Chattanooga has a long list of nonprofits that reach out to neighborhoods, pilot education-driven programs for parents and work to empower teens throughout the city.
Last year's gang task force assessment identified 780 social services within a 30-mile radius. Yet the study noted that the community-wide efforts to support teens and families were fractured and disconnected, leaving holes in the system.
One of Chattanooga's newest departments, Youth and Family Development, is now among those groups, and Director Lurone Jennings believes the city has a plan that could fill the void.
"I don't know of anyone that has as strong of an education focus as we have," Jennings said. "We are pushing literacy in all of our centers."
Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke wants to put nearly $900,000 toward turning the city's 18 recreation or community centers into learning centers by adding more reading programs, piloting a mentorship program and hiring an educational coordinator to lead programs.
Some of these ideas, including adding computer-based Lexia reading programs and hiring an education literacy coordinator, were projects trailblazed by the gang task force, which Berke disbanded when he took office.
Several grassroots leaders say they are optimistic about Berke's plans to help the city, but hope he has a long-term goal to bring the successful groups together and support what already exists in the community.
"There are a lot of programs and things in this city that actually work," said Richard Bennett, who heads A Better Tomorrow. "Why would you bring something new if there's things that work?"
As kids go back to school, six recreation centers began offering after-school programs focusing on reading skills.
The centers, in neighborhoods including Avondale, Brainerd, East Lake and Hixson, will have scheduled times for Lexia programs, along with regular activities such as basketball and swimming, Jennings said. While the recreation centers in the past typically were open to the public, Jennings said anyone who comes through the doors now must be registered and accounted for.
"You just can't walk in off the street," he said. "We have to know who you are. It gets more done and creates a safer environment."
There will be scheduled free times for teenagers to visit the recreation centers, but the youths still will be monitored, Jennings said.
But some leaders who work with troubled teens said it will be hard to help them if they aren't allowed in the centers except at special times.
Elenora Woods heads the Alton Park Development Corp., a group that helped find teens jobs and community projects this summer. Woods said over the summer, teens weren't allowed into the centers until after 3 p.m., which didn't help to keep them off the street and out of trouble when their parents were gone.
Berke spokeswoman Lacie Stone said 600 kids participated in programs at the city's 15 recreation centers this summer.
Jennings said the city also will pilot a mentorship initiative called Chattanooga Ambassador Program to train teens between 16 and 18, pair them with mentors and send them to the recreation centers to help.
The city doesn't have enough employees to staff all the recreation centers, Jennings said, and the teens will be trained to teach literacy and will volunteer with the Lexia programs. Throughout the school year, the city expects to train 50 teens recommended by teachers, parents or church leaders.
What some grassroots leaders say the community needs from the city is space.
Grove Street Settlement House founder Valerie Radu, who also teaches at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, said there are many nonprofit groups that need a free place to meet and develop projects.
Currently, services that partner with the city can work from the recreation centers, Jennings said, but other groups and neighborhood associations are charged fees to use the centers.
The best way Chattanooga can reach teens is by going into their neighborhoods and schools, said one young man who was mentored through Bennett's A Better Tomorrow program.
"It's good to come to the classes and speak to people," said 20-year-old Thaddeus Allen. "They want to know what their purpose is."
Contact staff writer Joy Lukachick at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6659.