The opening day of the 2011 Wisconsin State Fair in Milwaukee had all the elements normally associated with state fairs - hot weather, carnival rides and games, and barns filled with cows.
The opening day of the 2011 Wisconsin State Fair in Milwaukee had all the elements normally associated with state fairs - hot weather, carnival rides and games, and barns filled with cows. But as evening fell, the fair took a violent turn. Fights among African-American youths started on the midway and escalated as the mob spread outward, eventually (around the time the fair park closed at 11 p.m.) moving outside the fairgrounds, where exiting fairgoers were punched and kicked, and their cars shaken and pounded. At least 11 injuries were reported, and at least 31 arrests were made, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
While Columbus, Ohio, lacked one such single high-profile incident of youth violence, the city was nonetheless spurred to action by a spring and summer 2010 spike in the city's homicide rate. Seeking to avoid a repeat in 2011, the city set aside funding for a new program, Applications for Pride, Purpose and Success (APPS), which serves idle urban youths.
At a time when many cities are facing the crunch of tightened budgets, the APPS program, a joint effort of the mayor's office and the Columbus Recreation and Parks Department, sprang to life in June from Mayor Michael B. Coleman's family- and youth-centered agenda. A counterpoint to the typical reliance on a heavy police presence to keep violence low, APPS is aimed specifically at youths ages 14 to 21, a demographic the city felt was underserved by the recreation department's existing offerings.
"The older kids have been left out of the recreation programming model for years. A lot of summer camps are aimed at younger kids, and fitness activities are geared toward adults," says APPS recreation coordinator Corey Leftridge, who was hired earlier this year to develop and steer the program. "The whole idea of APPS is to keep these kids engaged and off the streets, and hopefully doing something more productive."
Run every night from 7:30 to 11:30 p.m., the program goes beyond traditional recreational center offerings. While basketball leagues and lifting weights are still a draw for older teens, the APPS program also offers guest speakers, computer access, tournaments for chess and other games, cookouts and even sewing instruction at four recreation centers located throughout the city.
"Like many programs of this nature in their infancy, it is a work in progress," Leftridge says. "What works, we'll duplicate; what doesn't work, we'll quickly scrap and keep moving." For him and his team, APPS is about developing relationships and trust with the participants, and giving them a place where they can access a full range of services to address their needs and wants, helping put them on the path to success. Leftridge plans to add more activities in the fall to attract females, whom he describes as a tougher sell.
Far from simply angling to get youths off the streets for the summer, Leftridge and his team intend to give them the resources they need to stay off the streets year-round by offering GED assistance and college-prep classes. One of the marks of the program is APPS' partnership with Directions for Youth and Family Services, which provides trained counselors who work as a part of the APPS staff. Not only does this partnership allow APPS to better identify the needs of the youths they serve and work toward solutions, it also allows the program to be as inclusive as possible, working with disruptive youths rather than turning them away from the centers and putting them back on the streets. In addition, to further build awareness, APPS has enlisted the help of Huckleberry House, a local nonprofit that works with runaway teens and at-risk youths.
"They're going out to find the kids," says Leftridge, "knocking on doors, meeting them on street corners, hanging out at libraries, talking to kids about the rec center and the programs we're offering."
With the school year under way, Leftridge is working to partner with local schools to offer students assistance with homework. As the program gains in popularity, Leftridge hopes that other city organizations will take interest.
"This model will hopefully speak to a lot of providers, and they'll start seeing the rec center as a place where they can partner and offer services - the kids are already here," he says. "That's the method to the madness; we just need to get there."
Though the city experienced a lower-than-expected crime rate over the summer, it's too soon to tell how much of an impact the APPS program is having. The program has been successful in its early efforts to attract youths; Leftridge says there are nights that teens are waiting outside the doors beforehand.
Leftridge was planning a trip at the end of August to visit Los Angeles, where a similar program (Gang Reduction Youth Development Program) is in place to curb gang membership and violence. Though much larger in scope (the L.A. program operates on a $20 million budget, compared to APPS' $400,000), the two programs - like the two cities - see many similarities in the troubles of the youths they hope to reach. Leftridge hoped to come home from the trip with ideas that he can implement in the Columbus program.
"The first-year report out of Los Angeles speaks directly to many of the problems I'm facing in our first year, trying to get all the partners to understand what our scope of services will be, learning how to manage the system, determining what data we're going to track and how, and deciding where the programs are going to be to attract kids," Leftridge says.
He is already getting calls from cities eager to implement similar programs to decrease violence and avoid situations like that at the Wisconsin State Fair. For his part, he is eager to do what he can to offer guidance to other programs.
"We have to do something different when it comes to our kids," says Leftridge. "I think a lot of people are starting to recognize that. We need to invest more in prevention and intervention."