Cameron Henderson knows that building trust is critically important in his role as a teen group leader at the Holton Center, especially when it comes to those who act out to get attention.
"They’ll give you the worst time just to make sure you’re there to stay, because people leave them all the time," he said. "You just have to care for them and respect them."
That’s why Henderson, 23, focuses simply on being present with the two dozen or so teens who come for afterschool programs intended to make them more informed and engaged citizens. Serving the city’s Harambee and Riverwest neighborhoods, the Holton Center, 510 E. Burleigh St., is a branch of COA Youth and Family Centers.
Henderson has worked at the center 25 hours a week for the last two years, helping students with homework, playing basketball with them and spending time one on one as necessary.
"The pull of the world is a lot greater than the pull of a youth center," he said. "My concern is growing because the peer pressure drives them to act harder, and it closes them off."
But Henderson, a graduate of Whitefish Bay High School who hopes to take classes soon on holistic medicine, knows that his work is making a difference for most of the teens.
Anthony Davis, 18, is one example.
"It’s fun having him around," said Davis, a shy and quiet young man willing to talk about Henderson, but not so much about himself. "He encourages us to get involved with our community. He is there to talk to when we need help."
Though he can’t help everyone, Henderson focuses on those teens that he can.
"I do this job because it’s always been a passion of mine, ever since I was a youth myself," he said. "And it’s just always been a part of my life philosophy that you have to work with the people under you, because they are a vital part of where you are going."
Initially, Henderson came to Holton looking to volunteer. When he asked the receptionist about such a role, a supervisor standing nearby overheard the request and offered a job interview.
Cheri Hegwood was a teen program coordinator at the center when Henderson was hired, but is now a supervisor at another COA center. Hegwood said he has matured a great deal since then.
"Before he would just do the same things as [the teens] and be goofy and funny," she said, "but now he’s a little bit more of a big brother type to them rather than a friend – so he can kind of motivate them and guide them in a direction that he may not have gone down before."
Henderson balances his work at the center with pursuing a music career – he performs rap music on weekends at shows in Milwaukee and elsewhere – and spending time with his 2-year-old son, Azra.
Moving forward, he wants to make a difference for others, just like he does at Holton.
"They know that I actually really care about them, that I am a friendly face when they need it," he said. "I really love these kids and I don’t want to see anything bad happen to them."