Suburban Balance, a local non-profit based in Lee’s Summit, has endeavored to help young people of color find balance in their lives and also tap their own potential since it started in 2012.
Founded by LaShawn Walker, the organization supports families of color in meeting the unique challenges of living in the suburbs — challenges she experienced within her own family.
“When my son started fourth grade, he was one of two black students in his class,” Walker said. “Even though he was a minority in the classroom, we wanted to make sure he was experiencing a balance. My husband and I wondered how we could make sure he understood, learned, and stay connected to his culture. That is how Suburban Balance came into existence.”
At the time, Walker’s instincts told her that her family’s experience wasn’t unique, so she reached out to other families living in her area. After discovering common ground in those conversations, she launched Suburban Balance with five other families.
“Our mission is to provide educational and culturally enriched activities for suburban kids of color, so they have a balanced lifestyle,” Walker said. “Our events are focused to live up to that mission.”
Today, around 150 Kansas City area families, including more than 200 boys and girls in kindergarten through 12th grade, belong to the organization.
Macie Washington, 15, joined Suburban Balance with her family two years ago and is now a member of the organization’s youth leadership council.
“I go to a predominantly white school and live in a predominantly white area,” said Washington, who attends St. Teresa’s Academy. “With Suburban Balance, I can connect with kids who have views like me and look like me. Being mixed is different than being black or white. It’s hard to find acceptance, and I find that acceptance with Suburban Balance. They are warm, accepting, and could care less what my skin color is.”
Macie’s mom, Amy Washington, certainly is grateful for the organization.
“Suburban Balance has helped Macie make connections she was needing,” Amy Washington said. “She’s found longer-lasting relationships with other members who have commonly shared experiences — things I cannot give her as a white mother. The group is so positive and all kinds of things are celebrated.”
Another youth leadership council member, Ariana Tolbert, 16, also found acceptance through the organization.
“Suburban Balance helps me to have people to connect with and there’s a lot of potential in this group,” said Tolbert, who attends Lee’s Summit West.
For many of the group’s young members, that potential has been realized through the discovery of confidence, leadership skills, and imagining new possibilities for the future.
“Before Suburban Balance, I was a strong leader but I didn’t have a voice,” Macie Washington said. “The group has given me the confidence to stand up for what I believe in and bring my ideas to the conversation. I also see myself doing a lot more things I might not have done before.”
Tolbert agreed, “Coming in, I was confident but my confidence has grown. Before, I would tell myself I can do things. Now, ‘I can’ has gone to ‘I will.’ Also, I’m more open and less to myself.”
Serving the whole family, the group’s activities and events include leadership opportunities for high school students, an annual mother-daughter brunch, numerous field trips, and community service projects.
“We believe in giving back and do a lot of community service with City Union Mission and Harvesters,” Walker said. “These are not only opportunities to give back but opportunities for our kids to connect with other kids of color.”
Group members have visited the 18th and Vine District, the Bruce R. Watkins Cultural Center, and the Quindaro Ruins among other field trips. On a recent excursion, the group took a trolley ride led by a tour guide who focused on black history in the Kansas City area.
The group also has a strong academic focus that includes ACT prep sessions, scholarship searches, and a book club for kindergarten through sixth-graders.
The book club meets monthly and includes individual presentations. For instance, in April, the theme will be baseball and members will visit the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.
Members also recently read “The Toothpaste Millionaire” and were tasked with developing an entrepreneurial business idea.
Jace Rawlings, 9, developed the idea for a sneaker cleaning business. Although he hopes to be a basketball player, Rawlings said the experience helped him think about his plans for the future.
“The book club is great because the kids get up and present to other members at every meeting,” said Alesia Hefner, mother of book club member, Jace Rawlings. “It helps them get over their anxiety of presenting in the future. It’s a great academic extracurricular outlet and the kids meet students from other schools. They see it’s a big world out there.”
Walker brings one other important role to Suburban Balance.
“LaShawn is a mother figure,” youth leadership council member, Kendall Samuels, 15, said. “We can talk to her about anything.”
Macie concurred, “LaShawn is almost like a mother. She’s opened doors and she’s opened my eyes.”