Editorial: City must continue, expand outreach program

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We wrote last week about the city’s four-week program of opening basketball courts at Worcester East Middle and Claremont Academy.

Organizers and youth alike praised the program. The one criticism was that it ended last week.

Outreach workers spoke of how truly reaching at-risk youth was a process, and sometimes a long and complicated one. Duvone Mitchell says the program allowed the outreach workers to engage the kids in a setting more conducive to positive progress.

“I use sports, like fishing, take the kids out of their direct environment. … You take them there, out of their environment, and now it’s cool to talk to you,” he told the Sun during a recent session. “Then you can peel the onion away and get them to the core problem.”

Historically, sports and recreation have been seen as an indulgence or a distraction when it comes to education. We do not believe this is the case.

We believe there is vast potential here. This initiative has made a tangible impact that should not be ignored.

Keep it going. Consolidate and build support behind it. Expand it. Do not stop the momentum.

We believe the city needs more young men and women who feel like Heath, a 23-year-old outreach worker for Straight Ahead Ministries: “I notice some kids are trying to change the area. This isn’t my area (East Middle), I’m from the Main South area, and for us to try to (put) this all aside and just ball up, I think it’s something big.

“I feel safe,” Heath said. “When I come here, I feel like a part of something big. Trying to help Worcester change.”

Worcester must have these folks fully active in the process of creating positive change, and this initiative has presented that opportunity to Heath and several others.

Keep it going. Consolidate and build support behind it. Expand it. Do not stop the momentum.

Among similar programs commonly mentioned in research is Midnight Basketball, which was groundbreaking when it began in the 1980s. The theory was that convening kids kept them from descending into crime and violence.

In “The Positive Impact of Sport on Youth”,  Kyle Tysoe (Neumann University, 2014)  —  before concluding that the program had been “extremely successful,” particularly in reducing crime and providing positive role models  —  suggested the approach does have its flaws.

“While the Midnight Basketball program has shown positive impacts in both youth development and crime reduction, it is not without its drawbacks. A study by Carmichael (2008) showed that sport as a youth development program should be 8 to 12 weeks long, as that is the optimal amount of time for youth development to occur. Since Midnight Basketball traditionally only occurs (during) summer months, it may not provide lasting change for these at-risk youth. Guest (2005) found that sport as a distraction only takes care of the problem of crime reduction for the amount of time of the program, and actually takes away from their healthy youth development because it implies that without a program, the at-risk youth would not be able help themselves from committing crimes or behaving in an antisocial manner.”

We agree that ending the program puts progress in harm’s way. We disagree with the assertion that accepting help and guidance reduces youths’ ability to help themselves.

Take Gabe for instance.

“I was in a gang and then I started doing the Straight Ahead ministry stuff. I got out of the gang. They smartened me up.

“I did not have any positive role models in my life whatsoever. So even if I did have a dream to be an outreach worker, I had nobody to show me how to do it, I had nobody to show me the ropes. I had nobody to keep me (out) of trouble long enough to go and actually pursue that.”

Gabe needed help and he got it. Now he’s living his dream and helping others.

Over time, the recreational approach has evolved.

In Theorizing Sport as Social Intervention: A View From the Grassroots”, Douglas Hartmann (Quest, Volume 55Issue 2, 2003) profiles Larry Hawkins, a sports activist and community-based teacher in Chicago. Hawkins  —  much like Worcester’s Mitchell  —  claims recreation in itself is not the primary benefit of recreational programs.

“Sport is the way I reach out to people, parents, and children alike. It is the hook, the carrot, the delivery system we use to attract the attention of kids and turning them into serious, committed students.”

Among other things, Hartmann concludes, “Working with young people  —  whether to educate them, coach them, or to get them to do anything  —  must begin with their interest and familiarity. This argument … marks a significant challenge to authoritarian, disciplinarian, educational theories of old by putting first the task of reaching out to students, building a community of students who … are active and voluntary participants in the educational process.”

We agree with this assessment.

City Manager Edward M. Augustus Jr. has said the city has identified up to 500 at-risk youths and has concluded  —  correctly, we believe  —  that the best approach is engaging with them early.

We believe the interest of the city is best served by deepening the collaboration between the Worcester Public Schools and liked-minded agencies such as the Worcester Youth Center and Straight Ahead Ministries, which can effectively reach and counsel at-risk youth. The Boys & Girls Clubs of Worcester, for example, has significant experience here. Any other agency that reaches  kids by tapping into the interest and familiarity should be allowed to join.

We propose extending the basketball and similar programs throughout the city and without an end date. We advocate for an expansion of offerings to attract kids with diverse interests and backgrounds. We encourage not only city officials but civic leaders to continue to step up to the plate  —  be among the reasons why this does happen, and not a party to why it doesn’t.

We see the prime benefit being that the schools have a more engaged student body and the city has fewer at-risk youth.

The ball is in your court, leaders of Worcester. Take the shot.

One thought on “Editorial: City must continue, expand outreach program

  1. Outstanding article.The City must now help these agencies with some financial support so these programs can continue to expand.

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