By SARAH BRADBURY
Local Youth Pastor Joe Blankenship runs a program in our community which is reaching youth throughout the area and providing them with a safe and positive place to interact with each other and learn necessary life skills to which they may not have otherwise been exposed.
“The center is in response to the community’s need for a charitable organization that can provide the nutritional, physical, mental, spiritual and economic tools that will make a difference in the lives of our youth,” said Blankenship.
“August of 2006, my wife and I started what we called the Rock Youth Center. We had decided there were a lot of kids in the area not getting the values and things they needed,” said Blankenship. According to rockpulaski.com, the organization’s website, various youth workers, community leaders and concerned citizens assisted with the development of the Center.
Blankenship says Pulaski County sits around 25 percent poverty, so most of the kids they target are from the Town of Pulaski. He says most of the kids who come to the Rock center come from single-parent homes, or have parents in jail with grandparents raising them. “The kids see a lot of drugs,” said Blankenship. “It’s a cycle they go through, they see it growing up and they go right into it.”
According to their website, the goal of the Rock Youth Center is to be a charitable center that furnishes support tools to help lead the youth of Pulaski County away from crime, violence, drugs and poverty to a solid decision making process that will assist them in becoming good students and solid citizens.
Blankenship says there is a lack of ambition among many of the young people he works with, and says many of them are not successful in school. “Crack kills, but it pays the bills,” is one phrase Blankenship has heard uttered in his presence.
“Every Tuesday we have Full Access Youth Night. We offer tutoring and a meal at Central Gym,” said Blankenship. He said his wife, who works with the kids on bettering their education habits, is a certified teacher. He said many of the kids do not take advantage of the tutoring, but they are not forced to. “Nobody’s pushing,” he said. The kids have an open gym, thanks to the county letting the organization use Central Gym.
“We have a meal, tutoring, and a game room,” he says of some of the things offered to the kids on Tuesday nights. “Most of the time when they do a game it’s a team building activity where they have to rely on other people to be successful. Some don’t want to participate because there’s no drive.”
According to Blankenship, Rock stands for Reaching Out and Challenging Kids. He said they have a saying, “Challenging youth to go farther than they can see,” and he says, “sometimes in Pulaski, that vision is not very good.”
“We have had several (kids) come in, and they’re staying at Budget Inn, or they’re going to Roanoke and staying in a shelter there,” said Blankenship. “We’ve helped several stay in Budget Inn. We’ve helped several with food boxes, furniture, and things when they move. There’s no doubt homelessness is here.” When asked his thoughts on the possibility of a shelter in Pulaski, he said, “it’s needed.”
“We are faith based, so we come together and we challenge the kids. They are very respectful. It’s taken a while to get to that point. We’ve had lots of people come down to talk with them. We’ve had wrestlers come and set up a rink.” Blankenship again stresses that “we don’t force anything on them, but we give them the option. We challenge them and encourage them.”
The youth pastor takes the kids on trips, including one to the City of Refuge in Atlanta. “We go on the streets and we feed the homeless.” He says they also make it fun for the kids. “We take them to a Braves ball game. We also go to a weekend retreat in Asheville, N.C., called Jesus Jam.” Blankenship says the organization tries to pay most of the fees for trips, but says he challenges them to come up with $25 on their own to go towards the cost of the Atlanta trip.
“Jesus Jam is $130 fee and we cover most of it. The reason we do it this way is that sometimes our kids get used to walking around with their hands out saying ‘gimmie, gimmie, gimmie,’ so we want to challenge them,” said Blankenship. “We’re trying to establish some things with them and teach them some of the life skills they are going to need. We can’t take everyone, so throughout the year they ‘work’ to earn the right to go. They may learn the Ten Commandments, or remember certain things,” said Blankenship.
“This year we received a grant from Xaloy, and we are trying to get another from Caterpillar and the C.E. Richardson Foundation. When applying for the Xaloy grant, we were asked ‘How do you know what you’re doing is effective?’ and I said, because the kids we’re working with keep coming back.”
Blankenship says they have individuals who support them on a regular basis, like The Refreshing Center and New Life Church of the Nazarene, who help with the Dream Center, and Faith Bible Church, who bring food-bearing volunteers to prepare a meal. “We’ve been very fortunate, God’s Pit Crew provides us with Gatorades, teas; they work with Pepsi and Gatorade in Wytheville.”
When asked the difference in the Rock Center and the Dream Center, Blankenship says, “The Rock Center reaches youth. When the tornado hit, I was approached to help out and take over the old Share building on Dora Highway,” said Blankenship, of the space used to house the Dream Center.
“We’re reaching a lot of the same families, but this gives us a chance to get to know the parents.” Blankenship says he gets great feedback from those benefiting from both programs. “We get calls from parents and grandparents all the time, they’re thanking us. They know they can call us if they’re low on groceries.” He also says several of the kids he’s worked with “grow up and help us as volunteers.”
Although the youth pastor says they have success with many of the kids, they also face several challenges. “Sometimes we have had to tell a kid they can’t come back for three weeks. They’ll call and beg to come back, but we have to stick to it. These kids have struggled. They are not typical kids. There’s no discipline in their life whatsoever. It’s hard to get a kid like that to understand they are going to have to accept discipline.”
Blankenship says some accept it and some fight tooth and nail. “As they grow you see a difference. We’ve had some heartbreaks where we thought someone was going to make it and didn’t, but there are also a lot who have come through and are very successful now,” said Blankenship. He says their big passion at the Rock Youth Center is helping these kids. “The warehouse is just an addition.”
He says the organization has participated in canned food and peanut butter drives through the school system. “We try to get the community involved. We bring the parents in and go over some of the rules about the food, and we do have a little devotion with them,” said Blankenship. “I’m not making anybody feel guilty or saying ‘you have to listen to me in order to get this box of food.’ It’s just something we feel we need to do to try and give hope to people who don’t have a lot of hope.”
The Rock Youth Center is exclusively for charitable, religious, educational and scientific purposes under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code or corresponding sections of any future federal code.
For information about The Rock Youth Center of Pulaski, Inc., call 577-2873 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Donations can be made on the website, rockpulaski.com, by clicking the “Rock Donate” option on the right side of the screen.