Asset-Building: A City Mobilizes around Kids Many Young People Share a Common Complaint: Not Enough to Do in the Unstructured Hours between 3 P.M. and 6 P.M. It's a Period When Lack of Adult Supervision and Idleness Can Often Lead to Trouble. but Communities and Churches Are Working to Fill the Gap, Viewing Youths Who Are Active and Engaged as Building Blocks to Stronger Families and Neighborhoods. Series: Out of Harm's Way: Protecting Children from Violence. Part Four of Four. First of Two Articles Appearing Today

Article excerpt

Cue the armadillo.

When the little creature scoots into the circle of kneeling Moorhead, Minn., school children, he's simply doing his part for community mobilization.

The same goes for the baby alligator and the bull snake that preceded the armadillo. Here at the Robert Asp Elementary School, the animals get a rock star's reception when they are brought to teacher Joel Swanson's classroom as part of an after-school program. The children squeal and laugh and reach out to touch them, and then go on to learn about animal care and habits from members of the Red River Zoological Society and Northern Star Camp Fire. This educational meeting of creatures and kids in Moorhead is one small part of a multifaceted, community mobilization experiment that is supplanting the once-popular American model: identify what is wrong with youths and try to stamp it out. Over the last two decades, youth programs with singular objectives have multiplied across the United States. But the Moorhead Healthy Community Initiative (MHCI) joins the few that seek to lift and mobilize an entire community. "What we are doing here," says Superintendent of Schools Bruce Anderson of the far-reaching, collaborative effort, "is focusing on the positive outcome we want and moving together to make it happen." This is prevention by involvement, not containment. Example: Instead of adults deciding how to fill the idle after-school hours of many potentially at-risk children, why not survey all Moorhead children for their top 10 choices? MHCI surveyed 1,100 fourth- through eighth-graders more than a year ago. The result surprised this college community of 32,000 on the banks of the Red River just across from Fargo, N.D. The No. 1 choice was working with animals. Second was swimming, third was drawing. The survey results were as important as the MHCI decision to recognize children as a community asset and respond with imaginative programs. In addition to the classroom encounter with the armadillo, a 4-H "Happy Trails with Happy Tails" program now matches youths up with trained dogs to visit nursing homes. What began this overall MHCI mobilization three years ago was a growing concern on the part of community leaders that Moorhead, like many other communities, was beginning to decline as a safe, supportive environment for children and families. Despite a solid school system, relatively little poverty, and three colleges in town, the community needed to face the encroachment of deeper social issues facing youths and families. The community was also experiencing more ethnic diversity. In l994, the Search Institute of Minneapolis, a nonprofit organization that provides practical resources to communities to help youths, took a survey of all Moorhead youths. The findings revealed a growing distance between many adults and children, an increase in youth violence, rising use of alcohol and drugs, and sexual experimentation by youths. "About five years ago we started noticing an increase in gang-type violence and activity, too," says Nancy Taralson, Moorhead community policing coordinator, "and people just hated to see that happening to the community." The police began community policing and established neighborhood block clubs. Other more traditional organizations, like the YMCA, stepped up their activities. But to address the community-wide problems, a task force of some 80 people came together looking for a new vision that would rekindle community spirit and help develop strong, healthy children and families. The committee turned to the "asset" model developed by the Search Institute. Moorhead was the second of more than 40 communities across the United States to adopt the asset model in the last few years. The institute contends that in the interplay of family, child, and community, those children with more "developmental assets" in their lives, such as family support, friendship skills, achievement motivation, sexual restraint, and service to others, will be less likely to slip into at-risk behavior. …


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