- Associated Press - Monday, August 1, 2016

STAMFORD, Conn. (AP) - It’s nearly 9 p.m. on Tuesday and Marco Bender - known also by his stage name, DJ Mix - is untangling wires and arranging equipment on a stage at the Yerwood Center.

Working beside him is Voshon Natteal, 18, his eyes fixed on a busy computer screen.

“I taught him everything he knows,” quips Bender, playfully grabbing Natteal, a recent Westhill High School graduate, by the shoulders.

Natteal scrolls through a playlist and lands on a remix of 50 Cent’s “Window Shopper.” The song blares from the speakers, energizing a gym of young men tossing basketballs.

Bender, 39, has been spending most of his nights recently DJing at the West Side community center. He’s part of a new program run by the Boys & Girls Club designed to give neighborhood youth an outlet for restless summer nights.

“Anything for the youth in my community,” says Bender, who was born and raised on the West Side.

Organizers say the program has been hugely successful at keeping young people in their teens through late 20s off the streets. Some nights, it attracts more than 100 kids and young adults.

“This speaks for itself,” Bender says, gesturing to a packed gym floor from his perch on the stage. “It’s spreading like wildfire in the community.”

The program even manages to reach people who can’t make it down to Fairfield Avenue.

Each night, when the clock approaches 9:30 p.m., Barry Woods, who runs the Monday-through-Saturday program, kicks off an hour-long livestream on Facebook. He holds his phone in front of his face and circles the gym, then moves to the lobby where players congregate between games.

Keeping watch near the building’s entrance is John Brown, a 28-year-old who has overcome his fair share of obstacles to become a behavior specialist, working with at-risk and troubled youth, at Stamford Academy.

Brown has shared with many of those students what he and his brother Joshua - younger by a year - endured growing up in Stamford. Raised by a single mother with addiction issues, the Brown brothers and their sister bounced from house to house, sleeping on friends’ and neighbors’ floors, forever on the brink of homelessness.

The elder Brown did several stints in prison for robberies he says were necessary to survive at the time.

“I had nothing. I was in the street trying to feed my family,” says John Brown, who has an 8-year-old daughter.

After his last prison stay, which lasted three-and-a-half years, he decided to make a change. That was four years ago.

Now the Brown brothers share a real estate portfolio. Joshua is a youth advocate with DOMUS, the organization that operates Stamford Academy. Their sister is pursuing a master’s degree.

“It wasn’t easy,” Joshua Brown says, “But I thank god that we did go through the struggle, because we know what it is to live like that.”


Information from: The Advocate, https://www.stamfordadvocate.com

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