A Clark County program draws kids off the street by giving them what they want

If you closed your eyes and listened to Late Night, you’d hear the beep of the metal detector at the front door of the Walnut Community Center near Cheyenne and Las Vegas Boulevard in North Las Vegas. You’d hear sneakers squeaking as young men in boxing gloves throw punches at the lobby air. You’d hear a stampede of feet shuttling back and forth across the basketball court. And you’d hear an electronic beat beneath freestyle rapping, the rhymes coming furious and focused from the center of a small, supportive huddle.

It’s the second to last night of the Clark County program, which keeps Walnut and Pearson community centers open until midnight on Thursdays and Fridays during the summer, enticing kids off the street with basketball games, a small recording studio, cooking classes and opportunities to complete community service.

Clark County gang prevention and intervention expert Alex Bernal runs the show and knows just about everybody’s name, from the basketball player heading to his first year of junior college in Colorado to the former gang leader who makes sure fouls don’t turn into fights. And there’s Pierre Jackson, the Las Vegas-product turned Baylor point guard who always comes back to Late Night during the summer. When I ask how the program affects kids, he doesn’t hesitate: “It keeps them out of trouble, keeps them alive.”

Jackson’s not exaggerating. “Out of these kids,” Bernal says, surveying the court, “I guarantee you at least 80 percent are gang-affiliated. Kids in gangs, a lot of them have gifts and talents. They’re still kids. They play video games; they eat bowls of cereal.” Bernal pauses. “Well, sugared cereal.”

The key to Late Night’s success, he adds, is finding out what kids like and offering it to them—for free.

In the recording studio, a group of young men from Shannon West Homeless Youth Center take turns spitting raps and congratulating each other. When one gets tripped up in his own rhymes, program developer Dion Binion steps in, with an artful combination of compliments and scolding. For a few minutes the huddle gets serious as Binion and other staffers preach hard work and giving back. Then Binion looks at the young man sitting at the studio’s computer and smiles. “Drop a beat.”

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