Brooklyn Park rec programs help to slash youth crime

  • Article by: SHANNON PRATHER , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 26, 2012 - 11:16 AM

City leaders added staffers and activities to the Zanewood Rec Center. The results? A full house most days and less juvenile crime, especially in afternoons.

Call it a wake-up call for Brooklyn Park city leaders concerned about young people.

At a time when many suburban families complain about overscheduling, three out of four Brooklyn Park teens were not participating in any kind of youth activity, according to a 2008 study of more than 1,000 teens.

Meanwhile, youth crime posed a serious problem for the city, with police seeing a daily spike from 3 p.m. to 8 p.m.

"At that time we were pretty shocked," said Jan Ficken, Brooklyn Park's recreation manager. "We weren't meeting the needs of our low-income families."

The city launched a war on teenage boredom and, after years of cuts, the City Council opened its pocketbook for youth programs. They hired more staff, created more youth programming and threw open the doors to the Zanewood Recreation Center.

It worked.

A new study shows 42 percent of Brooklyn Park teens are now participating in some kind of after-school or summer programming. The city has also witnessed a 39 percent drop in juvenile crime, and city leaders say that's no coincidence.

"We saw amazing results," Ficken said of the additional programming at Zanewood. "Thousands of teenagers came."

The results have even persuaded one of the city's most vocal critics -- the fiscally conservative mayor -- to crank up funding.

"I was the one member of the council who voted against it. I was questioning if they could measure results or was this just a feel-good investment," said Mayor Jeff Lunde, who was then a council member. "My pledge was if you can prove this stuff works, I will be your biggest supporter and they proved it works."

An investment that saves

Lunde said more investment in youth programming is actually saving the city money. He's now talking up the benefits to his conservative brethren.

"I could choose to engage [a teen] proactively and maybe recapture his potential and make him a responsible adult, or I can do nothing and pay more to have police interact with him," Lunde explained.

The Zanewood Recreation Center sits at the center of the city's efforts to engage youth. Until 2009, the building at 7100 Zane Av. N. was locked up most days.

Funds to open the Zanewood Recreation Center as a full-time youth recreation facility came from shifting resources in the recreation budget, Ficken said. The city secured grants to help pay for youth programming. The City Council made a special allocation from the contingency fund in 2010 of $125,000 for the City's Youth Violence Prevention Initiative.

"Basically what we did in 2009 is open those doors," explained Michelle Margo, Zanewood's Recreation Center coordinator. "When school's out, Zanewood Recreation Center is in."

As many as 100 teens roll in after school each day. Programming extends through the evening hours. That's another 30 to 100 kids coming through the doors at night. And it's free.

Staff members greet teens on the sidewalk outside. Teens check their bags at the front desk and then fan out to a variety of activities. Staff members are in every room.

Margo spends her day on her feet chatting with kids and staff. The job is part social worker, she says.

A focus other than athletics

Zanewood has a teen lounge with pingpong, a pool table, a flat-screen television and club chairs. The lounge is getting a face lift.

In the gym, teens stretch for a breakdance class.

There's a bike-building club, art classes, a drum and bugle corps and a hip-hop music club. There are tables for homework and staff to help.

Staff members plan field trips to the zoo, ice-skating rinks and local colleges for tours.

Traditionally, there was a heavy emphasis on athletics, but Margo said after listening to the kids, they're now adding more arts programs and more activities for girls.

Recently, staff helped girls paint their nails and host a photo shoot.

There was such an uproar from the boys, however, that they're now planning a photo shoot for the guys, Margo said.

Sha'karies Laird has been coming to Zanewood for three years. Laird, 15, is a captain in the drum and bugle corps -- a position that took her time to achieve. She also likes to indulge in the girls' pampering activities at Zanewood.

"It's been a great place to be," Laird said. "The girls didn't have much to do. Now they had a photo shoot and doing your nails. It's getting better every day."

Bringing in new faces

In the "We Are Hip Hop" club, George Terry and Kihree Cherry are working on some lyrics with the help of a staff member. About a dozen teenage boys sit in different corners of the room. The teens are writing, weighing the value of every word.

"The hardest thing is to say something meaningful," said Cherry, 17, whose rap name is Young Rizz.

He said friends first brought him to Zanewood.

"It was cool. I had nothing to do after school. I was just sitting in the house," he said.

The city has used a guerilla, youth-driven marketing strategy to bring in new faces.

Rodney Lee is a regular. The 13-year-old picked up a basketball at Zanewood, and now he's a bit of a fanatic. He's wearing gym shorts, knee-high socks and earbuds. He listens to the motivational speech recording, "How Bad Do You Want it?" every day.

Lee likes knowing what's going on, so he surreptitiously tails Margo as she's giving a tour of Zanewood. His earbuds are in, but he's listening to every word.

This generation doesn't know life without the rec center, so many including Lee shrug when asked where they'd be if it closed.

He does know his school life has improved since hanging out here.

Said Lee: "I'm on the B honor roll."

Shannon Prather is a Twin Cities freelance writer.

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