published Tuesday, October 16th, 2012

Gang task force seeks help of faith leaders

HOW TO HELP

To get involved, contact Gang Task Force Coordinator Boyd Patterson at patterson_b@chattanooga.gov or 423-425-7835.

IF YOU GO

• What: Language of Life, a literacy-focused event that also will include a costume contest, pinatas, face painting and music in English and Spanish.

• When: Noon-3 p.m. Nov. 3

• Where: East Lake Recreation Center, 3601 Dodds Ave.

• Information: Boyd Patterson, 423-425-7830; or José Pérez, 423-903-5761

Research shows that kids who read well in early grades are more likely to graduate from high school, stay out of trouble and lead successful lives.

So it's no wonder Chattanooga leaders are targeting literacy as a first step to curbing the influence of criminal street gangs.

The city's gang task force has dedicated a subcommittee to drive literacy efforts, and an upcoming event is calling on faith leaders to come together for the cause. The Nov. 3 "Language of Life" event will bring together ministries and faith-based groups that work with education or literacy.

The head of the city's gang reduction effort said churches are called to work with kids who are poor, uncared for or uneducated. Plus, he said, churches can satisfy the voids in children's lives that drive them to gangs in the first place.

"This kind of hits the core of how the faith community is mandated to reach out to kids who are impoverished," said Gang Task Force coordinator Boyd Patterson.

Many groups already do such work, and Patterson hopes they all come to the table on Nov. 3.

"Anyone who understands the significance of helping kids avoid gangs in the first place can participate in this event because everybody can help teach a kid to read," he said.

Reading at the early ages is crucial because nearly all learning later in life relies on reading skills.

"When a child is growing up, they learn to read until about the time they are in third grade. And after that they read to learn," said Eva Dillard, president and CEO of United Way of Greater Chattanooga.

United Way promotes early literacy efforts and provides funding to give books each month to more than 18,000 area children under the age of 5, a program that helps kids get an early start regardless of their family's economic status.

Girls Inc. has made literacy a focal point of its programming for years. Reading is incorporated into summer camps, and staff just started a new "Bookworm" club for girls in two elementary schools to promote a love of reading.

With a strong correlation between early literacy rates and future success, Girls Inc. Executive Director Bea Lurie said it's critical to give students an early boost.

"If you're illiterate, you can't fill out a job application. You can't do online research about a job," she said. "You're in a dead space."

There seems to be some will for community groups and ministries to work together better. That's key because the recently released Chattanooga Comprehensive Gang Assessment noted that the city has a fractured nonprofit community that duplicates some programs and abruptly ends others with little idea of what is and isn't working.

"We are definitely seeking to change that, and our partnership and collaboration base is growing by the month," said David Peck, director of resource development at Hope for the Inner City.

He said the Christian nonprofit has more than 50 students involved in its afterschool program, which helps with reading and one-on-one tutoring. The group is trying to mobilize churches to get involved on the streets where they're most needed, Peck said.

Churches are uniquely positioned to help kids avoid gangs, he said.

"With having that moral fence and having that foundation of Christian moral ethics, you're less likely to engage in that kind of behavior," he said.

Contact staff writer Kevin Hardy at 423-757-6249 or khardy@timesfreepress.com.

about Kevin Hardy...

Kevin rejoined the Times Free Press in August 2011 as the Southeast Tennessee K-12 education reporter. He worked as an intern in 2009, covering the communities of Signal Mountain, Red Bank, Collegedale and Lookout Mountain, Tenn. A native Kansan, Kevin graduated with bachelor's degrees in journalism and sociology from the University of Kansas. After graduating, he worked as an education reporter in Hutchinson, Kan., for a year before coming back to Chattanooga. Honors include a ...

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