When I started surveying last summer/fall, people all over the neighborhood talked about their concern for the kids here. A lot of them had been doing things on their own, but with no neighborhood school to unite all the kids, there had been limited opportunities to come together in collective efforts with others to do something. One week before the due date, I caught wind of the youth grants that the City of Muskegon was awarding to various groups. We had no concrete plans for anything at this point in the ABCD process, but we didn’t want to let the opportunity pass us by without giving it a shot.
I had been having some conversations about ABCD with one of our neighbors, Chris, who had been doing a lot of great things with the youth in Muskegon, and he introduced me to Tawon, who lived across the street from the church. Both of these men had grown up in the neighborhood and were working to rebuild the community they had once “helped make bad before,” as they would say. Knowing the neighborhood and a lot of the kids here, Chris and Tawon did the dreaming and brainstorming, and I did the dictating. What we came up with was a two-week long youth recreation program called Kids Count for kids ages 7-12 in our neighborhood. We applied for the grant through Allen Avenue CRC, but the motivation behind it extended far beyond the church walls. The purpose of the program was to enhance the overall health of our youth with regards to their physical, spiritual, emotional and psychological well-being. At the same time, we were seeking to foster a stronger sense of community amongst the children and adults of our neighborhood. The grant was obviously about the kids, but it was also just as much about coming together as residents, churches and other neighborhood groups for the sake of our community and creating a broader support network for everyone involved.
Within a month, we found out that we had received a grant for $750. Over the next three months, we called on residents, church members from AACRC and other neighborhood churches, businesses and neighborhood groups to come together and join us in collaborating around the youth program. What resulted was a series of six meetings which ended up involving twenty-six residents and members of three different neighborhood churches who gathered to plan the youth program. We were starting from scratch, so our first few meetings had to cover the basics like what exactly we wanted this program to look like, how many volunteers were fully committed to the being there every day, how many kids we would be able to have in the program, how we were going to advertise, what needed to be included on the applications and waivers, how we were going to get the word out, and so forth. Once we were able to lay some of this groundwork, we started working on more details, such as where each day of the program would take place, what time we would start, how we were going to feed the kids, what activities we were going to do, what supplies we would need in order to do the activities, etc. The list of things to do never seemed to end, but neighbors and church members stepped up and took responsibility for everything that needed to get done. By the time June 18 finally came around, we were ready to go.
We were prepared to have 20 kids between the ages of seven and eleven, but we started our first day with fourteen. One of the beauties of neighborhood programs, however, is that each child usually has at least 2-3 other siblings/cousins/neighbors/friends that they will bring with them the next day as long as the program meets the minimum “fun requirement”. By the time our second day started, we were up to twenty kids and had to stop accepting applications from the kids. Activities took place at three different locations around our neighborhood, with each week ending in a field trip. Our first field trip consisted of a four-mile bike ride that started down by Lake Michigan and ended at Heritage Landing, a landmark in Muskegon. The second week and last day of the program entailed a cookout, a dune hike, and a swim in Lake Michigan, which was a first for many of the kids. Over the two weeks, we focused on respect, so we incorporated that value in as many contexts as possible: respect for ourselves-bodies and minds, other kids in the program, volunteers and neighbors, the venues we went to and our community in general. Whether it was in times of laughter or moments of discipline, we used each opportunity to instill in the kids the importance of respect in the way that we treated them and they way we expected to them to treat others.
Kids Count was a collaborative effort between residents and neighborhood churches to build a stronger support network for everyone involved and begin to foster more relationships as neighbors caring about our neighborhood. For Allen Avenue CRC, in particular, it provided our members an opportunity to come alongside of our neighbors here rather than being the leaders and ones in control. Everyone involved was able to bring their individual gifts, resources and knowledge to the table. Individually, none of us would have been able to pull it off; but together, it ended up being a beautiful expression of love for our community, and it’s just the beginning.