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North Philadelphia churches assist at-risk youth

 


North Philadelphia churches assist at-risk youth

July 6, 2004      

By Suzy Keenan*

PHILADELPHIA (UMNS)—Chronic truancy, teenage parenthood, drug abuse or just standing on the street corner are some of the factors that identify at-risk youth.

The Rev. Donna Jones, pastor of Cookman United Methodist Church in North Philadelphia, says, “It’s a disturbing thing, a story that needs to be told.”

In North Philadelphia, where 88 percent of the population is African-American and the median household income is $14,000, there are more than 5,000 youth aged 15 to 19. Particularly at risk, she said, are “youth who don’t go home, who live from house to house or couch to couch…because everything is so messed up in their households.”

Cookman is one of eight area churches partnering together to help transform the lives of at-risk youth.

In the 1990s, the congregation became concerned about welfare reform and how it would affect mothers on public assistance, including many high-school dropouts. In response, Cookman started a Welfare- to-Work program, where mothers received training for their GED and for job opportunities.

The North Philadelphia cluster of United Methodist churches also began to identify their desire to partner together to work with teenagers.

But it was the youth at Cookman, organizing themselves as the Emerging Ministries Corporation (EMC), who had a vision for empowerment and leadership development for at-risk youth. Through grants from the denomination’s Eastern Pennsylvania Conference, they were able to plant the seeds for such a ministry.

With another grant, the new corporation’s youth leaders were able to attend the University of Delaware Community and Economic Development certification program—the youngest people to ever complete the program.

That is where the idea for “teen lounge” arose. Now, five churches have teen lounges, open after school and on weekends for youth ages 14 to 21. “A lot of our United Methodist churches don’t have big youth groups,” Jones explained. “Kids don’t really like to go to church. If you’re 17 or 18 years old, the only thing they have for you is ushering or dance or step ministry.”

At the teen lounges, youth are actively involved as peer counselors, acting in leadership roles. “The peer counselors are a first line of defense for at-risk youth,” she said. “If a kid is suicidal, pregnant, doesn’t have a place to live because their parents are addicted, or haven’t had anything to eat in three days, then the peer counselors bring this information to an adult.”

The success of the teen lounge and Welfare to Work program led to the formation of a full-day home schooling program at Cookman for chronically truant youth. It is financed through a Department of Human Services grant of $350,000 per year, renewable annually.

Over the past three years, 65 youth have participated in the program. About 70 percent of the youth who had missed two-thirds of the school year in the past attended the home schooling program every day. Most are African-American males, with less than a 7th grade reading ability. More than half have fathers in prison and 65 percent have addict parents. About 20 percent are from group homes.

“A lot of the kids are brilliant — philosophers, poets, writers, artists. But the public school system just has not figured out how to educate these kids,” Jones said. “Some of them are making positive decisions, choosing not to be in households if bad things are happening. And we have parents in more stable homes asking for their kids to be included in the program. There just isn’t enough room for everyone; we need to expand the program, but there isn’t enough funding.”

The home schooling program is currently held at Cookman and Mt. Zion United Methodist churches, and if additional funding is available, will be going to Midtown United Methodist Church next year.

Fifteen of the youth not only have succeeded in the home schooling curriculum, but also are working as youth leaders in the churches and as peer counselors in the teen lounges. Most were not previously affiliated with any church in any significant way.

The Emerging Ministries Corporation already has formed a nonprofit corporation to develop co-op housing for kids 18 and up to make the transition to independent living, working with the Shared Prosperity Plan and the Community Development Plan in North Philadelphia.


*Suzy Keenan is director of communications for the United Methodist Eastern Pennsylvania Conference.

News media contact: Linda Bloom·(646)369-3759·New York· E-mail: newsdesk@umcom.org.

 

 

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