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Congresswoman Maxine Waters

Representing the 43rd District of California

Your News Columbus: California congresswoman talks up West Side youth center

October 28, 2009
In The News

By Felix Hoover

For YourNewsColumbus (

Posted 10-26-09

It looked like a mini political convention Sunday evening when U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters arrived at Villa Millano Banquet & Conference Center.

The Congresswoman from the 35th District in California established at the outset that the event, the J. Ashburn Jr. Youth Center's annual Speaker's Award Banquet, wasn't political.

But there surely were a lot of prominent Democrats present, including Waters' congressional colleague Rep. Mary Jo Kilroy; former State Sen. Joyce Beatty, senior vice president for outreach and engagement at Ohio State University; City Councilmembers Hearcel F.Craig., Eileen Paley, Charleta Tavares and Priscilla Tyson; City Attorney Richard Pfeiffer and a few members of the Columbus Board of Education.

The banquet was less about political candidates and partisanship than about finding ways to continue and expand service to children, just as the Ashburn Center has done throughout its 47-year history.

The J. Ashburn Jr. Youth Ashburn Center continues to combat problems in the area of abuse of drugs, alcohol, school truancy and dropouts, youth unemployment, and teen pregnancy. Activities are designed to develop responsibility for self and one's own behavior, one's family, the community, and to improve self-confidence, interpersonal skills and develop relationships with diverse populations.

The youth center, at 85 S. Clarendon Ave. on the West Side, impressed Waters during her visit there earlier in the day, she said. So did many of its alumni and its administrators past and present.

Waters admitted skittishness about walking onto the shiny gymnasium floor because she was wearing heels, but she ventured onto it when no objections were raised.

The value of structured athletics, later reinforced by Executive Director Keith Neal, definitely has its place it a balance program of activities for youths, she said.

Things that stimulate the brain hit the mark at the Ashburn Center, Waters said.

"I saw the chess boards there,.and what a mind-developing activity it is," she said.

In her time with Neal, Waters heard his janitor-to-executive director story that has spanned 33 years as a staff member.

She acknowledged some of the people who grew up at the Ashburn Center and went on to prominence, including developer Paul Taylor and last year's honoree Joe Johns, a correspondent with CNN.

Waters saluted Rachel Ashburn Mallory, first vice president of the center's, for carry on the family legacy of service to children on the West Side.

The proposal for the Speaker's Award came from Mallory as a way of honoring her father, the Rev. Jacob Julian Ashburn, who was pastor of Oakley Baptist Church and the center's founding executive director.

Mallory also paid tribute to her paternal grandfather, the Rev. Jacob Ashburn Jr., for whom the center is named.

Neal recognized Jaymes Saunders, who had been a social worker when the center first opened. When Jacob Julian Asbhurn died in 1984, she succeeded him as executive director. In her three decades at the helm, she oversaw development of the center at its present location. Previously it had been part of the church when it was on Highland Avenue.

Waters favorably compared the Ashburn Center with the community center from her childhood in St. Louis where skills were learned, achievements were encouraged and children were provided a safe haven.

"Sometimes it's very important for children just to be in a nice, clean, orderly place," she said. "In disorderly places you can't get your mind in order."

Waters expressed astonishment that the center was able to serve 500 children a year on an extremely lean operating budget, $200,000 a year. Part of the money comes from the United Way of Central Ohio.

"You should have millions more to do this work," she said.

Waters went so far as to suggest that federal money be earmarked for the center and said Kilroy would have her as an ally in such a pursuit.