NEWPORT NEWS—Malik Spencer is hoping to transform his community, with the help of one neighbor at a time.
The 15-year-old Southeast Newport News resident is one of 45 teenagers from across the city who will, over the next three years, attempt to learn what's most important to his neighbors and work to see that some of those changes are made.
"This is where I live, and I know it can be better than this," Spencer said on a recent Monday as he went door-to-door in his neighborhood asking residents to participate in a five-question survey. He said so far most of his neighbors are glad to share their opinions.
"I rarely come across people who say 'no,'" he said. "(I've) learned that people really do care."
As a youth leader with the city's newly-adopted Asset-Based Community-Development initiative, or ABCD, Spencer is tasked with collecting the surveys, as well as presenting the findings at a community meeting. He will then assist his neighbors with creating task forces to address the issues of most importance to them.
The program is part of a three-year grant awarded to the Newport News Department of Human Services in September 2013. The $870,000 federal grant is divided among five different city objectives to prevent violence, engage and empower youth, and improve the lives of young people. The grant expands the city's existing TOP program, enabling the department to directly provide preventative services to children and families, in addition to several new programs, including ABCD.
The TOP program evolved out of a gang prevention initiative called "Keeping Our Kids Safe" in 2006, according to Traci Snell, youth services supervisor at the Newport News Department of Human Services. The change addressed a need for more intensive programs, like mentoring and counseling, to prevent negative behaviors in children, Snell said.
The original TOP, or Targeted Outreach Program, acted as a referral service to outside agencies, like the Boys and Girls Club, Snell said. There was no method for the department to keep track of a child's progress, which was a problem, she said. They felt the program would be more effective if it directly provided case management and wraparound services so the department would be involved through the entire process.
There was also limited money, she said, preventing many families from accessing help.
"There's a big gap in funding resources for families who need therapeutic services," she said. "A lot of families can't afford to pay for their kids to participate."
So when the department was awarded the grant last fall, it gave them the funding to address those needs, as well as others, she said. With the transformation came another name change under the same acronym: Teamwork – Options – Pathways for Success.
Snell said the new name encompasses the department's vision of setting attainable goals for children and their families and making positive changes across the city. Rather than just helping one child with a specific need, they can now branch out to everyone in the family, as well as the community.
The largest objective covered under the new TOP expands access to services like counseling, mentoring, life-skills training, anger management and social skill development for 225 children. As of July, 62 youth have been approved for the services, according to Snell.
Children are often referred for case management by schools, organizations or police, she said, but some parents have contacted the department directly. Once approved, a case manager works with the entire family to identify specific challenges and come up with goals.
"The program is child-centered, but family focused," she said.
Families must agree to participate for a minimum of three months, she said, but many have continued longer.
The other objectives branch out to address child-centered needs within the communities.
One objective facilitates character-based violence prevention groups for 60 children through a program called "All Stars." Using age-appropriate activities, the curriculum addresses problem behaviors, like violence and substance abuse, according to its website.
A separate, but similar TOP objective, provides All Stars curriculum training for 30 adults who work in schools, community centers, after-school programs and other youth-centered organizations. Upon completion, the program can then be shared with their classrooms and groups expanding access to more children
A fourth objective provides violence-prevention awareness training and positive activities for youth and families working with the school division, police, churches and other community organizations.
So far this year, 15 students have participated in dance classes at the South Morrison Family Education Center under this objective. A lock-in was also held for 120 middle-schoolers at the Denbigh Community Center, according to Snell.
Changing communities, empowering youth
The final objective, ABCD, is based on a program started at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. Its goal is to help communities by using the talents and interests of the people who live there. The concept empowers residents to work toward changing what's most important to them rather than telling them what they need and giving a handout, according to Jim Moynihan, a program coordinator.
Moynihan is mentoring Malik Spencer and other students through the process, including training and coaching them through the surveys.
There are currently 15 students involved in the program. A new batch of 15 will be selected to participate next year and 15 more the following year, according to Snell.
Participating students receive a $500 stipend, although that shouldn't be their motivation for applying, Snell said. The goal is to select teenagers who want to make a difference in their communities, but might not have had leadership opportunities before, she said.
Moynihan said he thinks having teenagers do the ground work makes the most sense because adults are really receptive to young people.
"People really want to help the youth," he said. "The more youth we can get interacting with adults, for the future of the area, the better."
Southeast Newport News resident Kim Williams agrees.
Williams, 54, was on her way out the door for her nursing job when Spencer asked her to take the survey.
"You better not make me late for work," she with a smile, stopping to answer his questions.
Williams told the Daily Press afterward she was glad to participate. She sees problems in her community, and said she thinks it's great young people are willing to step up and facilitate change.
"That's our future," she said.
Pawlowski can be reached by phone at 757-247-7478.
See a video of teens participating in TOP at dailypress.com.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun