Like many boys his age, Nathan loves sports, especially basketball. And he, like other school-age children, has found himself struggling with a new learning environment due to the pandemic.
Recently Nathan found a reason to celebrate. He was told that as a freshman, he had made his high school varsity basketball team. One of the first calls he made was to his mentor and the founder of Heads Up Houston, Kevin Kebede.
Connecting with kids is a quality of life that Kebede finds the most fulfilling: “These moments let you know your sacrifices are not in vain. That kids know that we don’t give up on them.”
After years working for the YMCA of Houston in various director roles, Kebede and JB Sithole founded Heads Up Houston in 2016, giving children like Nathan an opportunity to participate in outreach, enrichment and leadership programs for students, parents and adults. Beyond leading the mission, Kebede works tirelessly as not only the organization leader, but also as a coach, teacher and mentor.
The day I met with him outside his new community center on the second floor of the Good News Church building at 8400 Boone, he was driving the bus that picks up children for after-school enrichment. The new building houses a classroom for the elementary students, a computer room for classes and a computer game room for older children. In partnership with Houston Community College, college students work on staff as teachers and instructors for academic credits.
What began as a way to get children to participate in organized youth sports has grown into a full service community organization. Heads UP Houston (HUH) offers intramural sports, academic enrichment, summer fun camps and leadership development.
The HUH founders met with the community members before creating programs to meet community needs. The partnership led to programs such as extended-day education enrichment based at apartment complexes and leadership development that lead to job opportunities once completed.
Originally serving the youth of the Alief area, the program has expanded to serve other parts of the city including. Over 1,000 youth, ages 4-18, participate year round in various athletic programs including basketball, soccer and cheerleading/dance. While learning the skills needed on the field, the young athletes learn life skills like teamwork, responsibility and respect.
Kebede’s commitment goes back to his philosophy of strengthening the foundation of the community.
“I don’t want to give them a backpack for 20 years. I want for them to pull themselves out of poverty and you have to have skills to do that,” he said.
HUH wants to provide those skills to students’ families as well. It provides English as a Second Language courses and GED classes in partnership with apartment complexes. Some of the complexes offer rent rebates when residents completes the courses.
Sithole and Kebede do all of this in memory of family members. Kebede’s mother, Betty J. Kebede, lost her battle with breast cancer in fall 2017 and Sithole lost his son Ethan when the child was only 5. Kebede explained, “Our drive for what we do goes back to my mom and Ethan. My mom’s life was about service.”
Heads Up Houston Foundation is a non-profit organization that raises money to fund programs, participation fees and scholarships for high school students through the Betty J. Kebede Fund.
Sports, classes and leadership mean nothing if they cannot change lives, and at HUH they do. As the program cultivates students who may go into the educational field after graduating from high school and college, many of the youth go on to job training through hours of service to HUH and job-shadowing counselors, coaches and wellness staff. With today’s teacher shortage, this is a much-needed added advantage for the community.
Although COVID-19 has brought on changes and challenges in the operation, like limiting capacity, multiple bus trips to adhere to social distancing and daily temperature checks along with mask requirements, the organization still has plans to grow services in the near future. HUH has plans to expand its programs to include financial planning courses, parenting classes, medical information seminars and immigrant counseling.
Heads Up Houston
8400 Boone Rd
Houston, Texas 77072
— By Jessika Leal