Recreating Neighborhood Ties

Like virtually every other city in the United States, this one has had its share of latchkey kids, truancy, graffiti, drugs and gangs.But Kansas City has something else, something few, if any, other cities have. It has "block leaders" like Shirley Parks -- a neighborhood "mom" who invited some girls to exercise with her in her front yard and sparked a mini-peace movement in a violence-prone neighborhood.Block leaders serve as surrogate moms and dads for kids who might otherwise spend their afternoons and evenings roaming the streets. They provide everything from a safe place to get snacks to cooking classes and wake-up calls.The three-year-old program is creating a national model for urban youth development, according to its designers -- and recreating the old neighborhoods where children knew someone was watching."We're about that village it takes to raise a child," said James Lee, referring to the African proverb used by Hillary Clinton in the title of her recent book.Lee, like Parks and several dozen other block leaders in the city, are paid a modest hourly wage by a consortium of local social agencies and a federal program. They spend several hours each week recruiting young people off the streets into productive activities.Beci Amy, one of the program's overseers, said the kids aren't just eating cookies after school."Some of the things they've done is paint over graffiti, plant community gardens, take care of buying groceries for senior citizens who can't get out," she said. Some have also held rallies against violence and drugs.But block leaders don't work only with youth. They get to know entire families and connect them with needed services."Block leaders are here for each other, and they're here for the whole community," said Lee, who organized a reading program involving older children who read to younger ones, building skills all around but also familiarizing the older readers "with stories they might have missed."Both Parks and Lee work in the city's Blue Hills neighborhood, using a YMCA as an activity center, although, said Parks, "We're also encouraged to have the kids come to our homes."Parks holds barbecues and tailgate parties for young people in her dance group and their friends. The dance group, called the 57th Street Sensations, evolved from her front yard exercises with neighborhood girls and eventually some boys who hung around to watch.The Sensations have performed in neighborhood parades and other community events, and Parks tells them they are "dancing for peace," hoping to shift their focus from the violence that mars Kansas City and other urban areas.Parks also hopes to involve young people in her neighborhood in creating a quilt similar to the AIDS quilt, with each square representing a young person killed in an American city. Her plan is to incorporate personal possessions of each young victim and compile newspaper clippings that tell their stories.The block leader program, a first of its kind, according to organizers, is an offshoot of YouthNet, an umbrella organization of agencies serving young people.The city now has 38 block leaders, some who are paid directly by the program, others who are AmeriCorps volunteers. All get 30 hours of training focused on such skills as needs assessment, cultural sensitivity and conflict resolution, said Amy, a spokeswoman for YouthNet.Earlier this fall block leaders got involved in Clean Sweep, a citywide cleanup effort. Such projects connect people in neighborhoods and "empower them to do something about the problems right where they are living," Amy said.Owens wants her block leaders to be "people lovers" and challenges them to each recruit 45 young people into programs.Her ideal candidate already has a full-time job. Block leader Lamar Vickers, for instance, is general manager for a lawn care service owned by his mother.For their neighborhood work, AmeriCorps volunteers get a stipend through the federal program; locally funded block leaders are paid $8 an hour for a maximum of 12 hours a week. Inevitably, Lee said, block leaders put in extra unpaid time.[EDITORS: STORY COULD END HERE OR OPTIONAL TRIM NEXT 4 GRAFS.]Among Amy's favorite program-related stories is one involving a block leader who was victimized in the housing project where she lives and turned it into a positive through the program.The woman's car was stolen by a 13-year-old boy who was not in the program, Amy said. When she learned the thief's identity through the grapevine, she approached the boy. "He was really scared," Amy said. "He knew he was in big trouble."The block leader reported the theft to the police but didn't stop there. "She developed a relationship with this child," Amy said, "supporting him as he went through the process of being charged with the theft."Later he became part of the program, "one of her kids," Amy said. "And he began telling other kids what happens when you steal cars."[END OPTIONAL TRIM.]Like many other block leaders, Parks feels her efforts to create a village in her neighborhood have improved her own life along with the lives of those she serves."There used to be a time when I was afraid to walk from my house to the store," she said. "Kids were roaming the streets. There was a stigma attached to this neighborhood."That has changed, she said, because of her broad network of relationships. "Now that I've gotten to know some of these kids," she said, "I'm ashamed of the feelings I had before."

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