Taking Back The Neighborhood
GAINESVILLE In the shadow of the fairy tale world of Walt Disney, Orlando struggles with many of the same problems that affect all big cities.
“Like other big cities, Orlando has a problem with children’s safety,” said Nayda Torres, acting chairwoman of the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences family, youth and community sciences department. “It has ‘latchkey kids’ kids left home alone. The parents work and the kids come home after school and lock themselves in their houses or wander the streets, causing problems or becoming victims.”
Now, a pilot project on Orlando’s east side has been launched to do something about it. Its mission: to take back the neighborhoods one at a time ensuring the safety of the children who live there.
Called the Union Park Action for Safe Families, the program is spearheaded by UF’s Orange County Cooperative Extension Service. In an era of political posturing and governmentspeak, its goal is brief and to the point: “By Sept. 30, 1998, 90 percent of the children participating in the collaborative programs will be safer.”
To measure its success, the program demands of itself: (1) a 50 percent increase in children enrolled in supervised collaborative programs; (2) at least a 25 percent increase in children’s knowledge of, and behavior regarding, personal safety; and (3) a 50 percent increase in the use of a safety hot line by children left home alone.
So far, all indications are that the program is succeeding. To date, more than 650 neighborhood families have participated in safety programming.
From its beginning in April 1996, the program has involved neighborhood leaders, neighborhood families and neighborhood schools. “The key word here is ‘neighborhood,’” said Millie Ferrer, Orange County extension agent who heads the Union Park effort.
The program uses a 14-prong approach, ranging from the safety hot line to after-school activities to keep children off the streets. Because of the cultural diversity of the neighborhood Hispanics make up more than 30 percent of the school population cross-cultural communication training is among the offerings. Here, Ferrer, herself Hispanic, teaches children about other cultures, customs, languages and musical instruments. “Anything that gives children a chance to learn about other cultures,” said Janet Chambers, Orange County courtesy extension agent and the only one who works full time on the project.
While the cooperative extension service as the driving force behind this collaborative partnership, a host of other Orange County organizations lend valuable assistance: East Orange Community Action, Community Coordinated Care for Children, the Orange County Sheriff’s Office B.A.D.G.E. (Becoming Achievers and Doers Through Guided Education), and the Orange County Department of Human Services. The program is funded by the Orange County Citizens’ Commission for Children.
All program activities are held in one of three neighborhood centers: Union Park Elementary, Bonneville Elementary or East Orange Service Center. “It’s one-stop shopping for children’s needs,” Ferrer said.
“Before busing, schools were the center of community,” said Torres. “The problem today is there is no longer a neighborhood concept. With this program, we are returning to that neighborhood concept that gave people pride and esprit de corps about where they lived.”
Organizers will have to wait another 14 months before they know if the program has met its ultimate goal. But if it does, they say, 90 percent of the children participating in this Orlando neighborhood program will be safer.
WHAT EACH PARTNER DOES:
Cooperative Extension Service: Serves as coordinator of project, awards 30 extended-day scholarships in Orange County Public Schools, recruits and trains volunteers, produces the “Safe Families” quarterly newsletter, and provides: self-care education for 4th and 5th grades; Phone Pals Safety Hot Line; pre-school safety education; family day care in-service; Children and Literacy Program; 4-H club after-school activities; cross-cultural communication training; better living choices for 9- to 11-year olds; and parent nurturing program.
East Orange Community Action, Inc.: Provides 15 scholarships for subsidized after school care; provides classroom space for a variety of activities, including volunteer training.
Community Coordinated Care for Children: Provides subsidized day care.
Orange County Sheriff’s Office B.A.D.G.E. (Becoming Achievers and Doers Through Guided Education): Provides middle school tutoring and mentoring. Combines a teacher with a sheriff’s deputy: The teacher works with children on academic enrichment; the deputy provides a positive role model. Offers incentives, such as travel outings, for academic achievement.
Orange County Department of Human Services, Family Education: Provides family counseling to families in the Union Park Community.