Al­len­town lead­ers search for ways to reach youth, re­vive neigh­bor­hood groups

The Morning Call - - LOCAL NEWS - By An­drew Waga­man

In­tense gun vi­o­lence this sum­mer in Al­len­town has com­pelled city lead­ers to ex­am­ine what more the gov­ern­ment can do to help neigh­bor­hood groups thrive and what more it can do to im­prove the ex­pe­ri­ence of grow­ing up here.

Twenty-seven people were shot in the city in June and July. One died.

Two meet­ings this week of­fered some hope but also demon­strated the dif­fi­culty and lim­i­ta­tions of tack­ling prob­lems from City Coun­cil cham­bers.

On Wed­nes­day, a new youth ad­vi­sory task force led by coun­cil Vice Pres­i­dent Julio Guridy out­lined the ad­vi­sory board’s main ob­jec­tives and took stock of ex­ist­ing services and re­sources avail­able for chil­dren and young par­ents.

It also brain­stormed how the city can do more to sup­port young fam­i­lies from the out­set. Frus­trated com­mu­nity mem­bers in­sisted the ini­tia­tive must first and fore­most be a grass­roots ef­fort and must wel­come the city’s most trou­bled youth, in­clud­ing gang mem­bers, to achieve mean­ing­ful change.

“I know people want to see things done yes­ter­day,” Guridy said. “But we work in or­der here, we have a process. It might be slow, but we’ll get there the right way.”

At­tend­ing the meeting were one or more rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the Al­len­town School Board, Ca­reerLink’s Ca­reerForce youth program, Le­high County Chil­dren & Youth Services and Com­mu­nity Services for Chil­dren.

Dei­dra Vachier, vice pres­i­dent of early child­hood de­vel­op­ment at Com­mu­nity Services for Chil­dren, ad­vo­cated for city sup­port of uni­ver­sal pre-school. Its Head Start and Early Head Start pro­grams fo­cus on em­pow­er­ing chil­dren and par­ents, she said, but they’re only reach­ing a frac­tion of el­i­gi­ble fam­i­lies be­cause of fund­ing. An­nual wait­ing lists reg­u­larly exceed 1,700, she said.

Mayor Ray O’Connell voiced his sup­port for the ef­fort and, cit­ing Philadel­phia’s use of a soda tax, said he was work­ing with the city le­gal depart­ment in search of a “cre­ative way” to fund free Pre-K.

“I’m not a pro­po­nent of a soda tax, but we can come up with cre­ative ideas that I be­lieve the people of Al­len­town would be will­ing to get be­hind in or­der to sup­port uni­ver­sal Pre-K,” he said.

Vicky Kistler, direc­tor of the city’s health bureau, en­cour­aged the board to so­licit in­put of teenagers and chil­dren and base its mis­sion on what they have to say. She re­called the pos­i­tive re­sponse from both stu­dents and par­ents to the Al­len­town School Dis­trict’s Mad Hot Ball­room danc­ing com­pe­ti­tion.

She also said kids come “in droves” to a city health clinic af­ter it in­cor­po­rated de­sign changes to its lobby that stu­dents had rec­om­mended to make it more wel­com­ing.

All the talk about sup­port­ing ex­ist­ing or­ga­ni­za­tions will have no short-term im­pact un­less the youth board tack­les the city’s gang prob­lem, res­i­dent Miguel Mo­rales said. He sug­gested the city is wast­ing its time un­less it takes more rad­i­cal steps to ad­dress those he be­lieves are be­hind the ma­jor­ity of vi­o­lent crime.

“Some­times you do have to rein­vent the wheel,” he said.

Mil­lie Canales and Jes­sica Or­tiz, com­mu­nity or­ga­niz­ers and cen­ter city moth­ers, said they came rep­re­sent­ing, in Or­tiz’s words, “the youth of the hood — the Bloods, the Crypts, the Latin Kings, all of them.”

“The kids you need aren’t the ones se­lected by school prin­ci­pals, but the knuck­le­heads,” Canales said.

She promised to shep­herd those teens to fu­ture meet­ings of the youth board.

“I hope they’re wel­come when they come to this door, how­ever they come,” Canales said.

Richard Lovell in­tro­duced him­self as a vic­tim of Al­len­town gang vi­o­lence in 2014 and ac­knowl­edged be­ing a for­mer mem­ber of the Latin Kings who has since “made a con­scious de­ci­sion to en­gage with the trou­bled youth in the com­mu­nity.”

Lovell said he ap­pre­ci­ated the work of the var­i­ous com­mu­nity services or­ga­ni­za­tions present, but said they’re not reach­ing the most at-risk youth. Such kids feel iso­lated and need men­tors will­ing to meet them where they are and of­fer a more pos­i­tive source of be­long­ing.

“It’s about who you have in your life that’s will­ing to en­gage with you and care about you,” he said. “You need to grab these kids by the shirt and say, ‘Hey, come on, there’s some­thing else you need to know. This isn’t all there is. There’s more out there.’”

If Wed­nes­day’s meeting had an edge of ex­as­per­a­tion, Thurs­day’s was checked by poor at­ten­dance. Ex­clud­ing city employees and elected of­fi­cials, eight res­i­dents showed up for a sum­mit of neigh­bor­hood groups hosted by Courtney Robin­son, chair­man of coun­cil’s com­mu­nity and eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment com­mit­tee.

Those at­tend­ing dis­cussed how the city can sup­port neigh­bor­hood crime watches and newer com­mu­nity groups that in­creas­ingly don’t fit the mold of the for­mer.

Robin­son said the city can take some ba­sic steps to help pro­mote ex­ist­ing groups, such as in­clud­ing a list in its Ad­ven­ture Al­len­town guide and up­dat­ing its 411 App with a fea­ture iden­ti­fy­ing nearby groups for any given res­i­dent. He also sug­gested the city make a howto guide on launch­ing groups and ded­i­cate a city po­si­tion to act as a point per­son for com­mu­nity groups.

Com­mu­nity or­ga­nizer Ed White also sug­gested cre­at­ing an Al­len­town wel­come pack and com­plet­ing more fre­quent cen­sus-type sur­veys to get a bet­ter sense of is­sues and con­cerns of those res­i­dents who can’t at­tend city meet­ings.

Al­len­town police Capt. Glenn Granitz over­sees the force’s cen­ter city pla­toon and reg­u­larly at­tends neigh­bor­hood meet­ings across the city. He said he tries to “treat each group like an in­ves­ti­ga­tion, fig­ure out what makes it tick, and then meet it at that point.”

For ex­am­ple, reg­u­lar meet­ings work for some of the more es­tab­lished neigh­bor­hood groups, while oth­ers such as Jor­dan Heights have shifted to event-based meet­ings where com­mu­nity mem­bers feel more com­fort­able.

“The last two months have been stress­ful for the city, but out of ev­ery mo­ment of challenge comes an op­por­tu­nity for growth and change,” Granitz said. “I re­ally think get­ting more people in­volved could be the sil­ver lin­ing com­ing out of this sum­mer, and I’m excited to be part of the ways that we as city employees can fig­ure out how to reach our cit­i­zens and in­ter­act more suc­cess­fully.”

Morn­ing Call re­porter An­drew Waga­man can be reached at 610-820-6764 or awaga­[email protected]

APRIL GAMIZ/MORN­ING CALL FILE PHOTO

Neigh­bors come to­gether dur­ing the 10th an­nual block party of South Race Street in Al­len­town. Neigh­bors sit out­side un­der trees, tents, play games and chat away while the smell of grilled foods, mu­sic and laugh­ter fill the neigh­bor­hood block party on July 27.

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