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Structure and opportunity

AFES continues to build up community

-Messenger photo by Kriss Nelson
Charles Clayton, founder and executive director of AFES, stands next to one of the basketball hoops in the Martin Luther King REC Center recently. AFES, which stands for Athletics For Education and Success, offers sports, arts and after school program for area youth.

What started as an idea to get area youth involved sports and out of trouble has manifested into more than its founder ever imagined.

Athletics For Education and Success (AFES) stands by a mission statement of offering “positive sports, arts and after school programs” for the youth of Fort Dodge and Webster County — but ultimately, it is more than that.

The beginning

Charles Clayton, founder and executive director of AFES, said it was 2004 when the organization received their non-profit status and really started developing. However, he and a group of friends had been working with youth prior to that time, making their vision almost 20 years old.

“We just wanted a way to give back to the community,” he said. “It started with a football camp, then a basketball camp, wrestling camps, you name it. We would give them a T-shirt, feed them, tell them to stay in school. Don’t do drugs, be respectful, live by the Golden Rule and that’s all we did and that’s all, at the time, we envisioned.”

-Messenger photo by Hans Madsen Athletics For Education and Success executive director Charles Clayton watches as Gye’vani Landolt, 11, connects with the ball during a Thursday afternoon game in their gym.

Soon, the youth of Fort Dodge and their families wanted more. They wanted more than just an athletic camp. They wanted a sports team. But Clayton knew he needed to do more than just offer athletics.

“We started organizing all of these teams. Kids were playing all of these sports, but we felt we weren’t doing what we wanted to do,” he said. “They were still getting in trouble at school; they were failing school, getting sent to juvenile detention. We needed to do more.”

They soon moved into an office space in the Snell Building in Fort Dodge and began offering an after school program for fifth- and sixth-graders. Clayton said within a short time, they had become a program for kindergarten though eighth graders and out grew their space.

The location, however, happened to be next door to the United Way and Community Foundation.

“They got to see us running a program, a lot of kids coming in, being respectful, opening up doors, carrying boxes or things like that,” he said. “Laurie Hagey approached us and said, ‘we have an after school program and a summer program, but we shouldn’t be running those. We should be funding them — would you guys want to run those programs’?”

-Messenger photo by Hans Madsen The Community Christmas program at Athletics For Education and Success held their gift and food distribution Saturday with some volunteer help from a group of area high school students that included, from right, Brandyn Clair, East Sac County Highschool, Jace Peterson and Rodney Tilawen, both Fort Dodge Senior High School, Ethan Lursen, St. Edmond Catholic High School and more from Fort Dodge Senior High, Tysen Kershaw, Jordan Jackson and Grant Barber. Community Christmas, formerly Operation Christmas, was taken over by AFES this year. Families in need are provided with food, gifts and clothing.

Hagey, who was executive director for the United Way at the time, said Clayton was one of the best people she ever worked with.

“He’s so good with the kids — fair and tough and they love him for it,” she said. “He’s 100 percent committed to those kids and they grow up to be successful adults because of him. Fort Dodge is a better place because of Charles. I’m so proud of what he’s accomplished.”

Clayton admits at that time, they didn’t have a long-term goal or vision. With the help of the folks at United Way, AFES was able to move to the old Sacred Heart School – which was a perfect location for about five years.

“We could continue our programming, to grow and do more things — after school programs, summer programs, community events. We had a gym,” he said.

When that building became for sale, Clayton knew they could not afford to buy it, but as he believes “divine intervention” stepped in and another almost perfect solution came about.

The Fort Dodge Community School District was selling the Hillcrest Elementary building. AFES had the winning bid in of $1,000 and just like that AFES had a new home.

“This is what we needed,” he said. “We now had our own permanent home and land to build a gymnasium. And we did – the Martin Luther King Rec Center.”

AFES offerings

Currently Clayton said AFES is holding their summer program and fortunately have been open all through COVID-19. They have between 25 to 40 children a day where they are given a breakfast, lunch, afternoon snack and on Fridays they will receive food for the weekend. They have also become the current location for those youth that are a part of the Backpack Buddies program.

There are several learning opportunities for them as well.

-Messenger photo by Hans Madsen Michela Jones, 16, at left, gets a little help from Athletics For Education and Success executive director Charles Clayton helps her with some homework Thursday afternoon.

Much like their after school program, youth are given some structured educational time which includes touching on subjects such as science, art, reading and more. They also get to have some fun too.

