Rolanda Longoria grew up a Malone baby, her life revolving around the neighborhood center near 20th and Vine. She attended its daycare, worked there in high school, took part in its programs.
She was happy when three of her own kids joined the Malone Center’s youth groups. They found important peer support there, she said. Strong role models.
But then, earlier this year, the center canceled the groups’ annual summer trip. Longoria’s kids were crushed, and she was struggling for the right words.
“The question I faced at home was, ‘Mom, you told us to trust adults and do the right things and now look what the adults have done.’ As a parent, I had no way to answer that. That was the toughest part of it; it destroyed trust with adults that I’d worked so hard to instill into them.”
Ahsan Naseem grew up in Islamabad, Pakistan, moved to Lincoln 16 years ago and knew nothing about the Malone Center or its canceled youth group trip until he read about it in the news.
“I knew probably some solution would come around and then I thought, maybe it won’t. If it doesn’t, wouldn’t that be a shame?”
He also thought: What could other immigrants like himself do to help?
What could other Muslims do?
“It would be a good opportunity to show, as people who have adopted the U.S. as our home, that we take it seriously. We want to own the problems here, and try to solve them as well.”
The problem: The Malone Center's youth groups -- the Talented Tenth for boys, and Strong and Courageous Girls -- were funded for the first time this year by roughly $24,000 in grants from the Nebraska Crime Commission's Community-based Juvenile Services Aid Program, administered by Lancaster County.
The grant's rules all but prohibit out-of-state travel. The Malone Center's application would have had to request permission for the trip -- and it didn't. Also, the governor's travel ban announced last October would have prevented the teens from leaving Nebraska.
By the time Malone Center director Larry Williams realized this, youth group members had spent much of the summer and school year raising more than $9,000 for their summer reward for good behavior.
In late March, Williams killed the trip to save the grant, but the damage was done. Club coordinators Anthony and Evelyn Kelley were fired when they challenged the decision, Anthony Kelley said.
And all of the youth group members quit the Malone Center, Kelley said, choosing to continue meeting with the Kelleys at Quinn Chapel on South Ninth Street.
“The relationships I’ve built with some of these kids, it was difficult to tell them the program’s not going to be there,” Kelley said. “I was like, ‘No, we need to keep this going.'”
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The clubs provide social and academic support, Kelley said. They help the teens become stronger members of their family and community. The summer trips serve as an incentive for good grades, school attendance, keeping out of trouble and staying active in the clubs.
They’ve traveled to Kansas City, Minneapolis and Chicago. They were considering going to Florida or back to Chicago this year.
The cancellation felt like another broken promise to the kids, who’d held up their end of the deal.
“How many times should an underprivileged kid be told something and then it doesn’t happen for them?” Kelley said. “They’ve been hearing this all of their life.”
Naseem thought the same thing when he learned about the teens: They worked hard. They should get what they earned.
After contacting Kelley, Naseem helped start an online fundraiser to pay for the trip, so far raising more than $3,600. They need to reach $9,000 by mid-June.
The psychiatrist moved to the United States for his residency at the Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit. His arrival in Lincoln for a job at the VA Hospital was supposed to be temporary.
“The plan was to get my green card and move back to Detroit. But we fell in love with his town. We call ourselves Lincolnites. We call ourselves Nebraskans.”
He’ll take donations from anyone, but he’s been urging other new Americans, and other Muslims, to help the teens take their trip. And to send a deeper message.
“Immigrants are sometimes categorized in a broad way as being a liability or a strain on American society. That is far from the truth,” he said. “I want to show that people who are not born and raised in Nebraska are still part of the fabric, and we do our best to try to help.”
Longoria has helped, too. In April, she and her mother had a Mexican food sale -- rice and beans and dinner plates -- and raised more than $600.
She’s sad her children are no longer affiliated with the Malone Center, she said, but pleased the groups are still meeting elsewhere. The support is critical.
“It gives them a chance to hang with kids their age. They can’t always talk to mom and dad about things. This helps them find coping skills to get through their daily tasks.”
The trips help her. She couldn’t afford to send her kids on a vacation to Florida or Chicago. But the summer trips are more than vacations, she said. They open her children’s eyes to a bigger world.
“They let them know there are experiences outside of Nebraska. They don’t need to limit themselves to what’s here.”