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Gun deaths test youth program on West Side; Center still strives to offer alternatives

Youth With a Purpose a human services program giving the young alternatives to the street life and gangs -- has been operating on the Lower West Side for the past decade.

Both successes and setbacks are the rule of thumb of any organization tasked with such a challenge.

But following two recent neighborhood shooting deaths, even its director, Bob Kuebler, seemed a little worn down.

"It was one of the worst weekends I've ever had in my life," he said, referring to Memorial Day weekend.

Ansumane Kanneh, 82, a father of five, was fatally shot May 28 as he worked on his granddaughter's bicycle outside the family's Maryner Towers home. Kanneh's daughter, Mama, 15, is a youth leader at Youth With a Purpose.

A Fruit Belt resident, Kuebler was called to the scene by one of Mama's friends. The body, now covered, was still there when he arrived.

"Every now and then, a police officer lifted up the sheet, and you see the bloodstain. Firemen were hosing off the blood, cleaning the blood away," he recalled. "Everything is eerie, and everything is another wave of shock.

"You see a little pink bike next to the body and find out he was fixing a little girl's bike when he was shot in the head. This isn't real. This isn't right."

Early on the morning of the previous day, Jay A. Nieves, 21, had been fatally shot on the 100 block of Vermont Street. A $2,000 reward has been offered for 17-year-old Joshua Nieves -- who is not related to the victim -- described as a "person of interest" in the case.

After a recent workshop in D'Youville Porter Campus School 3, at which Kuebler discussed the events, Jay Nieves' niece remained behind, just to talk.

"I have seen so much death," Kuebler said. "Every time it happens, it gets worse. It's just tough."

Housed in the Youth Center of Holy Cross Catholic Church on Seventh Street for seven years, Youth With a Purpose's teen drop-in center also welcomes younger children, as long as they are accompanied by a responsible person. Members live all over the city.

The center is near the Buffalo Niagara region's most racially diverse communities, according to 2010 Census data. The tract -- a couple of blocks south of West Ferry Street and slightly west of Richmond Avenue -- is bounded on the west by Fargo Avenue and on the south by Vermont Street. About 40 percent of its population is Hispanic, 21 percent white, 19 percent black and 16 percent Asian.

Around the corner from Youth With a Purpose is a bustling commercial district -- particularly along Niagara Street -- where banks and major corporations such as Tops, McDonald's and Rite Aid do business alongside barbershops and ethnic restaurants.

But the mix also includes poverty, parents without diplomas, homes without fathers and homeless children who go undetected because they live from couch to couch.

To Youth With a Purpose members like Kuag Mobile, a 15-year-old Riverside resident, the center is a "sanctuary," a place to stay out of trouble instead of hanging out on the street.

"It's a quiet spot," said Tyrique Gibson, a 19-year-old who grew up in the neighborhood but recently moved to the East Side. Still, just about every day he comes back to play basketball. Anthony Burse, 18, who lived on the West Side but now lives on the East Side, said he also comes back regularly for a meal, a game of basketball and a chance to "chill and relax."

"I think of it as a sanctuary to get away from things," he said.

He and others return to the center, even though other facilities are closer to their new homes.

Yet even this sanctuary cannot protect them from the pain of losing friends to street violence.

Three of the five people who have worked in the center's kitchen, for instance, were related to recent shooting victims, Kuebler said.

In addition to Mama Kanneh, they are Ruth Burgos and Roxy Portes, the mother and sister of Christian F. Portes, 14, who was shot in the head in 2009 at Maryland Street and Whitney Place while riding his bicycle home from a party early one Saturday morning.

When he was younger, Christian was a Youth With a Purpose volunteer in a conflict resolution program at various public schools, performing, like his sister, positive rap songs.

"I have a Father's Day card with Christian's name on it," Kuebler said.

Youth With a Purpose provides recreation activities from 4 to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday and until 7 p.m. Fridays. During the school year, members get a meal through a state Health Department nutrition program.

The program also pays a wage for two people to work in the kitchen, Kuebler said.

For three years, Youth With a Purpose periodically has offered a mentoring program at D'Youville Porter Campus School as well as Buffalo Elementary School of Technology (School 6) and Bennett Park Montessori School 32, Kuebler said.

It also operates a speakers bureau, "when we can find funding" and a leadership camp held a couple of times a year through the schools, churches or other organizations.

A few months ago, Kuebler started a weekly newsletter called Bright Spot Report, which highlights positive developments in the community.

"I'm bound and determined to get the good news out," Kuebler said.

But that depends on staying open.

Until 2008, Youth With a Purpose was federally funded under the ProjecTruth abstinence program. But that funding dried up under the Obama administration, he said.

Since then, it has managed to hang on because of corporate and private donations. A contribution from Erie County Boy Scouts also helps, but Kuebler said he is not sure how much longer the program can continue without some type of revenue.

Without it, the center may close. That could be problematic for the entire neighborhood, said many of the boys and young men who regularly come to the center. When they're here, the problems are left "out there," said Gibson, the East Side resident who regularly comes back.

"If they close this place down, there would be more crime on the street," said Daquan Williams, 17. He moved to North Buffalo recently but comes back just about every day to see his friends and play basketball.

"I've lived over here," he said of his dire prediction, "and I know it for a fact."

e-mail: dswilliams@buffnews.com