published Thursday, September 20th, 2012

Chattanooga recreation centers fight perception


by Cliff Hightower
Ahmad Willis, left, a recreation specialist, throws the football with Tyrell Williams, and Ron Drake, the facility manager, looks on, outside of the East Chattanooga Recreation Center in Chattanooga on Wednesday afternoon.
Ahmad Willis, left, a recreation specialist, throws the football with Tyrell Williams, and Ron Drake, the facility manager, looks on, outside of the East Chattanooga Recreation Center in Chattanooga on Wednesday afternoon.
Photo by Alyson Wright /Chattanooga Times Free Press.
  • photo
    Sydney Sharp, front, and Demarcus Ramsey work on computers at the East Chattanooga Recreation Center in Chattanooga on Wednesday afternoon. A newly released gang assessment indicated conflicting perceptions about the role of rec centers as gang recruiting areas.
    Photo by Alyson Wright.
    enlarge photo

IN THE STUDY

"It is recommended that community center leadership consider a management audit of recreation centers to determine which centers are exemplary and which centers need additional capacity and technical assistance. The audit could also determine which programs are working, which programs need to be discontinued, and which programs need to be implemented."

Source: Comprehensive Gang Assessment

Poll
Are city recreation centers sites of gang activity?

For 13 years, Ronald Drake has seen children come and go at the East Chattanooga Recreation Center.

He's watched them grow, seen some have children of their own. Looked at youngsters with athletic ability, bright futures and scholarship offers either capitalize on or waste their potential.

Two boys in particular haunt him. One a star basketball player; the other a star football player; both regulars at the rec center for a while.

But something happened in their lives, Drake said. They dropped out of school, ended up "down on the corner" and started making bad decisions.

Drake doesn't go so far as to say they joined gangs. But it wouldn't be a surprise if they did.

"You hate to see kids get lost, but a lot of time they cry for help but no one hears them," he said.

A comprehensive gang assessment that came out last week painted a conflicting picture of the city's recreation centers. Some of the public perceives the centers as havens for gang recruitment -- the report cites an incident where two gang members allegedly initiated a new member in a "beatdown" in a recreation center bathroom.

Other people see the centers as places that give the children something to do.

Parks and Recreation Director Larry Zehnder said he can see how the perception arises that the centers are a hive of gang activity because like schools that is where the children go. The city's centers see thousands of children walk through their doors every day.

But Zehnder said the centers really are a way to get to the children as early as possible, giving them alternatives and keeping them off the street corners.

"We're playing a significant role in these kids' lives when they don't have parental role models," he said.

The report calls for a managerial audit looking at how programs should be implemented throughout all recreation centers.

Zehnder said he would welcome an audit because it would lead to improvements. But it wasn't clear Wednesday who would be responsible for conducting such an audit.

Boyd Patterson, coordinator for the Gang Task Force, said the data show the recreation centers are not a magnet for gang crime, theft and violence.

"A lot of the at-risk youths appreciate what the rec centers are trying to do," he said.

Greta Hayes, director of recreation, said the centers constantly are evolving but always are focused on getting children into programs that teach them how to make good decisions. Programs include mentoring and letting teens make music, art and poetry.

But they will take time to show results, Hayes said.

"This doesn't happen overnight," she said.

City Councilman Russell Gilbert, chairman of the Parks and Recreation Committee, said money will be a factor, but being smart and creative with available resources is important, too.

"Could we do more?" he asked. "We could always do more."

East Chattanooga resident Gail McKeel was inspired to visit her local recreation center Wednesday after attending a weekend "Be the Change" event hosted by Dr. Arun Gandhi.

McKeel grew up in East Chattanooga, but Wednesday was the first time she had set foot on the property since the 1970s.

She expected broken bottles and windows and graffiti on the center's red-brick walls. Instead, she found nice shade trees, a manicured lawn and a well-kept building that had stood there since the 1960s.

She said perceptions need to change about the recreation centers so they can be places where more events happen.

But it may take more, she said. While at the "Be the Change" event she talked to several people about the East Chattanooga Recreation Center.

"There were several people I talked to who didn't know we even had a recreation center," she said.

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