RedZone Ministries, an evangelical outreach ministry for youth, seeks to walk alongside young people as they navigate the challenges of growing up. Beyond managing the normal difficulties of being a teenager, high schoolers in Orange Mound are repeatedly exposed to violence and the trauma that follows. Structural violence, stemming from systemic neglect and the legacy of segregation, is part of their everyday existence.

“In under-resourced communities, trauma is neutralized. You have an initial reaction and then have to be strong again. Grieving isn’t even a thought because loss might happen again so soon,” says Whitney Williams, Program Director at RedZone.

Despite a negative portrayal in the media, the Orange Mound community boasts a well-deserved pride. Many have transcended the narrative of struggle to become successful community and business leaders, politicians, doctors, scholars, and much more. With compassion and a distinct intention to show empathy without sympathy, Whitney Williams carries out her work with the younger members of the community.

Whitney’s journey to fitness began with tragedy. On Christmas Eve in December of 2016, she lost the first of five young men enrolled in the RedZone after-school program. The rest died within the span of one-and-a-half years. She was close to each of them.

“My family and I were celebrating Christmas and the news was on. There was footage. I literally watched one of our boys be murdered on Action News 5. It was the first time that I had the biggest, craziest out-of-body experience,” she says.

At that point, Whitney had only been working with RedZone for two years. The deaths of three other young men quickly followed in August, October, and December the following year. One of the murders was justified by the news. One of the murders did not even make the news. The last of the young men was killed in May 2018. It was at this point Whitney described losing her motivation to care for herself in any way. In spite of it all, she maintained a strong face for the youth in the program.

“All of this happened to me in just 17 months. Consider the trauma that our students have experienced in their lifetime. Consider the elders of this community,” she says.

By December of last year, Whitney was tired of feeling depressed. Almost by accident, she went with her sister to CycleBar Germantown. Her thoughtfulness and resilience are what pushed her through the class. She made a pact to exercise every day for 70 days, and then could not stop. She kept going for seven months and then added in boot camp at Coleman and Company. Her healing stemmed from feeling empowered in her physical body, and she translated that feeling of control to handling difficult emotions.

“When I first started exercising, I was in the middle of a deep depression, and I found instant relief,” says Whitney. “I immediately felt that this was something I needed to make happen for our kids who wouldn’t normally have access to exercise classes or gyms.”

The typical protocol for handling grief at RedZone involves connecting students with counseling services and providing transportation if needed. Other support often includes one-on-one quality time, attending candlelight memorials, and connecting with other organizations in the area to foster greater connection in times of loss. Since becoming more active, Whitney has incorporated additional physical activity into RedZone’s strategy for supporting grieving youth.

“In a community where there are no well-lit public parks, no full track, and no all-access gym, I’m constantly trying to find ways to do things that are active,” she says. The community’s only grocery store closed in 2018, barring access to basic health necessities like fruits and vegetables, let alone high-quality produce. Through Whitney’s creativity, RedZone has invited yoga instructors to help students practice mindfulness and started a recreational basketball team. She’s helped students train for and run two 5Ks in Orange Mound and the Madonna Learning Center 4 Mile Run. She’s even brought students to Cycle Bar.

“When I say we’re here to walk alongside kids at RedZone, I mean that literally, too. Sometimes our students can’t even walk around their own neighborhoods alone.”

RedZone Ministries is seeking fitness instructors, coaches, and volunteers to facilitate physical activities and classes during RedZone programming. In addition, RedZone asks for donations of fitness and sporting equipment.At this year’s Giving Tuesday on December 3, consider RedZone Ministries for your donation in memory of:

Rockey Russell (12/24/2017)

Tadarius “TeTe” Tate (08/03/2017)

Roydaris “Duke” Collins (10/12/2017)

Wanye Boswell (12/15/2017)

Anthony “Ant” Smith (05/05/2018).

For donations, more information, and questions, contact Whitney Williams at: 901.335.1343.

By Lydia Podowitz

Photo by JoLaura Bell