Some problems a city can squash: Philadelphia moves forward with after school programs

A range of challenging conditions within a community must be addressed in order to keep children truly safe. This can be done by restoring some of the community spirit that served families so well in the past.

Bells ring, doors swing open and streams of children pour onto the mural-lined sidewalks and streets of Philadelphia. School is out. It’s 3 p.m., and so begins the most dangerous time of the day to be a child.

On West Jefferson Street, children scurry home to the Norman Blumberg Projects, two notorious tenement-style high-rises that glare at one another over a menacing courtyard below. Will a dealer emerge from the shadows to offer them drugs? Will they get caught in crossfire?

For these children, their biggest hope is to reach the ground-floor elevator door of the apartments unscathed.

About three miles away on North 10th Street, a similar group of children starts arriving at a sparkly rec center built six years ago by a generous community donor. Some of the kids eat a healthy snack before doing their homework with volunteer mentors who help them with the hard stuff. Others head upstairs to the gym-like surroundings to take part in an after-school program that revolves around the game of squash.

For more than 100 vulnerable children in Philadelphia, hope comes in the form of a racquet sport that originated in 19th century England.

And it is working.

Today in America, too many children live in fear. For them, safety can be elusive, whether it is the risk of abuse or neglect in their homes, violence in their schools or gunfire in their neighborhoods.

In cities across this nation, neighborhoods can be deadly for young people. Homicide is the second leading cause of death in the U.S. for ages 10 to 24 and the leading cause of death among African Americans of that age group, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In Philadelphia, though, two powerful voices are leading a chorus of change that is challenging old assumptions about the role of government, breaking down barriers and reshaping how government and the community work together to keep children safe and make families strong. They understand that the traditional approach in child welfare – one that focuses mostly on rescuing children who already have been harmed – is outdated. Adverse conditions within a community, including the scourge of youth violence, also must be addressed in order to keep children truly safe.

“The Department of Human Services (DHS) is a public safety agency, just as much as our police department and fire department,” says Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, who assumed office five years ago and inherited a child welfare department in disarray.

Nutter hired Anne Marie Ambrose as commissioner of DHS, which oversees child protection services. Since 2008, the number of children in foster care in Philadelphia has decreased by 37 percent, and about 1,000 fewer children a year are entering foster care today compared with 2008. Together, Nutter and Ambrose have created a vision of  community engagement that is transforming tough neighborhoods into bastions of hope.

“Child welfare is a community responsibility,” Ambrose says. “Government alone can’t do it. What we’re creating in Philadelphia is intuitive. At DHS, we never before asked for help because we were the ones supposed to be providing the help. Now, we’re asking for help from the community all the time.”

That philosophy is reflected in a comprehensive reform of DHS that moves the agency away from a centralized administration to one that has handed over the responsibilities of case management and case coordination to established and respected community nonprofits.

Hope comes in the form of a playground that a neighborhood took back from the criminals who claimed it.

One of those organizations, Asociación Puertorriqueños en Marcha (APM), recently helped a neighborhood seize back control of a playground that had been ceded to drug dealers and other criminal elements. The Rainbow de Colores playground cost $180,000 to redevelop in 2011 with support from the city’s parks and police departments – although neighborhood residents really were the ones responsible, having committed to maintain the open space.

“The message to the community was, ‘We are not going to revitalize this playground for you, but if the community is there to make it happen, we will be there to support you,’” says Jennifer Rodriguez, APM deputy vice president. “If the community does nothing, then nothing will get done.”

The transformation was obvious soon after the playground reopened when a bride and groom decided to use the park for their wedding. “A new beginning,” says Anthony Medina, who owns a used furniture store nearby, carrying on the commercial legacy of his father, whose grocery store served the neighborhood for years. “After we fixed the playground, there was more hope among the people. People actually walk around the neighborhood now. People come out of their houses.”

In contrast, the children living at Blumberg Projects stay cooped up inside their apartments after school – for their own safety but not necessarily their own good. Nutter and Ambrose are working to build hope for them, too. “Despair and apathy are two powerful forces you have to fight against,” Nutter says. “When communities give up, that’s when you really have problems.”

Every community, no matter how impoverished, has hope waiting to be tapped. In Philadelphia, community pride leaps from 3,300 building murals that tell stories of heroes, triumphs and hopes. An urban art gallery, the murals are the makings of a city strategy in the 1980s to harness the talents of graffiti artists and turn their work into a positive.

Hope comes in the form of a mural arts program that arouses community pride.

The city’s mural arts program continues today. The project not only gives youth somewhere to go and something to do after school, it invites the entire community to participate in producing the murals. As a result, Nutter says, almost none of the murals gets defaced because communities have invested their hearts and souls into the creation of them.

Nutter recalls how a similar community spirit nurtured the West Philadelphia neighborhood where he was raised. Every Saturday, families got together to spruce up the block. Parents hosed down stoops while children picked up litter on sidewalks.

“I grew up in a time and in a community where adults felt they had a responsibility for every child who lived on the block,” the mayor says. “What we’re doing isn’t about trying to get back to the days of old, but it is about re-establishing some of that sense of community from the past because it works.”

To build a community of hope requires government leaders to break down silos and reach out to non- traditional partners – like philanthropist and squash enthusiast Chase Lenfest, who built the rec center on North 10th. The SquashSmarts program that occupies the second floor has been a roaring success. Every middle school youth who has started the program has gone on to college. Every last one.

Hope comes in the form of an after-school program that revolves around the racquet sport of squash.

“It’s not fair that some children don’t have the same access to quality education and safe environments  that other children do,” Lenfest says. “It’s also not fair that I had more help in learning to play squash than other kids have had.”

Ambrose had heard that Lenfest was looking for more families to use his gift to the community – and she definitely had those families. The department’s parent cafés, informal dinners where parents gather to support each other and learn to become better parents, have begun taking place at the Lenfest Center.

Ambrose and Nutter understand that to improve the safety and overall well-being of children, government and all facets of the community must work together to end the youth violence that has destroyed families and devastated neighborhoods.

“Violence is never between just the individuals involved,” Nutter says. “When one guy shoots another guy, their families are affected – and more than that. If a child is coming home from school and sees somebody lying dead in the street, maybe sees the police tape and remnants of the blood, how do you  think that affects that child? Don’t you think that child is going to have nightmares? Is that child going to act out in school the next day? When there is violence, the whole block, the whole neighborhood – every family and every child – is damaged by it.”

In Philadelphia, the challenge is to transform communities damaged by youth violence into communities where children are inspired by hope. Nutter and Ambrose mean to do just that with the help of many, many hands – and perhaps a few more squash courts.

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