Southern Illinois University has partnered with the Union County Housing Authority to help at-risk kids, provide meaningful student fieldwork, and so much more
BY DEBORAH SMITH, NATHAN A.. SCHAUMLEFFEL
Serving youth has always been a cornerstone of public recreation programs and services. However, in the last decade, a number of issues such as violence in schools, increased gang membership and activities, high rates of drug use, violent juvenile crime, adolescent childbearing, and continuing growth in single-parent and blended families have refocused public attention and priority on the importance of using youth recreation programs and services as a social tool to combat problem behaviors and facilitate the development of positive life skills in youth.
Two years ago the Department of Health Education and Recreation at Southern Illinois University Carbondale (SIUC) and the Union County Housing Authority (UCHA) formed a partnership to provide after-school and summer recreation programs for at-risk youth at three public housing sites in Union County. Of particular interest in this collaboration has been the use of outcome-based recreation programming as an intervention strategy for addressing specific problems at the public housing sites.
How the Partnership Devoloped
The Union County Housing Authority operates as a nonprofit agency funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Farmers Home Administration of the Department of Agriculture. UCHA manages thirteen sites located throughout Union County, including a senior citizen high-rise in Anna and two predominantly Hispanic sites in Cobden. UCHA is unique because unlike most housing authorities that are located in urban population centers, it serves a rural population in southern Illinois. HUD most often is associated with providing low-income housing; however, recent Congressional legislation such as the Quality Housing and Work Responsibility Act and the 1998 Housing Reform Act has mandated that community development take a more prominent role in HUD policies. Housing authorities therefore now must function not only as landlord/property managers but also as a social service organization for residents. These mandates, as many mandates, have been passed down from Congress without additional funding to implement functional programs that achieve the spirit of the federal legislation.
The impetus for this partnership came two years ago when the newly hired social service advisor for the UCHA found himself confronting a constellation of problems and conditions at UCHA properties: socio-economic issues such as predominantly single parent households, child abuse and domestic abuse, and safety issues such as weapons, fighting, vandalism and drugs. (A methamphetamine lab was found operating next to the community center.) Prevalent were public health problems such as lice, hypodermic needles found on playgrounds and around community centers, lack of health care among residents, and basic needs for food and clothing.
One of the many tasks assigned to the advisor was providing recreation activities for youth at public housing properties. Time constraints permitted the social service advisor to inadequately serve only a small portion of the youth population once a week at one site. The advisor approached and received from the UCHA board of commissioners approval to expand youth services and secure additional resources to build a more comprehensive youth recreation program. The advisor then approached the Department of Health Education and Recreation at SIUC for assistance in developing a youth at-risk recreation program, and a partnership was born.
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How the Partnership Operates
In accordance with this partnership, undergraduate recreation fieldwork students under the direction of a recreation graduate assistant provide after-school and summer recreation programs for youth at several of the public housing properties in Union County. The UCHA makes available for recreation programs the community center, open space, and playground facilities at each public housing site. It primarily uses Community Development Block Grantmonies to fund an eleven-month graduate assistant salary, supply and equipment costs for programs, and a small travel stipend for fieldwork students. In return, fieldwork students work in site teams and assume full responsibility as staff for planning, promoting, implementing and evaluating the after-school and summer recreation programs.
Additionally, each student is responsible for conducting a special event at one UCHA site. Students are closely guided and supervised by the graduate assistant, who works with the social service advisor on a daily basis. The advisor's role in the recreation programs is to mediate Housing Authority, social service, and resident issues that arise in the course of providing recreation services. These issues range from the simple such as procurement of program supplies, to the complex such as reporting child abuse to DCFS.
The main purpose of the recreation program at UCHA is to use recreation as a tool for shaping positive youth behaviors and positive environmental conditions at public housing sites. Youth are called "at risk" because they are exposed to conditions or risk factors that are associated with an increased likelihood of outcomes that compromise health, personal development, and the assumption of functional adult roles. Many of these risk factors and conditions are present at UCHA sites. It is important to note that not all youth who seem to be at high risk succumb to risk behaviors. They are resilient to risk behaviors or lifestyles because protective factors are present in their environments which act to counter the impact and effects of risk factors.
In designing recreation programs for the at-risk youth at public housing sites the social service advisor and the graduate assistant identify risk factors appropriate to target with recreation programs. They then work together with fieldwork students to develop intervention strategies that focus not only on reducing risk factors but also on cultivating protective factors to strengthen the resiliency of the youth to avoid problem behaviors.
Interested adults and neighborhood resources such as community centers can counterbalance risk factors in the social environment, and the positive role models that recreation students provide can also help to insulate youth against negative conditions. Additionally, recreation fieldwork students use outcome-based programming as a way to target specific risk conditions and youth behaviors prevalent at public housing sites.
For example, each semester students develop three to four program goals that address site-specific social or behavioral issues. Each program goal is the focus of an intensive three- to four-week program unit. Each program goal is intended to serve as a building block for the next goal/programming unit. One semester students developed program goals that focused on communication skills, decision making, goal setting, and conflict resolution. Measurable objectives for the communication program goal included such things as taking turns, asking questions
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PROMOTING CIVIC ENGAGEMENT IN HIGHER EDUCATION
with respect, and developing teamwork in group activities.
After five semesters of operation, this partnership has resulted in tremendous mutual benefits. Benefits to the Housing Authority include having in place a comprehensive after-school and summer recreation program for youth at its largest property sites; provision of recreation programs at a fraction of what it would cost to utilize paid Housing Authority staff; and, a high degree of quality control because the recreation programs operate as a community-based delivery of an academic support program. Benefits to SIUC include a controlled fieldwork site where careful and guided supervision by the graduate assistant ensures a continuing role in undergraduate education; a wonderful opportunity for students to develop programming competencies and gain experience working with an at-risk youth population; and, extensive applied research opportunities for recreation faculty.
How the Partnership Continues to Grow
The original scope of this partnership was that of the UCHA and the Department of Health Education and Recreation at SIUC working together to provide recreation programs, delivered by recreation students, for primarily at-risk youth. This scope has grown.
• Whenever possible, other community agencies are being utilized at Housing Authority sites to augment or supplement recreation programs (e.g.. Cooperative Extension (4-H), the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, the U.S. Forest Service, the Illinois Coalition for Community Sendees, and the Down State Education Assistance Cooperative).
• SIUC and UCHA have expanded collaboration to a number of other initiatives that include (1) the collaborative securement of grant money to fund graduate assistant and fieldwork student efforts to create tenant councils at two public housing sites and implement resident directed community service initiatives; (2) continuing efforts to secure additional collaborative funding; and (3) collaborative professional presentation on outcome-based recreation programming.
• Discussion has been initiated with other SIUC academic departments including social work, physical education, health education, and music education to utilize UCHA sites for fieldwork, internship, and applied research collaboration
The last ten years have witnessed increased discussion of the role that higher education can play in public life and community affairs. Many universities are seeking to reconnect academic inquiry and practice with community initiatives and involve students in the process of civic engagement. The partnership formed between the Department of Health Education and Recreation at SIUC and the Union County Housing Authority is an example of how a university and community agencies can work together to provide recreation services and use recreation as a tool to promote positive social change.
NATHAN A. SCHAUMLEFFEL