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Pay Now or Later

by Vance Barrie

In 1993 Winnebago (IL) County opened a $3.5 million, 32-bed juvenile detention unit.

Three and a half million dollars would buy a lot of recreation and social programming to help meet the needs of today's youngsters and would serve a lot more than 32 at a time.

If social and recreational agencies don't broaden their programming to meet the needs today, more of these expensive after-the-fact facilities will be needed, as will additional adult incarceration facilities. We already see that trend in the country.

The Rockford (IL) Park District, serving the communities of Cherry Valley, Loves Park, New Milford, and Rockford in Winnebago County, is trying to be proactive with its programming to help the youngsters of today become successful contributing citizens of tomorrow. The staff and board realize that recreation is not the only part of the equation. Values, lack of decent jobs, breakdown of the family unit, etc., all contribute to the presence of gangs, drugs, and increasing violence.

Meanwhile Winnebago County grapples with the fact that the juvenile detention center is already overpopulated and a 16-bed $750,000 addition needs to be constructed.

At what age do you start with programming to help steer kids in the right direction? Pat Hayes, recreation supervisor with the Rockford Park District, says, "You need to start teaching lifetime leisure skills when the kids are young you can't wait until they are teenagers they probably won't want to get involved then."

What about families who can't afford to participate in your fee programs?

If social and recreational agencies don't broaden their programming to meet the needs today. more expensive after-the- fact facilities will be needed, as will additional adult incarceration facilities.

The Rockford Park District's $28 million operating budget depends upon three major sources for funding: local property taxes, user fees, and grants and donations. Almost 40% of the District's 4,200 acres have been donated to it during its 85-year history.

The District's board of five elected commissioners and staff know there are families who can't afford even nominal fees for programs. So a "Fun for All Kids" Fee Assistance program was instituted to help those youngsters participate in programs. The board and staff knew that the youngsters had no control over their economic situation and shouldn't be penalized.

The Rockford Park District offers Fee Assistance to youths who meet the following requirements:

* Youth is 19 years of age or younger.

* Youth is currently attending school or GED program.

* Family is resident of the Rockford Park District

* Family is receiving Public Aid, or whose adjusted gross income fall at or below Federal poverty guidelines.

* Fee Assistance is offered at 90%, 75%, 50% and 25% subsidy levels.

In 1993, more than $91,000 was expended for the program. More than $87,000 was expended through mid-November 1994 with nearly 2,000 participants and more than 750 families benefiting.

24 Illinois Parks & Recreation January/February 1995

One of the programs that is experiencing an increasing number of participants via the "Fun for All Kids" program is the Outdoor Education program during the school year and Summer Camp.

The Fee Assistance program is promoted through listing on all brochures and fliers for programs with fees as well as by word of mouth by participants.

Since there is a budget for each facility and/or program, and user fees help balance those budgets, the District's Recreation Department had a budget for Fee Assistance and does a paper transfer so that no one department or facility is penalized for its Fee Assistance users.

The Park District only owns and operates one community center in the greater Rockford area, but supports the others through cash grants, capital improvements and fields for activities. They include the Booker Washington Center, Ken-Rock, Northwest, Harlem, and St. Elizabeth as well as the Boys and Girls Clubs and the Salvation Army. Junior tackle football. Little League baseseball and other baseball programs depend upon the Park District for fields or support to help serve thousands of youngsters every year.

The District's one center, the Washington Park Community Rec Center, offers 15 acres of park setting, a new playground, basketball and tennis courts, ball fields and a community center in a high crime neighborhood. Two housing projects are nearby, and the Park District offers a respite from the crowded conditions of the cement buildings.

The Center, built in the 1950s, was constructed through the efforts of several community groups, with the District given charge to operate the center.

James Parker, recreation supervisor and physical education major at Northern Illinois University, said the center offers a full array of athletic and social programs for all ages.

Some of the activities include Girl Scouts, double dutch competition, arts and crafts, martial arts ("Which are good for discipline," said Parker), tennis lessons, field trips, a weight room, a library program to promote reading with the Rockford Public Library, computer classes, cookouts, softball, swimming field trips to the YMCA and Magic Waters water theme park, a game room, basketball, family nights once a week with entertainment and refreshments, volleyball, holiday parties, and a summer lunch program.

