At a repurposed fire station at 1600 Central Ave., some of Chattanooga's most disadvantaged youth find outlets in various activities: They build birdhouses in the wood shop, grow tomatoes in a nearby garden and learn how to box in the gym.
They communicate their frustrations with peers and mentors, learn how to cope with problems at home and eat dinner around a table with their friends, which may be their last meal before free and reduced breakfast at school the next morning.
The YMCA Community Action Program is an early intervention initiative that primarily works with elementary and middle school children from 10 to 15 years old. Students can be referred to the organization by the juvenile court system, principals, guidance counselors or teachers.
"They've been identified as at-risk, and somewhere in their life there has been a dramatic shift, whether it's in their behavior or their grades or their attitude," program Executive Director Andy Smith said in an interview. "Our job is to catch these kids' behaviors before they escalate into crime - before they shoot each other or before they rob somebody. We're on the preventative side."
On July 26, the Chattanooga City Council approved a spending plan from Mayor Tim Kelly that outlined uses for $30 million in federal funds available through the American Rescue Plan Act. Along with investments in affordable housing, mental health and workforce development, it earmarked almost $3.7 million for various public safety and youth engagement initiatives, of which the YMCA Community Action Program received $300,000.
That funding will allow the program to add a fourth site in East Lake and expand the number of children it can serve from 66 across its existing three locations in Ooltewah, Cleveland and downtown Chattanooga to 91. It fits into an overarching effort to address the root causes of gun violence in the city.
"What I tell people is we're not going to arrest our way out of this problem," Smith said. "The mayor is not going to fix this problem himself. Government officials are not going to fix this problem. This is up to the citizens in this community to fix this problem. You can talk about building more jails, you can talk about building these rehabilitation facilities, but what if we took that money and put it on the front end?"
Kelly's administration released a multifaceted road map July 28 for addressing gun violence in Chattanooga. It includes a focus on mentorship and youth empowerment programs. The announcement came in the wake of two high-profile shootings that garnered the city national media attention earlier this summer, including one on McCallie Avenue on June 5 that resulted in three deaths and 14 injuries.
Kelly said Friday that his One Chattanooga plan, which he unveiled in May, acts in a holistic way as a strategy for reducing gun violence. The initiative served as the basis for the distribution of American Rescue Plan Act funding and outlines seven priorities for the city's future.
Those are boosting access to early learning, economic vitality for the Black community, affordable housing, improving infrastructure, making the city a competitive regional economy, improving public health and making government efficient and effective.
Mentoring is a big part of any effective public safety effort, Kelly said.
"We already do a little bit of that in community centers where we're trying to get young boys at a vulnerable age and make sure that they understand that there's another path than an affiliation with a criminal element that's going to lead to a very bad place," he said.
Over the past several months, the city has also been participating in the Bloomberg Harvard Innovation Track on Youth Gun Violence, which has involved speaking with young Chattanoogans to help understand what drives gun violence. Officials will take that feedback and structure it into a set of best practices that the city can share with groups operating mentoring programs funded through the city's American Rescue Plan Act dollars.
"It's not just blanket mentorship programs," city spokeswoman Kirsten Yates said. "It's the way they're implemented to make sure they fit the specific needs of the community, and that's why our road map is so great because it's beyond just general funding for stuff that's important in the community. We're structuring it in a way that these groups will work together towards the common goal of preventing gun violence."
At the YMCA Community Action Program's location in downtown Chattanooga, Smith said students who enter the program may be skipping class or have grades slipping from A's and B's to D's and F's.
"That's kind of where we come in to intervene to help the parent and to help the school get this child back on the right track," he said.
Roger Hilley was one of those children who years ago found guidance and stability through the program. Now 28 years old, Hilley coaches boxing at the gym and said it can be a valuable team-building alternative for many kids who would otherwise get into trouble.
"Boxing is going to teach you character, discipline," Hilley said. "It's going to teach you tools for outside of the ring in real life. Everybody wants to belong to something. That's what these gangs are about, belonging to something."
American Rescue Plan Act funding will also support an early intervention initiative developed by Kingdom Partners. With $500,000 from the city, President Oliver Richmond said his organization will work with 30 grassroots organizations in some of the toughest-to-reach parts of Chattanooga to recruit a total of 300 new mentors. Big Brothers Big Sisters will conduct training.
"All the statistics show that when kids have a mentor, they're less likely to get into riskier behavior, violence," Richmond said by phone. "They have someone to talk to, encourage them, help them think through situations, and they're always a phone call away."
The funding awarded by the city will support the program for a year and a half, Richmond said, but the goal will be to jump-start mentoring programs at participating organizations. In the future, Kingdom Partners will help raise funds for organizations that need it, but others will be capable of incorporating the program into their regular operations.
Fundamentally, many people turn to violence because they lose hope, Richmond said, but mentoring can be a way to demonstrate that there's light beyond the darkness.
"A lot of us grew up poor, and so we can really relate to the tough situations and help them and let them know there's a brighter side to this if you can make some better decisions," he said. "It's not going to be easy, but you can make it through and achieve."
Contact David Floyd at email@example.com or at 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @flavid_doyd.