difference — by offering nourishment for body and soul.