Like any successful person, Braxton Crowder has many stories to tell. When asked to share how an afterschool program has influenced his impressive career, he asked which story we wanted to hear.
“When people ask me about my story, I can go one of two ways: nitty-gritty or professional.”
For Nebraska Children and Families Foundation and our initiative, Beyond School Bells, a dedicated network of afterschool professionals, we want to hear it all.
Braxton’s tale mirrors Beyond School Bells’ longstanding efforts to create quality, sustainable expanded learning opportunities throughout Nebraska. BSB recognizes not only are these programs engaging, but as Braxton’s story shows, these programs provide career exploration and support that often isn’t possible during the traditional school day.
So, with that, Braxton began at the beginning, with all his truth.
Like any career path, Braxton’s journey wasn’t straight or smooth. He grew up in a single-parent home. He was raised by his mother, whom he attributes as one of his greatest role models.
“My mom went to school and got her master’s degree while raising me and my sister,” said Braxton. “She also worked two jobs.”
Although Braxton felt fortunate to have such a strong role model, he said that he waged a private war inside his head.
“I had internal anger,” he said. “I didn’t have a father. I found it hard to understand why my dad wanted to leave. I had a switch that would go off; it was just uncontrollable.”
Despite his rage, Braxton said when interacting with his mother, who is a brilliant woman, he tried to keep that part of himself in the dark.
“I didn’t know how to redirect my anger, but I kept it at bay,” he said.
While Braxton navigated this inward struggle, he said that the women in his life infused him with a work ethic that fuels him to this day and informed his career in afterschool.
“The women in my family ALL worked with kids,” said Braxton. “They taught me my work ethic. In my family, you don’t say, ‘Can I have,’ but ‘What can I earn?’”
Braxton said that if he asked for something he wanted, the stock answer would be, “Do you want to go rake some leaves and earn it?”
Before Braxton enrolled in an afterschool program, he’d planted the seeds of motivation deep within himself. He also met his godfather, whom he said reenergized his self-discovery as a Black man.
He also suffered during the day from watching his friends’ lives lost to gang violence. As Braxton looked around him, he saw his positive upbringing, his newfound role model, but also unspeakable trauma.
“One day in class, someone would be there; the next they were gone,” he said. “In the seventh grade, my best friend who I used to walk home with was killed outside Benson,” said Braxton.
Amid his sadness during the day, Braxton saw hope in the form of afterschool. He began attending Monroe Middle School’s afterschool program, Monroe Activity Center (MAC), which he attributes to being a formative part of who he is today.
“The afterschool program [at Monroe Middle School] helped birth the person I am today,” said Braxton.
Braxton said that one of the most reaffirming life experiences included the program director at the time, who was authentic, relatable, and honest.
For Braxton, one of the best aspects of afterschool wasn’t only the career exploration, activities, and a safe haven; it was being in the presence of a man who was transparent about himself and ambitious for his students.
“The director was one hundred percent committed; he inspired all of us to dream,” said Braxton. “He was a walking testimony for us. He had been shot and almost died. He became a catalyst for us because he was down-to-earth,” said Braxton. “As a kid, you want to see someone who’s walked the same life.”
From there, Braxton continued to walk his own life as he participated in MAC for the following two years. From there, his seeds of commitment began to flourish.
“It was amazing,” he said about the program. “It taught us social-emotional learning before it even had a name! I learned and asked myself, ‘How can I deal? Reflect? I credit [the program] for saving my life, and I DON’T say that sparingly,” he said. “I HAD to be in programming; it kept me out of trouble.”
Coming from Braxton, these words are powerful. Beyond providing career development, afterschool keeps kids safe. Beyond School Bells has long held this truth close. As Network Lead Jeff Cole said, “Afterschool programs turn the hours of risk into hours of opportunity.”
Sure enough, there is data [below] from Council for a Strong America’s Fight Crime: Invest in Kids Report to back that statement. The hours of 3-6 pm, when children are left alone, are the times when kids are most likely to get into trouble. Afterschool mitigates the risk.
But for Braxton, safety was just the beginning. From there, he began to shape a profession for years to come. After being inspired by MAC, Braxton said that his view of the world shifted to one of abundance.
“There’s so much the world has to offer,” he said. “I knew what I wanted.” What Braxton wanted was to not only enroll in an afterschool program, but volunteer at one.
From there, Braxton attended Benson High School. He would leave MAC, but it turned out, not for long. Shortly thereafter, he returned as a volunteer.
Immediately, his team recognized Braxton’s skills and effectiveness while working with young people enrolled in the program who were only one to two years behind him. While Braxton was young enough to be relatable, he also demanded respect.
Finally, after watching how well Braxton interacted with the kids, one of his coworkers pulled him aside and acknowledged his influence.
“They said, ‘These kids respect you more than some of the full-time staff members,’” said Braxton. Braxton said he earned the students’ trust by being there for them during afterschool hours, where they could bond.
