When junior Chris Suggs started an organization for youth in his hometown of Kinston, North Carolina, he hoped he would make a change in the turbulent community.
Little did he know that five years later, the organization — Kinston Teens — would be stronger than he had ever anticipated. Kinston Teens is now reaching an international audience after being featured in a tweet that has over 1.2 million views.
“I was completely caught off guard by this,” Suggs said. “I wasn't expecting it at all, and it truly went viral so quick.”
Suggs filmed with NowThis News in December for a video about the climate crisis and the impact that recent hurricanes and flooding have had on towns like Kinston. That video had already been published as he anticipated, but Suggs wasn’t expecting the entire video about his organization that NowThis tweeted on Feb. 14.
“I guess I talked so much about Kinston Teens and the Neighborhood Hub project, they ended up releasing a second video all about it,” Suggs said.
In 2017, Suggs used $1,000 of his own money to purchase a run-down house in East Kinston. Using money from fundraising and donations, the group has spent about $50,000 renovating the property into a space of its own, the Kinston Teens Neighborhood Hub.
The organization and volunteers have worked on the house for the past couple of years, and Suggs said they plan to open the hub by May of this year.
Suggs said he realized early on that the group needed a location of its own and that the young people in Kinston needed a “fun and welcoming space.”
“Our goal is just to be a space for young people in our organization and young people in the neighborhood to come and hang out, have access to technology and do homework at (and) be able to host events out of,” Suggs said.
The tweet from NowThis, Suggs said, has really increased the organization’s traction.
“We've just gotten so much new support from people all across the world: donating to our organization, using our website, so many new followers on my social media pages and the organization's social media pages,” Suggs said.
Suggs, who also serves as the president of the Black Student Movement, started Kinston Teens in 2014 at 14 years old, when he wanted to address the violence he was seeing in the community and among people he knew.
North Carolina Central University student Aja' Harvey, another resident of Kinston and a member of the organization since its start, agreed that the town had been troubled.
“Before Kinston Teens was started, the crime rate and violence rate were really high,” Harvey said. “It was a bunch of shootings going on, and people who were shooting or that were getting shot were my peers, people I went to school with.”
Sugg’s mother, Kristal Suggs — a Kinston city council member and the chairperson for the Kinston Teens Board of Directors — said she was initially hesitant about her son starting this organization.
“As a parent of a child who was doing the 'right' things and making good grades and never in any trouble, I was a bit worried that him starting a youth platform in response to what seemed to be gang violence and quite concerned that it would put him in a bad situation with some of his peers,” she said in an email. “However, Chris wouldn't take no for an answer, respectfully.”
Before Kinston Teens started picking up momentum, Kristal worked as an elementary school teacher. But once her son got so busy with the organization, she decided that she wanted to focus on supporting him and put all of her time into the group.
Kristal said Kinston Teens focuses heavily on civic engagement and asserted that the more younger people start to get involved in the community, the more they realize that their voices are needed.
“When they start showing up, they start becoming a lot more respected,” Kristal said. “When they start asking questions, it holds the adults in the rooms and who are at the tables, it holds them accountable for responses and it allows them to feel like they have a voice and a part in implementing change.”
Harvey said that after the group was created, she could see change within the community, noticing that her peers who hadn’t been interested in community service before were starting to get involved. She said she was proud of the change she noticed in herself, too.
“Working with Kinston Teens has brought me out of my shell,” Harvey said. “Just doing interviews and meeting different community leaders, government officials and stuff, I think that has been the highlight of my experience.”
Kristal said that donations to Kinston Teens are tax-deductible, as the organization is recognized as federal tax-exempt 501(c)3 nonprofit, and that every bit helps. Suggs advised anyone who was interested in donating or getting involved to visit Kinstonteens.org.
“My goal is that more people will continue to support us,” Suggs said, “but also that people in their own communities will be inspired to do some amazing things, whether it's a small service project or major renovation projects, like what we've done.”
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