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traditional approach in child welfare – one that focuses mostly on rescuing children who already have been harmed – is outdated.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.
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.”