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Nov 15, 2014

Bridge To Everywhere

Sponsored Content provided by Connie Majure-Rhett - Former President and CEO , Wilmington Chamber of Commerce

Seven eighth-grade students stood before the Wilmington City Council in April and presented a proposal to use the Hemenway Center on weekends as a Youth Enrichment Zone Teen Center. The seven were members of the Teen Council and they put faces to the work of the Blue Ribbon Commission on the Prevention of Youth Violence (BRC), which formed the group. Their request was impassioned and their rationale direct: they wanted a safe place to hang out and just be teenagers.

The moment illustrated why the commission’s work – and that of all of its partner organizations – is so important. There are children behind the crime statistics who want to have the same opportunities and basic necessities afforded others. Working with partner organizations, the BRC is creatively and effectively providing those requirements – health, safety and academic success – and in many cases using resources already in place.

When organizations collaborate, good things happen. This simple theory is the impetus behind the BRC, and it has held true as the commission’s reach and effectiveness have grown since its formation in 2008. There are now 25 current and developing BRC collaborations, with partners ranging from the city of Wilmington and New Hanover Regional Medical Center to DREAMS and Feast Down East.

This unprecedented collaboration of elected, faith-based and other community leaders was brought together by Mayor Bill Saffo to address growing concerns about youth violence. As president and CEO of the Wilmington Chamber of Commerce, I am a member of the commission, providing a business perspective and link to the business community.

The BRC focuses on a targeted geographic area in downtown Wilmington known as the Youth Enrichment Zone (YEZ), which is roughly the area between Nixon and Market streets from 4th to 14th streets. The YEZ is a project modeled after the Harlem Children's Zone. The BRC’s goal is to transform one block at a time by identifying, coordinating and making community resources available to families.  Helping connect them to these needed services will create a safer, more caring environment for children and families, and, in turn, will help reduce youth violence.

BRC Executive Director Jana Jones Halls carries out the BRC mission by establishing programs and partnerships that focus on health, safety and academic success. The health initiatives aim to increase opportunities for wellness among youth in the YEZ and work to eliminate food insecurity (wondering where their next meals will come from). Four programs have been implemented.

The NourishNC backpack program at Virgo Preparatory Academy is funded by the Junior League of Wilmington and serves 45 students who receive a monthly box of non-perishable foods. The BRC works directly with NourishNC to identify students who live with food insecurity and coordinate food deliveries to them each month.

The BRC also has partnered with NourishNC and Feast Down East to pilot a new Produce Box program that will give families in the backpack program the opportunity to receive a monthly produce box along with their non-perishable items. Leading Into New Communities (LINC) will also contribute produce.

The YEZ Farmers Market is a partnership between the BRC and Feast Down East, and is set up each Saturday at Portia Mills Hines Park to provide fresh produce at a low cost to YEZ families. The YEZ Teen Council works with a BRC UNC Wilmington intern and students from the New Hanover High School service learning class to run the farmer’s market. In the spring, they will sell produce provided from LINC’s urban farm, with proceeds supporting that initiative.

Finally, volunteers from the N.C. Cooperative Extension Service and the Ability Garden at the New Hanover County Arboretum are working with students at Virgo on a school garden to begin growing produce to be sold at the farmer’s market.

Providing safe places for children in the YEZ to socialize is also key, hence the request by the Teen Council members I mentioned earlier. Their request to Wilmington City Council was successful and the center opened on Friday, July 25. It is open every other Friday night and has hosted eight Teen Center nights, with an average of 18 kids in attendance.

Portia Mills Hines Park, once an unsafe environment at Rankin and Grace streets, has also been transformed into a family-friendly venue and a community gathering place. The park has hosted many events:

  • Summer Safety Kickoff, where more than 200 bike helmets were given away through Safe Kids and NHRMC Trauma Services Program;
  • Yam Jam, where 17,000 pounds of yams were distributed to the community and 14 bikes collected by Two Wheeler Dealer were given away;
  • Saturday Soccer, held during the summer and fall, in partnership with Cape Fear Soccer Club;
  • Bike safety events in partnership with Cape Fear Cyclists and monthly bike repair events; and
  • Halloween festivities where donated costumes were distributed by members of the Teen Council.

To address both safety and academic achievement, the BRC Youth Enrichment Zone Summer Initiative was piloted this year with 65 rising seventh- and eighth-grade students who demonstrated high-need, at-risk behaviors, and were underperforming academically.  For five weeks, the students participated in the Building Educated Leaders for Life (BELL) program at Virgo.  BELL’s programs are proven to boost student achievement and narrow the achievement gap.

The program was conducted four days a week for six hours each day.  Academic instruction in the morning was reinforced by hands-on enrichment courses in the afternoon taught by partnering non-profit programs such as DREAMS and Kids Making It.  Each Thursday, program participants went on culturally enriching field trips in and around New Hanover County and engaged in community service projects.

Sixty scholars completed the program, and on average gained two-months growth in reading achievement and 2.4 months in math, instead of the typical losses that occur in the summer months when school isn’t in session. More than half of the cost to fund the initiative was raised by the Wilmington Chamber and provided by Cape Fear Future and the Wilmington Chamber Foundation.

All of these initiatives are building confidence and facilitating the development of leadership skills in at-risk youth, thanks to the work of the BRC and its many partners. Instead of these youth being on a potential path to nowhere, these community partnerships and creative programs are building them a bridge to everywhere.

The Wilmington Chamber of Commerce is the largest membership-based business association in Southeastern North Carolina. The Chamber’s mission is to ensure economic prosperity throughout our region. This is accomplished by: creating a diverse, inclusive organization that serves as a strong voice for businesses in the Greater Wilmington area; offering unique membership benefits, services and education; and challenging government officials to address long term community and business interests.

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