“They go to the gym or outside. We have a PlayStation an Xbox and tablets,” said Clayton.

AFES also offers in-school mentoring programs and several sporting activities which includes basketball, track and more.

The success of those sporting activities is due in part to the volunteer coaches and referees.

“I have been able to get a good crew of refs and coaches that get what we are trying to do here,” said Clayton. “We are a tough love approach type of place. We have rules. We have structure and that’s not up for debate. We are going to work with you, but you are going to do what we ask you to do.”

This is especially true in the AFES leagues.

“If you are a part of the AFES basketball program or part of the after school program, if we know that you are not holding your part of the bargain at school — myself, my staff, my board of directors or one of my volunteer coaches — they are coming to school to see you,” he said. “You aren’t going to get bad grades, swear, argue with teachers or be disruptive and not have someone from AFES come have a conversation with you.”

Who is AFES for?

“AFES is for any and everybody,” said Clayton. “We are open for anyone from a two parent home that can afford it and know we have a little more structure and are more sports oriented for more physical activity or the grandma raising kids for whatever reason that needs a break, to DHS needing somewhere for foster kids to go — we are open to everyone.”

AFES offers a feeding and clothing program and runs “Community Christmas” which was formerly known as “Operation Christmas.”

“We are doing all of this stuff to build relationships with kids and families so we can be a part of that village it takes to raise a kid,” he said. “Single parents, a two parent home, grandparents that need some help sending that message to that kid. We will help you with that. Kids respond because they know they are involved in so much and they don’t want to lose that.”

Funding

With all of those programs, and 10 paid employees, AFES is always in need of funding and they get it from everywhere they can.

“Fundraisers, donations, the business community here in town are always good to

us when we do our yearly campaign and our faith community — our churches in Fort Dodge. We would have folded if not for our faith community.”

When Clayton speaks to other communities either in Iowa or another state interested in starting their own AFES type program, he explains it is a grab bag of any and every way they can find funding.

“They ask where we get our big bag of money or the big federal grant,” he said. “I tell them it’s Fort Dodge. It’s Fort Dodge and Webster County. If you have a community that cares like Fort Dodge cares, you can do an AFES very easily, but there is no big secret to this. This community has stepped up and done things.”

Clayton also thanks the Man Upstairs.

“At some point, God took over and said I am going to help you guys on this journey to be successful, help families and kids to help the community and do those kinds of things,” he said.

Future of AFES

Clayton admits at the beginning they had no long-term plans or vision. That has since changed.

The future of AFES is bright, with the first main goal being to pay off the new gymnasium. Once that is accomplished, he said they would like to build a new building that will not only be used for recreational activities but will also have classroom space.

“One day, this old building just isn’t going to be here,” he said. “So for longevity, we know we need to build another building. But first we are getting that debt paid off.”

Clayton said they are also starting to work on how AFES is going to fit in the community with social justice issues.

“You take everything that has happened here recently with protests around the country, but even down in Des Moines that you see has gotten kind of violent,” he said. “My thing is you see a lot of young people doing that. As the adults, as the educators, as the leaders, have we even thought about teaching, training youth how to handle demonstrations?”

Clayton feels if issues come up that people feel the need for their voice to be heard, they need to know their options.

“Let’s talk about how we can make things better,” he said. “But, we don’t do that. We are upset these young kids are doing this, I don’t know if it’s as much as their fault as ours.”

One way to help put a focus on social justice Clayton suggests is to talk, as a community about doing things on an on-going basis — in the forms of community forums, town hall meetings — all ways on how to better our community when it comes to race relations.

“There is going to be another racial incident in America,” he said. “Maybe this section of Iowa will be a little more prepared to handle it. It’s going to happen. There is no way around it, maybe we can be more prepared to handle it and do a better job and maybe be a better role model to the rest of the state. To show what Fort Dodge, Webster County and central Iowa is doing to stay ahead of the curve. Not just wait for it to happen.”

Clayton also has a vision to incorporate more work-study opportunities for the youth at AFES.

“With high school and middle school kids, I think, at times we are not preparing our kids enough for the real world and maybe AFES can step up and be the conduit for getting kids more internships with businesses in our community,” he said. “More job shadowing opportunities in our community, more real life scenarios and job fairs, so they know what is out there. I don’t think we do a good enough job in this area of selling all the great jobs we have in this community.”

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