“I saw kids in conflict and trauma,” he said. “I connected with them; I was closer to them in age.”
Braxton said that in one difficult situation, two of the students were in turmoil. One of them was mourning a family member who was murdered by the other student’s relative. Both students were in a state of pain; Braxton was there with them to support and mediate their grieving process.
“I cried with them,” he said. “And right there, BOOM. I realized I might possess something that could be special.” From there, Braxton had an afterschool career vision.
“I wanted to be an activist,” he said. “I helped the kids; they helped me.”
Braxton graduated high school a few years later. He attended Wayne State College for his first year. But still, because of his successes spent volunteering at MAC, he was still drawn to working with young people.
With that, Braxton spent his summers as a camp counselor at the Maple YMCA in Omaha. During this time, Braxton found his interests in working with young people began to diversify, along with the young people themselves.
“I learned how to work with kids who came from privilege,” he said. “I realized everyone has a different story.” Braxton said his experience as a camp counselor expanded his breadth of knowledge, along with his awareness and his next job prospect.
After transferring from Wayne State to Metropolitan Community College in Omaha, once again Braxton felt called closer to home, and yet again, to another afterschool program. This time, he worked as a staff member at Morton Middle School’s afterschool initiative, Panther Park. From there, he continued to be a caring, inspirational instructor.
“I saw some kids [in the program] who were smart and tried to hide it and act oblivious,” he said. “One kid in particular struck me. He was so smart and got straight As.” Braxton said that the student was resistant to making his intelligence known because he didn’t want to be ridiculed by his peers. Braxton had a solution.
“I told him, ‘We’ll bring everyone [in the afterschool program] up to this level,’” he said.
With that, Braxton flourished in his role as an afterschool staffer along with his students. That said, he made it clear from the start that he had high expectations.
“During homework time, we got working. I said to the kids, ‘If you come here with me, we’re getting into the books.’” Braxton said he was initially met with resistance from some of students, which he met with resolve: his afterschool space was a place for learning.
Eventually, again, his persistence paid off. The students who initially refused to show up to his dedicated study hours eventually began to come on their own volition.
With his career on an upswing, back in his hometown, Braxton was experiencing success. The Collective For Youth (CFY) Program Director would interrupt his smooth sailing, however, with an unexpected challenge.
As part of a standard evaluation procedure, the CFY supervisor had repeatedly assessed Braxton’s performance working in the program. She saw firsthand that Braxton’s students were thriving, and he was clearly talented. She told him that he ought to make afterschool programming his career – with a specific position in mind.
When Braxton received her phone call encouraging him to apply as the Assistant Site Coordinator for the Henry Doorly Zoo’s afterschool program, ZAP, he responded with some reservations.
“I said, ‘I’m nineteen. I want to have fun.’” Braxton said that he also wasn’t sure how he stacked up against the other candidates, as the average age for this position is usually 21 or older. “I was eighteen and without a degree,” he said.
With his family’s encouragement and some trepidation, Braxton applied for the position.
Still, his skills shone through and he got the job. Six months later after he continued to perform well, his supervisor encouraged him to apply for an internal promotion as the Site Coordinator at the Zoo’s Afterschool Program, ZAP, which he did, again with some doubts.
One day, Braxton took his usual lunchtime ride on the Zoo’s Skyfari to clear his head. As his feet left the literal ground, he received a call: he’d gotten the job as Assistant Site Coordinator.
Braxton said he did something he’d never done. He began to cry in public.
“I stopped. I sat down. I couldn’t stop crying. I wasn’t a person who cried in front of people, but I couldn’t stop it. I just kept thinking, ‘This is the time; everything I’m doing is paying off.’”
Braxton had become ZAP’s youngest-ever Site Coordinator.
For the next several years as Braxton served as Coordinator, the Youth Quality Program Assessment ranked his program number one, for three out of his five years in his role, as a top-performing leader.
Flash-forward to today and Braxton can’t keep himself out of Omaha’s afterschool programs, and all because of his determination, work ethic, and the first program he’d ever attended at MAC, which gave him the inspiration he needed.
Today, you can find Braxton as the Minne Lusa Site Director of the Kids Can Community Center. He is currently pursuing his degree as a Communications major at Bellevue University.
Whether or not Braxton found afterschool or afterschool found him, one thing is for certain: the two collided and became an insurmountable force that cultivated what was already present within this young man who continues to give back to his community.
Braxton’s gifts were always there. A quality afterschool program just continued to draw these gifts out of him; he’s never stopped giving back.
Nebraska Children and Beyond School Bells may have a seemingly endless list of efforts to support our children, families, and youth. But at the end of the day, we have one common goal: to help everyone in our great state thrive. Braxton, whose afterschool endeavors led to his impressive career, lends us faith in a generation that’s teeming with talent and always giving back.
Read more Beyond School Bells’ success stories
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