Lenny Wright, director of the Center which operates seven days a week, said, "We also provide services such as 'West Side Soup Kitchen,' using funds the United Way and FEMA program and we're a distribution site for me commodity food program."

Parker said teaching life skills is important for example, getting the correct change from a purchase. He recounted that on a field trip, the vendor was not giving the right change back and one kid complained to him and now the staff works with the kids in this area.

The Center has become a second home and a refuge for many people during its nearly 40 years of existence.

Clarence Hicks, manager of recreation for the District and an employee since 1961, said he's seen third and fourth generations of families now using the Center. He's seen youngsters become high school coaches and teachers partially because there was a center providing positive outlets, and these role models have an effect on others.

After a surge in youth violence in the first five months of 1993, the Park District put together a "Hot Nights, Summer in the City" program, working with many other agencies.

Clarence Hicks said the idea behind the program was to offer alternatives for youth. It was in reaction to the violence but was pro-active in the sense of trying to stop problems.

"We have to be pro-active, catching these kids early getting involved in sports and athletics in a pro-active way, so they are involved in a positive program as opposed to a negative approach such as drugs and gangs. We have to develop an awareness of lifelong leisure skills. We start with the tots lots program that helps with socialization skills with preschoolers," said Hicks.

The Park District contacted other recreational and social agencies, community centers and the media, giving the agencies and groups 10 days to put together program proposals for providing alternatives for the at-risk teenagers. The Rockford Register-Star ran daily program listings for that summer. More than 20 programs were operated from the $50,000 seed money the Park District provided as well as from several donations received.

The program was revived for 1994 with 17 agencies offering 27 programs with an accumulative attendance of 27,000.

"The objective was to broaden recreational opportunities late in the evenings and additional weekend programming. We have to provide alternatives as well as safe places for these youngsters," added Hicks.

"A good example is an Arts Group which rented space in a high crime area from the city for $1 and remodeled it, developing a small rec center and safe house. It's in an area literally infested with gang and dope houses."

Hicks said several churches, community centers, and the Salvation Army developed neighborhood programs.

"The major factor for the increase in crime is the breakdown of the family structure with a mom and dad, the dad being the provider and disciplinarian. I can remember neighborhoods where the neighbors literally looked out for each other's families. The major change is drugs."

Illinois Parks & Recreation January/February 1995 25

Photo by Vance Barrie Youngsters of all ages had fun at the dedication of new playground equipment at the Rockford Park District's Washington Park Community Rec Center in 1994. The District only maintains one community center in the greater Rockford area while helping support programming of the other community centers and youth oriented agencies.

Photo by Gayle Dixon Completed in 1992, hundreds of teenagers and community volunteers combined efforts to build a two-story, 64,000 square foot teenage playground in Rockford's Blackhawk Park to give the teens a safe haven for activities. ip95243.jpg
Photo by Pieter Froehlich Working with the local school districts, the Rockford Park District has for years offered winter Friday Night Rec programs at the middle schools. The programs provide recreation and social activities for the young teenagers.

"At the District, we've expanded hours of some of our facilities, help support the midnight basketball program, and expanded our intergovernmental contacts to help stem to tide."

Hicks understands kids. He should. He grew up in a reform school in the Richmond, Virginia area. Not that he was a bad kid. His mother was a dietician at the reform school and his dad also worked for the state of Virginia and their home was on the grounds. (So his early education not only included school but also street smarts picked up from kids who had been there.)

Hicks emphasized, "We need to save the next generation."


Another way to reach the youngsters is to ask them what activities and facilities they'd like.

In the early 1990s, the Rockford Park District began meeting with students from each of the area high schools public and private to find our their needs in order to serve them better.

The Youth Council now meets monthly during the school year. One of the first priorities for the teenagers was having their own special playground. The Park District called in noted playground architect Robert Leathers. He visited two of the high schools and asked the students for their ideas. Then using those ideas, he developed plans for a massive playground in one of the District's oldest parks, Blackhawk.

The students then had to help raise funds for the 64,000-square-foot, two-story playground, come up with volunteers to build, food to serve the volunteers, and supplies and tools to build it. Many high school students came away with knowledge gained outside the classroom.

The "Getaway" playground has a two-story, changeable maze, a tree house, performance area, sand volleyball and basketball courts, and a spider climb. During the day, the playground is utilized by children of all ages, then programmed for teens every night during the summer.

