Meeting the needs of the city's children is a huge task
Here is a suggestion for city fathers and mothers if they want a true measure of our quality of life in New Bedford.
Ask our schoolchildren, especially our schoolgirls, if they would like as grownups to raise their own kids where they now live, and if not, why not? I asked that question of two young girls in the South End the other afternoon.
Both girls, in separate interviews, had been telling me that their neighborhood is an OK place to live. Yeah, they had no complaints. But when asked where they would raise the children they might have one day, another side of their feelings emerged. No, they said, their neighborhoods are too dangerous, too violent, too gang-ridden; they would raise their own kids somewhere else. Now, these girls were babies themselves, 12 years old in one case; 16 in the other.
The feelings of vulnerability they were projecting into the future had to come from what they were feeling themselves as they were coming of age in a city far more pacified than it was a year ago or two years ago but still pocked with places of unpredictable menace. Now, Mayor Lang, I am not suggesting that all New Bedford kids feel that way about the streets where they live; I am suggesting that an untold number do, especially those consigned by low income to the housing of last resort found in the city's poorest neighborhoods.
"There's a tremendous unmet need," says Patrick Sullivan, community development chief in New Bedford. "The younger population is growing in the city, and when you look at what they can do when school is out, there's not a lot of options. There are some, but it all comes down to funding and numbers." In other words, the funding is small; the number of kids large, their needs many. But one need seems fundamental. That is giving all our all children a haven after school. George Bush won't do that; Deval Patrick can't; and Scott Lang has no money. That's being burned in Iraq. That leaves people like you and me, and most of us are too caught up in our own lives to notice the sea of need right under our noses. That's most of us. I exclude people like JoAnn Clarke.
The unsinkable Ms. Clarke invited me down to the city's old warming house on Brock Avenue in the South End the other day for a look at a small after-school program she has been running for the past four years, called Trips for Kids New Bedford Inc. She introduced me to a handful of the youngsters who are enrolled in the bicycling- based program, including the two girls, one 12, one 16, from a nearby neighborhood where kids even at an early age know a gunshot from a firecracker.
Out of a sense of caution, I'm not going to identify the girls in this column. Both seem to be great kids, brimming with enthusiasm for the TFK program and the way it is opening up the world for them with experiences like swimming and kayaking and long-distance biking and special attention from tutors who get to know them as individuals with gifts and skills that get identified, encouraged and cultivated.
They are proud of their A's and B's in school and focused on goals, which include getting to college and building on their dreams. In a sense, their pride seems to be a reflection of the pride Ms. Clarke and her collaborators in TFK have in them as they watch the kids grow despite often-harrowing family circumstances.
Ms. Clarke has been after me for months now to take a look at her program; I'm glad I finally did. "The kids are so fortunate to have her in their lives," said Bernadette Souza, assistant director of the Boys and Girls Club. "And I am happy to have this woman in my life." Ms. Souza and Tara Pacheco, senior program and aquatic director at the New Bedford YMCA, collaborate closely with Ms. Clarke in TFK, referring and tracking kids and helping with the mentoring and guidance. Ms. Pacheco keeps an eye out for potential youth leaders who can be recycled into the program as they are trained in water safety and first aid.
At least one teen-ager has been certified as a lifeguard through Ms. Pacheco. The women, along with Dan Tschaen, Ms. Clarke's brother and a co-founder of TFK, are part of a still small but growing corps of SouthCoast people reaching out to meet the need emanating from city neighborhoods.
The SMILES mentoring program is a big part of the private effort as it works to build a corps of 600 volunteers to meet for one hour per week with SouthCoast schoolchildren. If SMILES is an umbrella group, TFK is among several niche groups, targeting no more than 150 youngsters per year in a program purposely kept small to ensure a ratio of one adult per three kids in groups ranging from10 to 12, depending on the season. The TFK program, budgeted at less than $100,000 per year, runs five days a week during the summer but only two afternoons a week in the spring and fall. It shuts down completely during the winter when Ms. Clarke and Mr. Tschaen focus on fundraising and grant applications. Ms. Clarke is painfully aware that the program needs to expand. She doesn't want to change the model by adding more kids; she wants to add to the program by expanding to a year-round operation while adding more days per week.
Volunteers for kids are needed more than ever because of the federal government's disorderly flight from the war against poverty, an extended retreat that has left the nation's inner-city neighborhoods holding the bag. Instead of a broad systemic effort to protect children and families, we rely on the heart and energy of people such as JoAnn Clarke.
I visited the program on the same day that Arlene McNamee, chief of Catholic Social Services, was in Washington testifying before a House subcommittee looking into the nation's homelessness.
Her testimony underscored the way the federal government has turned a blind eye to what used to be called the urban crisis. She told the subcommittee that homelessness in Massachusetts was up sharply in the past two years, with more families in shelters now than at any time since the inception of the state's family shelter program in 1983.
The federal housing budget is roughly 65 percent of what it was 30 years ago, she testified, and not a single new Section 8 voucher has been issued in nearly seven years. Cities such as New Bedford with their pool of still-affordable housing by default become sanctuary cities for families who have no place else to go. We might not like the fact that they come with children, but they do. And those kids have needs that must be met, like it or not.
So call SMILES or call JoAnn Clarke at Trips for Kids. George Bush might just be standing there. That doesn't mean you have to.
Ken Hartnett is retired editor of The standard-Times; his e-mail address is email@example.com.