Leonor Nasert is a very lucky mom.
A year-and-a-half ago, her daughter, a sixth-grader at the time, Alexis (Lexi) approached her to let her know she was dissatisfied with a lot that was happening in school.
“She had this vision,” Nasert said. “She said the kids were self-centered, were too much into brand-name clothes. She asked me, ‘How can we help them?’”
Two months later, a solution was born.
The Firesquad Youth Group.
The squad is faith-based, but is not church-based. Jesus is the central message of what they do. But it doesn’t matter if the kids — from sixth- to ninth-grade now — are Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim or even non-believers.
All kids in that age group are welcome.
Nasert says she contacted a pastor she knew, who is based in West Orange, to get tips on how to start a successful youth group. In June 2016, it all came to fruition when, at Nasert’s home, there were 28 kids at the first gathering.
The group now meets the first and third Thursdays each month at 7:30 p.m., at the First Presbyterian Church of Arlington, 663 Kearny Ave., Kearny. Nasert was able to secure the meeting space because when Firesquad first began, they’d help stock First Presbyterian’s food pantry once a month (they still do.)
Someone at the church said it was only fitting that the church gave Firesquad the meeting space for all they’d done with the food pantry.
“It was simply amazing,” Nasert said. “He said, ‘You do our pantry, now you use our space.’”
Each meeting kicks off with mingling and music, one of the most important part of any youth group. This allows the kids to get to know each other if they don’t already — or to strengthen already-budding friendships.
Afterward, there’s a “lesson” or discussion Nasert leads.
Among the topics of late, drug abuse, suicide, love, tolerance.
In fact, recently, Netflix’s controversial series “13 Reasons Why” was a huge topic for discussion.
“We wanted to give the kids a way to identify if someone is suicidal, following along the storyline of the show,” Nasert said. “It was very important that we did this.”
Each meeting follows this format. Sometimes, Nasert will show a 7- to 10-minute video to augment the discussion. There is never a fee or charge to go to the meetings. Everything that happens there is confidential (unless, of course, a child’s life or the life of someone else is in imminent danger.) Everyone is welcome.
“And they all wind up calling me ‘mom,’” Nasert said.
It’s not just the meeting, though.
The kids often go out, usually on Saturdays, to perform service projects. The idea is to empower the kids — and to teach them to be leaders among their peers. They use the social-media hashtag #OneKindActAtATime.
One recent project involved supplying hotdogs, blankets and candy to Newark’s homeless.
The service projects have been so successful that Nasert isn’t always able to take all the kids who want to go. Instead, they use a system that divides up the service projects equitably so all the kids have a chance to go.
“Again, this all happens on Saturdays,” Nasert said. “The kids want to get up early on the weekends when other kids are sleeping in. They want to go out to help others. And the homeless people love the kids. When they go, it’s important for the kids to do all the work. Yes, there are adults there, but they stand back and the kids do the work. It’s incredible to see the results.”
Another highly successful service project happens monthly. The Firesquad goes to the Apostles House, Newark, and throws a birthday party for all the kids living there who have birthdays that month. They bring balloons. The paint faces. They eat. And each kid gets a present, thanks to donations from Walmart and BJ’s.
Nasert says she’s grateful to all who have helped her get Firesquad off the ground. Like Paul Rogers. And the Pioneer’s Club of Kearny.
Nasert also says the youth group takes up all her time — she says she’s fortunate to be able to do this, with her husband being the major breadwinner in the family. Still, she could use some help.
“More adult and young-adult volunteers I need,” she said. “I could definitely use more volunteers.”
Interested in the group or volunteering? Contact Nasert 201-951-1173. Search Firesquad on Facebook, Instagram and/or Twitter to find the group’s presence on social media.