Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Northside series.
Keeping at-risk youth off the streets of the Northside isn’t easy.
Many grow up in single-parent homes where they may have been exposed to the stresses of poverty, abuse, incarceration or drug addiction. Some are tempted by the lure of truancy, drugs, and crime, and by the sense of belonging with peers that those choices seem to promise.
Since 2013, the Northside S.T.R.E.E.T. Afterschool Program, 613 Douglas Ave., sponsored by the Community Healing Centers and directed by Charlene Taylor, has been successfully working to provide at-risk youth, ages 12 to 18, with an alternative to the streets.
S.T.R.E.E.T. runs from 3:30 to 7:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, and also through the summer. Buses pick youth up directly from school. During programming hours, at-risk youth receive academic support, leadership training, and counseling, as well as exposure to field trips and special extracurricular opportunities, along with a full and balanced meal.
“Our goal is to support the youth and prevent out-of-home placement,” says Taylor, who began S.T.R.E.E.T. because of the high rates of violent crime, including homicides, in the city, particularly on the Northside where she grew up. (Kalamazoo saw an increase in violent crimes from 2014 to 2016. And homicide spiked in 2016 and 2017.)
Charlene Taylor directs S.T.R.E.E.T.. an afterschool program sponsored by Community Healing Centers.
As a certified prevention specialist in the Kalamazoo region for over 27 years, Taylor, who works closely with the juvenile justice system and substance abuse programs, was particularly sensitive to the unmet needs of minority youth, particularly males. She wanted to see what she could do to set them on a better path.
“We want to empower our youth by offering them leadership opportunities, improve academic performance, increase school attendance, and decrease substance abuse, high-risk sex, and crime,” she says. “A lot of our children have experienced Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from seeing things no kid should have to see. A lot of times they are mislabeled as future criminals when they are the victims of PTSD and environmental triggers.”
With many partners around the county, including the Kalamazoo Community Foundation, Serve for Kids, Irving S. Gilmore Foundation, United Way of Greater Battle Creek and Kalamazoo, the Kalamazoo Community Mental Health Services and Youth United Way, S.T.R.E.E.T. also works with various corporate sponsors, including Stryker Corp.
“The kids have been blessed, over and over again,” says Taylor, who would like to see the program grow to help youth at different sites around the city.
Taylor says she is most pleased by the S.T.R.E.E.T. success stories. “One of our youth was in an alternative school. He had basically been kicked out of every school because of his behavior,” Taylor says. “Within the first year, he had turned himself around. He got back on the honor roll, and was awarded the Turnaround Award by the Kalamazoo Public Schools.”
A key piece in S.T.R.E.E.T. is getting the youth the mental health support they need, which the program accomplishes through the help of therapist David Thomas. He comes to the program twice a week, and through the support of Community Mental Health.
“Culturally, minority populations do not believe in mental health therapy, and historically, trust is an issue, and understandably so,” says Taylor. “However, many of our kids have mental health issues that need to be dealt with, including PTSD. Because of the trusting relationships our staff has built with the parents and the youth, we’ve been able to break down some of those barriers.”
At the Kalamazoo Community Foundation General Meeting on Oct. 30, S.T.R.E.E.T. took first place in Voting for a Cause, a public poll for youth organizations, and was awarded $1,000.
“It was a fun and exciting opportunity to participate in the Voting for a Cause Event, and an honor to feel the support of our community, partners and affiliates,” says Taylor. “The way I see it, we are all winners.”
Southwest Michigan Second Wave’s “On the Ground Northside” series amplifies the voices of Northside Neighborhood residents. Over four months, Second Wave journalists will be in the Northside Neighborhood to explore topics of importance to residents, business owners, and other members of the community. To reach the editor of this series, Theresa Coty-O’Neil, please email her here or contact Second Wave managing editor Kathy Jennings here.