Chattanooga's Youth Development Division has set up a variety of programs to help keep kids off the streets and out of gangs:
I'm Unique: Targeted for teenage girls to help them redefine "pretty" and "beautiful";
Grilling with Brian: To help children understand nutrition and the value of food;
Listen Up: To build future leaders;
Who you're reppin': To inform youth about roles in government with a component in which children campaign and run for various offices;
Studio 101: Shows youth there is more to the recording industry than rapping;
Graphic and video: Allows youth to make art for CDs and make documentary films
Source: City of Chattanooga
Twelve-year-old Darrion Robinson hung around the South Chattanooga Recreation Center, dodging in between the basketball gym and the recording studio.
The Lookout Valley Middle School student said he doesn't see many gang members around his school, but he knows to stay away from them.
"My Momma said they will kill you," he said, his voice rising. "She said you fight over [gang] colors, it will kill you."
Darrion and other youth like him are exactly who Chattanooga Parks and Recreation Department employees are trying to keep out of gangs. This year, even in the midst of a hard budget year, the Chattanooga City Council put $280,000 into a pot for Parks and Recreation to help create a Youth Development Division. A sub-department of the division is trying to help keep kids off the streets and out of gangs.
Those involved know the problem is bigger than themselves. They are just one component of many trying to help stop the scourge of gang violence across the city. There have been 50 shootings with injuries and 23 homicides this year in Chattanooga, many of them attributed to gang violence.
"You have to take it piece by piece," said Marcus Thomas, a recreation specialist and key member of the division.
Thomas said there are two types of youth using the inner-city recreation centers: Those who are in gangs and those who could end up in one.
"The ones who we're targeting are on the fence," he said. "The ones who are there, we're limited at what we can do."
The idea for the division emerged from an event called Swagfest that Parks and Recreation hosted two years ago, said Greta Hayes, the city's recreation director. It was a concert put on to try to give children something to do besides joining a gang, she said.
Members of the Youth Development Division say their programs are working, but it's hard to put a measurement on it yet because it is the first year, Hayes said.
More than 250 youth took part in a program over the summer called S.T.U.N.T.I.N.G. (Students that Unite and Take Initiative Against Gangs), she said. The program offered a safe place for teens and youth to express themselves and stay off the streets.
Hayes said the program was held in five of the city's 16 recreation centers and the goal is ultimately get it to all centers.
"Do we have a target to reach more kids?" she asked. "Absolutely."
The employees at recreation centers are sometimes the ones closest to neighborhood gang members and the youth who could be recruited. Sometimes Parks and Recreation employees step in quickly enough to at least try to steer teenagers away from violence.
Just last week, Thomas said three teen boys got into a fight at a rec center. He learned they wanted to join gangs, so he pulled out a whiteboard and asked them to tell him what three things they wanted out of being in a gang. They told him love, respect, money, which he wrote on the whiteboard.
Then he wrote what they could get from education, family and friends -- love, respect, money.
"It's the same things," he said. "They just aren't getting it quick enough."
Gang members aren't allowed to wear their colors in the centers, he said. Recreation center personnel try to give those in gangs positive attention, he said, but it will take churches and other non-profits, too.
"I can't guarantee you that, just because I have a program, someone is going to get out of a gang," he said. "It happens over time."
City Councilman Russell Gilbert, chairman of the city's Parks and Recreation Committee, said this week there was no use dealing with the past and trying to figure out how the city developed a gang problem.
"We are here, so how are we going to deal with it?" he asked.
He said his proposal was to have a roundtable of leaders -- city and county government, school officials, judges and state representatives -- and see what kind of solutions they could develop.
But he said he was still not sure how such a summit would come about, but if it happens, egos need to be left at the door.
"We don't need a speaker," Gilbert said. "We need action."
Cliff has worked for the Times Free Press for five years and covers Chattanooga city government. He previously covered Rhea County, as well as transportation and growth and development in Southeast Tennessee. A native of Maryville, Tenn., Cliff graduated in 2003 from the University of Tennessee with a bachelor’s degree in communications with an emphasis on journalism. Before coming to Chattanooga, he was a crime reporter with Hernando Today, a supplement of The Tampa (Fla.) ...