Chattanooga's Oak Grove neighborhood reaching out to youths

Chattanooga's Oak Grove neighborhood reaching out to youths

March 27th, 2013 by Yolanda Putman in Local Regional News

Rachel Collins, left, president of the Oak Grove Neighborhood Association, sits with children from the Oak Grove neighborhood during an afternoon reading at The Public Library downtown. The children from left are Anderson Ramirez, Yulissa Ramirez and Randy Garcia.

Photo by Tim Barber/Times Free Press.

AT A GLANCE

The Oak Grove Neighborhood Association meets at 7 p.m. April 22. Call Rachel Collins at 718-2543 for meeting location.

Rachel Collins said her Oak Grove neighborhood is full of prostitutes, abandoned homes and boarded-up houses that attract drug dealers, gang activity and crime.

But the 51-year-old business owner refuses to let crime and gangs have free rein in her community.

She and a few members with the Oak Grove Neighborhood Association are providing youth with structure and activities this spring break and throughout the year to help keep them out of trouble and to give back to the neighborhood.

"I want to see a change," said 49-year-old Rosalyn Ruffin, who assists Collins with finding activities for youth and hosting neighborhood meetings at her home. "Instead of relying on someone else, I'll do it myself."

The group is hauling youth to the library, the Creative Discovery Museum, and to the Sports Barn for swimming lessons.

The efforts of this neighborhood group provide the perfect example of what can emerge from gang violence, said Boyd Patterson. They are providing hope, inspiration for our children to have a better opportunity, said Patterson, who heads Chattanooga's anti-gang effort.

Collins took about six children to the library Tuesday and has taken as many as a dozen on an activity. She wants to include more youths, but it's a slow process coordinating times with parents and gaining parental trust, Collins said.

The process starts with her going door to door, meeting parents and the children and learning when a group of youths has time to go.

"You can't enlarge a kid's potential any more than by exposing them to the library, you're expanding their perspective," said Patterson.

All activities are free to youths. Collins provides transportation and has been paying any expenses out of pocket, she said.

In June, Collins plans to take kids on an out-of-town trip to show them new environments.

"Some of these kids have never been to the North Shore," said Collins. "They don't know that it's a river over there."

Oak Grove resident and mother Cheryl McGary also helps out by participating in neighborhood meeting and keeping notes, said Collins, owner of 301 Gallery on Main Street.

Twelve-year-old Stephanie Garcia, who went with Collins to the library Tuesday, said she sees youth in her neighborhood who dropped out of school, but that will not happen to her. Her parents always preach the importance of staying in school.

"They don't want us to clean restrooms. They want us to have a better future," said Stephanie, who wants to be a lawyer.

When you see children 9 and 10 years old standing on the corner talking on cellphones, they're not calling their grandparents, said Collins. They're probably making a drug deal, she said.

Several of the 16 shootings that occurred within the past month happened near the Oak Grove community.

It borders East Lake Courts public housing and the Highland Park and Ridgedale communities.

Oak Grove is listed in Chattanooga's Gang Assessment as one of the city's eight neighborhoods most affected by crime and gang activity.

Lamunte Williams, the 16-year-old Howard School student who died this month after being shot in the head, lived just a few doors down from the 1800 block of Main Street where the Oak Grove Neighborhood Association meets.

"If we don't do something," said Collins, "This is when the gangs start picking them up."