The programmed activities include basketball leagues, entertainment, contests, field trips and just "hanging out"

Since the "Getaway" was completed in 1992, the Youth Recreation Council has run a city-to-city talent contest, helped host a regional NAACP conference, convinced the community's largest festival the On the Waterfront event during the Labor Day weekend to include hip hop music as one of the venues.

Reggie Biffle and Gayle Dixon, two Park District recreation supervisors, say the council has helped its

26 Illinois Parks &Recreation January/February 1995

members develop leadership and people skills skills they can also use in any endeavor.

Next, the Park District hopes to develop a Middle School Rec Council to help with programming geared towards that awkward age.

For more than 30 years the District has been running Friday Night Rec programs during the winter in the middle schools, offering swimming, basketball, dances, contests (such as gummi worm eating), concessions and a place where youth can be with their own age group.

Gayle Dixon said they average 200 to 250 kids per night at the five schools in Rockford and Loves Park.


Another special outreach program was the Masai program, a brainchild of a community activist, Ed Wells.

An African proverb reads, "It takes an entire village to raise a child," which captures the timeless, universal essence of healthy development of young people adolescents assuming the responsibility of becoming contributing adults.

Eight young African-American males participated in a two-year transformation experience through a pilot program called "The Masai Summer Experience."

The Rockford metropolitan area, a quarter of a million people, is continuing to lose youth to the perceived glamour and security of gangs and the lure of easy money selling drugs on the streets. Masai selected ten at-risk youth in seventh grade and put them through an intensive first summer (1992) of:

performing community service and giving something back to the community;

appreciating the value of hard, physical work;

recognizing the significance of education; and

developing lifetime recreation/leisure skills.

Two of the original youth dropped out because they refused to adopt a Masai attitude towards work, community, education and play.

The changes in the lives of the others have been continually monitored and show marked improvement in school performance, in social skills, and making healthy lifestyle choices for themselves.

The program was supported by the school district, social service agencies, law enforcement, and park and recreation systems. Many private citizens also chipped in with food, money, loan of a van, etc., to help the program become a reality.

The program was expanded the past two summers to selected sites during the supervised summer playground program, instilling the importance of values and making the right choices.

Another new pilot program was started in 1994 the Conflict Resolution program at one playground site. It helps children deal with conflict peacefully rather than resorting to violence and the consequences they'll have to live with the rest of their lives if they survive.

Community activist and Masai program originator Ed Wells said, "Our children have no interpersonal conflict-solving skills. We made a huge leap in how to live together successfully." Wells was one of two leaders for the Masai program. The other leader, Kathy Norman, said the program also tried to instill a sense of self-worth in the youngsters, a concept sometimes obscured by society's materialism.

What about teenagers who are already in trouble with the law? The Park District and the local court system have a juvenile work program for minor scrapes with the law. Back in 1979 Judge Harris Agnew and Park District Director Webbs Norman agreed on a juvenile work program. Rather than just telling the youngsters don't do it again, they had to work off their "sentences" by performing public service work. At first the Park District was only willing to take on the youthful offenders.

Members of the local Kiwanis Clubs acted as supervisors for the program working with the Park District on weekend clean up crews. Since then, the Rockford School District, the local food pantries. Boys and Girls Clubs, animal shelters and highway departments have utilized the free labor while instilling in the kids a sense of responsibility for their actions. In 1993,nearly 1,500 hours of labor were performed by juveniles through the program. A total of 476 juveniles went through the program in 1993 at all work sites and agencies.

Literally hundreds of community events depend upon the District for support in the form of tents, staging, security, sites, sound systems, traffic control, etc. for their special events which such as festivals dispensing fun while serving as fund-raisers.

Who knows how many lifelong friendships and lifelong leisure and social skills were developed through programs and facilities of recreation agencies?

Where would you rather put your funds helping youngsters enjoy life now, or helping them be incarcerated later in life?

As the executive director of the Park District, Webbs Norman, paraphrased Malcom X, "We don't cure violence through the electric chair, we cure it through the highchair. Redirecting youngsters is a hell of a lot cheaper than trying to repair adults!"

Vance Barrie is the Coordinator of Marketing for the Rockford Park District.

Illinois Parks & Recreation January/February 1995 27

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