published Thursday, March 14th, 2013

Safe haven for youth, East Lake Boys & Girls Club, besieged by violence

East Lake Courts can be seen in the background as children exit a school bus along East 25th Street Place and enter the Boys and Girls Club of Chattanooga's East Lake unit Wednesday in Chattanooga. The club was locked down Tuesday evening after the shooting of a Chattanooga police officer a few blocks away, and staff members kept the children in the windowless library and gymnasium for safety.
East Lake Courts can be seen in the background as children exit a school bus along East 25th Street Place and enter the Boys and Girls Club of Chattanooga's East Lake unit Wednesday in Chattanooga. The club was locked down Tuesday evening after the shooting of a Chattanooga police officer a few blocks away, and staff members kept the children in the windowless library and gymnasium for safety.
Photo by Doug Strickland.
  • photo
    East Lake Courts can be seen in the background behind the Boys and Girls Club of Chattanooga's East Lake unit Wednesday in Chattanooga. The club was locked down Tuesday evening after the shooting of a Chattanooga police officer a few blocks away, and staff members kept the children in the windowless library and gymnasium for safety.
    Photo by Doug Strickland.
    enlarge photo

Outside, as chaos ruled the twilight Tuesday, children at the East Lake Boys & Girls Club staged a jump-rope tournament, cozied up with a book in the library or listened to music.

In the streets surrounding the building near the East Lake Courts public housing development off Fourth Avenue, police officers carrying military-style semi-automatic rifles scoured the area in search of the man who shot a Chattanooga police officer.

The East Lake Boys & Girls Club unit, within the taped-off perimeter that police set up just a little after 6 p.m., was on lockdown for three hours.

Debbie Gray, the executive vice president of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Chattanooga, said the perpetual need for lockdowns interferes with the after-school club's main goals: to promote academic success, develop character and leadership and learn about healthy lifestyles.

"It's very difficult to provide a safe environment when right outside your door is not safe," she said Wednesday.

Necole Mabry, unit manager for the Boys and Girls Club, said once staff became aware of the situation outside, they began their lockdown procedure: Doors were secured, and bathrooms, offices and hallways were checked for intruders.

She and staff member Nickelle Casteel ushered the children to the facility's windowless library and gym and tried to do business as usual as the massive manhunt for 39-year-old Celvin "Squeaky" Houston continued.

"We're always, because of the area, having to fight the outside forces instead of being able to concentrate on what we do best,"Mabry said. "We have to worry about the security of our children."

Tuesday's shooting prompted Gray to reach out to organization board members.

"We are pleading for your help," she wrote in an email Tuesday night. "We are on lockdown as I write this. There is gunfire in the area with people shooting at each other."

The East Lake Boys & Girls Club unit, at 2125 E. 25th St., is often near the heart of street violence, and lockdowns are not uncommon.

"It is the [third or fourth] time within the last month and [a] half," Gray wrote in her email.

A gang task force assessment showed that gang crimes occur frequently around Chattanooga's recreation centers, an influence boys club executives want to steer children away from.

"My job is to keep kids out of gangs," said Boys & Girls Club President Michael Cranford.

"Where these kids live, it's a huge challenge to overcome some of the obstacles they face every day: low economics, violence. It puts a lot of negative choices in front of them. The club is trying to help the kids negotiate those obstacles."

But even the best efforts can miss the mark. Sixteen-year-old Lamunta Williams was an active participant in the club, Gray said. The Howard School sophomore attended meetings three to four times a week.

But just last week, Williams was gunned down by an 18-year-old man who is a documented gang member.

"He was trying to do the things that he needed to do to get his life in the right place," Cranford said.

about Lindsay Burkholder...

Lindsay Burkholder is originally from Winston-Salem, N.C. She graduated from Covenant College in May 2012 with a bachelor's degree in English. While at Covenant she spent time writing for and editing the news section of the school newspaper, The Bagpipe. Burkholder also attended the World Journalism Institute in New York City in 2011.

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