Meditation cushions, worn bookshelves, a small alter with framed photos of young men and a bubbling fish tank fill the meditation room within Street Fraternity in Denver’s East Colfax neighborhood. It is a serene, inviting setting and not something you might expect in this area of Denver.
Most people pass by Street Fraternity without knowing it is there. Across the street from worn-down motels, behind a building marked “Disabled American Veterans” in faded letters, is a door with a small white sign hanging above it: “Street Fraternity” — in all block letters. Young men from the neighborhood know to knock on the door (if it is not open) to find Yoal Kidane Ghebremeskel, the co-founder and executive director of this nonprofit organization.
Located in one of the most violent neighborhoods of Metro Denver, Street Fraternity provides young men with an alternative safe space to the streets and parks of East Colfax. “We know, and we understand; we need to be consistent in the lives of [our young adults] — the ones that are struggling in high school and after high school, because the mainstream pathways of education to college and/or a career aren’t working out for them,” says Ghebremeskel.
The young men who come to Street Fraternity are primarily youth of color seeking a place where they can eat a hot meal, use a computer, play ping-pong, compose music or just sit in the quiet meditation room. It is often a stark contrast with what they experience in their day-to-day lives. “If not in a two-bedroom apartment with seven people, where else are you?” remarks Ghebremeskel.
Monday through Thursday evenings nearly every week of the year, young men buzz about the narrow basement hallways — a place they describe as a brotherhood. In this vital space, they build relationships with caring adults who nourish their sense of well-being. Just before COVID hit, Street Fraternity hosted two healing circles in their meditation room — a new venture for the nonprofit. To the surprise of the staff, the young men sat for over an hour and a half in each other’s presence, taking time to listen to one another, sharing their stories and healing from the traumas they have experienced.
“Usually we don’t expect [them to sit] for even five minutes,” says Amadou Bility, co-founder and program coordinator. The staff realized that the young men truly needed the ritual of “just sitting as a community, sharing and really being able to be heard and have the chance to express themselves.”
With the onset of COVID this past year, Street Fraternity had to close its basement and find other ways of serving the neighborhood. “With the exception of closing down for one week, we quickly strategized and said, ‘well, that need for food is still there.’ We are in a food desert,” says Ghebremeskel when he reflects on how they shifted their operations to providing food for the young men, their families and anyone else in need. Fulfilling the need for nourishment was a way for the staff to maintain their connection to the community. It was a way to show the young men “we are still present, even during this pandemic,” explains Ghebremeskel.
Despite having the basement officially closed, when a young person with mental health challenges shows up at the door needing assistance, the staff can guide him down to the meditation room because, “When they are in that space, they are safer than being on the street. So, we open the doors, even if it’s just one [person] in the meditation room looking at the fish and relaxing,” says Bility. It allows the young person time to regroup, and the staff can get support through their many partnerships with mental health professionals.
To be in the presence of the Street Fraternity staff is to watch purpose unfold. The connection, the mutual respect and understanding that occur between the youth and the staff affirm one of the deepest needs of humanity: the desire to be seen, to be heard and to feel valued.
The young men in the photos on the meditation room altar — some smiling, some serious — have all lost their lives “due to mental health issues, car accidents, drug and alcohol use, gun violence,” reveals Ghebremeskel.
Their faces and their stories are reminders of why Street Fraternity exists — why the anchor of safety, positivity and brotherhood is so vital to the community. As a small, grassroots nonprofit, Street Fraternity depends on outside support to pay its rent and continue its operations. Without individual donations, this organization — this haven — would not exist. Street Fraternity was founded out of love and compassion for the young people that it serves, and love and compassion from others are what sustain its mission.
For over 10 years, Marisol Cruz has practiced yoga for its profound healing and revelatory qualities. She believes that yoga is a tool for gaining a deeper understanding of ourselves and the way we relate to the world. In her classes, Marisol focuses on pranayama breathing exercises and vinyasa practice to guide students through their own personal experiences. When she is not practicing yoga, Marisol dedicates her days to serving the community through her work with nonprofits. She lives in Denver with her husband and two little boys.