Binghamton, N.Y., which a couple of years ago cut a police-organized youth basketball program when a federal grant ran out, now has reinstituted the same program, with new federal gang prevention funding, partly at the insistence of a neighborhood watch group.
Mary Webster, co-chair of the group Safe Streets Association – which has pushed city council to develop alternative activities for youth hanging out on the streets – said the basketball program is a step in the right direction.
“This a whole population of young kids, mostly black, who come from poor families. Gangs are their family; this is their life,” Webster said. “And we’ve got to get these kids to see that there are other things they can do. And the basketball has just proven to be a huge success.”
Webster’s message helped put this need on city administrators’ radar, and the availability of a federal Community Development Block Grant provided for part of the solution – nearly $10,000 to pay for a few police officers to organize pickup basketball games in a church gymnasium for a few hours twice a week. In its first several weeks of existence the program has brought in from 12 to 30 youth participants, according to Ana Shaello-Johnson, the director of Binghamton’s Youth Bureau.
Shaello-Johnson, whose agency works with the community to develop opportunities for youth, said Safe Streets’ concerns – among them, marijuana dealing and constant noise – led to the tossing around of old ideas.
“We had a few brainstorming sessions to figure out what could hook these young men and get them to engage their community a little more. So we started throwing out ideas of what had worked in the past,” Shaello-Johnson said.
This year’s grant, which Shaello-Johnson said covers a stipend for participating police officers and street-level outreach workers, program administration and the gym rental fee, will last for 52 weeks, but that there are already discussions about a possible expansion of the program.
The basketball program, Binghamton Mayor Matt Ryan pointed out, was also appealing because it could foster better relations between police officers and the neighborhood’s youth.
“Once they become friends then it’s easier to talk about what choices are out there and what jobs might be available, just to try to give [youth] a better relationship with authority figures in the community that might lead to them trusting us more,” Ryan said.