Matilija Press
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Published Article
by Patricia Fry

2001 – Columbia (Knights of Columbus Magazine)

Save a Child…Save Your Neighborhood

You can complain about the neighborhood children or you can do something to help them.

Janice Freeman (not her real name) noticed a group of sixth grade boys hanging out every day after school. “They look bored,” she thought, “and boredom can lead to trouble.” Instead of walking away or complaining to other neighbors, she took action. One afternoon Janice, a ceramist, called out to the boys, “Hey, does anyone want to throw a pot?”

The group ambled over to her studio and she gave them each a lesson at her two potters wheels. One boy showed such promise, that Janice now tutors him one day a week as a community service.

In another neighborhood, the teens were out of control. At night they congregated to drink alcohol and use drugs. They played loud music and they partied in the street. Sometimes they fought and vandalized their neighbors’ property.

The residents didn’t know what to do, so they hid behind closed doors. Then one afternoon, shots rang out. A policeman, responding to a domestic call, was killed. Neighbors ventured out and began talking. They expressed their outrage to one another. They cried together, prayed together and discussed strategies for taking their neighborhood back.

“We started Neighborhood Watch,” said one citizen who wishes to remain anonymous. “We had officers come and talk to us about our rights and what to do when they are being violated.”

The teens soon learned that their neighbors were not going to tolerate their behavior. After dozens of unfriendly visits from the local police department, these kids finally stopped disturbing the peace in this neighborhood. However, some of them went on to establish criminal records and are currently serving time.

“While it’s wonderful to have our neighborhood back, we’re concerned about the next generation of kids,” says one resident. “Now we know that you can get the kids off the street, but how can you keep history from repeating itself with the younger siblings in these families?”

The concern of these neighbors has spurred them into action. Ruth, the prime mover in the neighborhood says, “These younger children are the perfect example of kids who are at risk. The 8-year-old was picked up for petty theft a few months ago and her 11-year-old brother ditches school more than he goes. We see a similar pattern forming here and the parents don’t seem to have the skills or the inclination to stop it.” So Ruth and some of the other neighbors have decided to intervene. She says, “We’ve made these kids are project.”

Rather than shunning the kids or shooing them out of their yards, residents make it a point to speak to the children and to engage them in conversation. One woman invites them over to help plant her spring garden. A retired school teacher and his wife have volunteered to tutor the children and they sometimes take them to church. The boy has expressed an interest in playing a sport, so the neighborhood took up a collection and, with the parents’ permission, plan to help him get signed up.

Where Neighborhood Watch Goes Up, Crime Goes Down

Crime Prevention Officer, Tonja Smith manages over thirty Neighborhood Watch programs in Tallahassee, Florida. And she is seeing magnificent results. She says, “The area with the number one highest crime rate has dropped to third after establishing Neighborhood Watch there.”

According to Officer Smith, the formula for decreasing the crime rate was relatively simple. “We made the residents aware of things like overgrown bushes and insufficient lighting. We included more police presence in that area and suggested that they call the police more often. With their help, we were able to identify some people who were causing problems.”

They are also demonstrating their concern for the kids in Tallahassee neighborhoods. “We’ve developed what we call Safe Havens,” says Smith. “These are multi-resource centers that offer all kinds of activities. We got a grant and bought the kids computers and art supplies and we have teachers who come in and teach music, dance and things these kids would not normally have access to.” She says, “When the kids start feeling better about themselves, they are no longer bored and crime goes down.”

What Can You Do?

Each of us at one time or another will encounter problems with neighborhood youth. Small children without proper boundaries may trample your flowers chasing after their ball. Older kids without supervision and structure can be noisy and destructive. You can put up with it or you can do something about it. Here are some ideas:

One on one activities.

  • Get to know the kids in your neighborhood and greet them by name. Even youngsters like to be acknowledged with respect.
  • Take time to talk to the kids and express a genuine interest in them. When a child has caring adults in his or her life, they tend to feel better about themselves, thus they’re more apt to make better choices.
  • Go for a walk with the young person. This provides a good opportunity for conversation.
  • Invite her over to pick a bouquet of flowers for her room. Offer to fix his bicycle or put air in his basketball. Model a giving heart.
  • Sit down with the child and chat over a plate of cookies and cup of cocoa. Ask about their dog, schoolwork or the school football team. It doesn’t much matter what you talk about as long as you make a positive connection.
  • Hire the child to help you with odd jobs. Earning money is an age-old confidence booster and it’s your opportunity to teach the work ethic.
  • Share a craft or skill. Help him build something. Teach her how to make bead jewelry. There’s nothing more enriching for a child than discovering his sense of creativity.

Involve the child in the community.

  • Seek out community programs for the youth. You may have to do the legwork to get them registered and help them to find transportation. If there is a fee, ask about a scholarship. A 12-year-old in my neighborhood was interested in a babysitting training program held at the local hospital. I made the call for her and learned that there was a $35 fee. I told the director that this family didn’t have the money, but that this girl really needed the opportunity and I asked about a scholarship. They were more than happy to accommodate the child.
  • If you belong to a club or organization, invite the young person to participate with you on appropriate volunteer projects.

Volunteer through an organized program.

  • Volunteer as a tutor or mentor at a nearby school or recreation center.
  • Start a program for your neighborhood kids: an after-school homework club, a sewing circle or a poetry club, for example.
  • Organize a community garden and involve the neighborhood kids.

Promote safe behavior in your neighborhood.

  • Compliment and encourage kids anytime you see them doing the right thing. I once stopped to tell a teenager, who normally drives much to fast, “I saw you driving slowly down our street the other day and I just wanted to tell you how much I appreciate that.” The girl blushed and said, “I forget sometimes that I’m driving too fast. I will do better.”
  • Say to a neighborhood child who is wearing her helmet while riding a bicycle, “I am so glad to see you wearing your helmet because I know it helps to keep you safe.”
  • Reward kids for exceptional behavior. A Texas woman reinforced the work that a group of teens were doing recently by giving them a monetary reward. Fourteen teens were painting light fixtures as a community service project when the woman drove up and handed them each an envelope containing a $50 bill.

Some people balk at becoming involved with other kids. They say, “These aren’t my kids, why should I bother?” The answer is easy—because this is your community. You have a choice. You can get involved with the youth in a positive way or you can risk suffering the consequences. These kids don’t need rejection, they need positive role models.

There’s a legitimate concern for accusations when you’re spending time with someone else’s child. In order to protect the child and the adult, organizations such as Big Brothers Big Sisters and other mentor programs have a stringent application and screening process for adult participants. You can opt for involvement in an organization with this built in screening process and liability insurance or, to satisfy the children’s parents, you might get clearance through DMV and the police department yourself.

If you’re simply befriending some of the neighborhood kids and you don’t want to become encumbered by a structured program, you might consider keeping your activities with the child out in the open. Work in the yard together. Ask the parents if they can go to the zoo with you and your grandchildren or take an art class together.

While, in America, we tend to avoid getting involved with children other than our own, there’s no getting around the fact that it takes a whole village to raise a child. Make your village a better place to live by reaching out to those neighborhood kids who need you.

Side bar

For more information:

National Crime Prevention Council
(Lists nearly 100 organizations)

Search Institute
Healthy Communities/Healthy Youth

National Mentoring Partnership

Patricia Fry is the author of A Writer’s Guide to Magazine Articles for Book Promotion and Profit (Matilija Press, 2000).

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