Levon Lyles never seems to stop moving.
It’s Thursday night at the Street Fraternity on East Colfax, and the Packers-Bears game is on the big screen. About 50 young men sit at circular tables. They range from 14 to 25 years old, and many are immigrants or refugees. There are young men from Southeast Asia and Eastern Africa sitting alongside others who’ve spent their entire lives in Denver.
Lyles, whose official title is program coordinator, whirls about the room, cracking jokes, answering questions, fetching more napkins, more plates, more anything as the night goes on.
Metal trays full of hot dogs and hamburger patties sit on a table next to a big bowl of Fritos. There’s also a frosted yellow cake. The Street Fraternity is having a going-away party for its volunteer martial arts teacher of two years.
“We’re going to miss the sensei,” Lyles says when he finally finds a moment to relax.
Since opening in April 2013, Street Fraternity has morphed into a space that offers support and stability for young men in two of the toughest neighborhoods on the Front Range: East Colfax and Original Aurora. Street Fraternity opened with the original goal of working only with violent young men. But once its founders saw how many other young men in the neighborhood needed a place to hang out, they adjusted.
Now anywhere between 30 and 50 young men ages 14 to 25 spend time there on a given day. Street Fraternity is open Monday through Thursday. It offers a free dinner every evening at 6 p.m. The free meal is a big part of what Street Fraternity does, but what the organization really hopes to provide is space and time for young men to find themselves.
“Fourteen to 25 is a very, very hard age group to attract for structured activities,” says Yoal Ghebremeskel, the Street Fraternity’s co-founder and executive director. “Our style and our culture is to provide a space that is more than just, ‘Yes, we’re going to get free food.'”
Ghebremeskel moved to the United States from Eritrea with his family when he was 12 years old. He grew up in the Denver Public Schools system and attended South High School. He began volunteering in Denver’s underserved areas as a soccer coach about a decade ago.
“I was coaching soccer to refugees, immigrants and anybody else who showed up at Verbena Park,” Ghebremeskel says. “I just loved it. Loved the diversity. Loved the stories. Saw a need. All I was doing was showing up with a soccer ball. Eventually guys started forming their own teams.”
Toward the end of 2013, Ghebremeskel met Dave Stalls, a former NFL player, who spent his time working in the community after leaving the league. Stalls, the former CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Colorado, knew he wanted to put together another project focused on youth and young men. Together, Stalls, Ghebremeskel, Lyles and Amadou Bility founded Street Fraternity on East Colfax.
The Street Fraternity, which is located in the basement of the Disabled American Veteran’s building, is broken up into seven rooms. There’s a library, a computer lab with five desktop computers, a meditation and prayer room, a music studio where you can make beats or record, an “aggressive room” with punching bags and dumbbells, a ping-pong room and a kitchen. The two most popular rooms are the music studio and the work-out space.
“Here, it’s an open place,” says Djiby Sarr, who spent Tuesday throwing slushy snowballs at his friends as Denver dried out. “The people, the friends — it’s like freedom. Your mind’s all clear. It just makes you feel comfortable.”
Sarr, 14, is a freshman at George Washington High School. He immigrated to the United States from Senegal three years ago. He lives on Yosemite Street in the East Colfax neighborhood.
“It’s not easy,” Sarr says. “It’s dangerous sometimes just walking in the neighborhood. Anything can happen.”
Street Fraternity gives Sarr a place to throw snowballs, crack open his books or just eat a hot meal without having to worry.
Lyles and Bility started volunteering here in 2013 before coming on full time three weeks ago. Ghebremeskel, Lyles and Bility know they have a good thing going, and they want to keep it rolling.
Later this month, Street Fraternity is trekking up to the Shambhala Mountain Center in Red Feather Lakes. The trip will give some of the young men the chance to experience some of Colorado’s natural beauty.
“I want to invest in these young men because they are the future,” Lyles says. “They are the future. We either gonna help them now or pay for it later, you know what I mean?”