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Raiders, Knights, local businesses help ‘change the narrative’ of NLV neighborhood

Updated February 23, 2024 - 11:29 am

While Robert Strawder had a dream to “change the narrative” around the impoverished, predominantly Black North Las Vegas neighborhood where he grew up, he could not envision the grand opening of his Donna Street Community Center.

The educator and mentor saw children and adults alike pack into the renovated apartment complex at 2627 Donna St. for its ribbon-cutting ceremony.

Golden Knights staff taught kids street hockey drills. Music blared, and free tacos were handed out during a block party outside the center.

Hours prior, Strawder described the long-awaited day as a “monumental” and historic occasion, and he said it was fitting that it happened during Black History month.

“I wanted to bring something in here where you can create change instantly; right now,” Strawder said. “It gives our kids (and their parents) a safe zone,” he added.

During the jubilant and emotive ceremony, Strawder and the center were honored with certificates of recognition from the city of North Las Vegas and the offices of Rep. Steven Horsford and Sen. Jacky Rosen.

Young children rushed to grab seats in front of the new PlayStation 5 consoles as others tried out virtual-reality headsets.

Adults marveled at the spacious facility, which mere months ago was a dilapidated building with a stolen air-conditioning unit. Hugs were exchanged.

The former Boys and Girls Club is equipped with a game room donated by the Las Vegas Raiders, a recording studio funded by the Vegas Golden Knights, a technology center provided by Cox Communications, a library and a kitchen. Local companies donated air conditioning and some of the construction materials and work, Strawder said.

The center’s goal is for children to have somewhere to play and receive tutoring and mentorship after school, according to Strawder. He envisions adults applying for jobs and being taught GED courses at the computer room.

It will also be a hub for social services, he said.

The center is geared toward neighborhood residents, but Strawder said no one would be turned away.

Long journey up

Strawder — who last year was named new educator of the year by the Clark County School District for his popular “Hip-Hop Entrepreneurship” program — grew up in the neighborhood with his four siblings and their single mother.

Money was scarce, and the kids couldn’t afford the $1 fee at the Boys and Girls Club. Kids who could afford the small fee would in turn make fun of them for being “poor,” he said.

The rough streets, paired with negative influences, led Strawder into a life of legal troubles. As an adult, he found himself facing a serious criminal case and hid from the law for years, he said.

Before turning himself in, he promised God that given a new chance, he would use his freedom for good.

A judge dismissed the case, he said. The next day, he applied for a job with the school district.

Strawder has been an educator for five years and is instrumental in organizing holiday block parties where families are fed and entertained, and the children leave with gifts.

The eyes of Strawder’s mother, Emma Johnson, welled with tears Wednesday.

“This is something that I can’t describe, it’s so beautiful to still be here living to see,” she told the Review-Journal. “And I thank God for everything.”

She said she did the best she could as a parent given the circumstances, noting that while her children lacked resources, she instilled in them the mantra to do better, and that “there’s nothing that they can’t do when they put their mind into it.”

On Wednesday, 4-year-old Gaby was one of the first to try out a children’s learning program at one of the computers. Her mother, Paola Santos, teaches computer sciences at Grant Sawyer Middle School and is Strawder’s coworker.

Santos helped set up the room, and said they plan to eventually recruit a teacher to tutor the children.

“The kids around this community will be lucky to have this kind of place where they can go after school,” she said.

Santos and Strawder have talked about the community center for years.

“His vision remained the same,” she said. “He wanted to help this community because he loves this community so much.”

Moments before the ceremonial ribbon cutting, Strawder pumped his fist and smiled widely. His mother said she’d never seen him happier.

“This is a community effort,” Strawder told the packed crowd outside the facility. “We want our babies to be better than us. In order for our babies to be better than us, we have to lead by example.”

Contact Ricardo Torres-Cortez at rtorres@reviewjournal.com.

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