The 14-month closure of the Chattanooga Youth and Family Development Centers has gone on for too long, according to a group of community members, including current and former employees of the city's recreation department, who addressed the city council on Tuesday evening.
The 18 centers, first closed after the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, usually provide recreation and programming for youth year-round, and many are concerned that without that structure for a second summer in a row, existing issues could be further exacerbated.
"There was no sense for these centers to be closed as long as they have. It is just unrealistic," said David Crutcher, a longtime employee in recreation who noted that other municipalities in the state had already figured out how to run their centers during the pandemic months ago.
"There was a safe way to do this, all we needed to do was put our heads together, put our hearts in it. Those kids needed those recreation centers open."
On Tuesday, the city announced that it would be running summer camps at six of the YFD sites and would be working to also safely open the other 12 locations for regular use in the near future.
Mayor Tim Kelly addressed the situation briefly near the start of Tuesday's meeting and said more specifics would be presented to the council and the public on May 25.
"I know it's a sore subject and I've directed my administration to bring you a plan next Tuesday that details our reopening plan for the YFD centers," Kelly said. "I share your frustration and in short I'm committed to getting them open as quickly as we can, and I've pushed our team to move as fast as possible."
During the meeting, Jackie Daniels Simpson said that she has worked with the recreation department in Chattanooga for more than 35 years and that not having the centers open is taking a toll on local youth.
"[Our kids have] been boxed up for the last 15 months with the COVID," Simpson said. "They have dealt with mental problems. The centers haven't been open, they haven't had no type of curriculum activity. Something has got to give to help these kids. Now it's gonna be us, as adults, to see about them, or the gangs are going to get them, and they're out there."
Community member Marie Mott brought up similar concerns of a recent rise in violence in the area.
"Considering the fact that we have a grotesque budget of over $200 million, it should not be unfathomable to believe that our children should have something to do for the summer to stay out of trouble, considering that we have a shooting almost every darn day that we wake up in this city," she said.
One aspect of reopening the centers is staffing, according to Chattanooga Director of Special Projects Ellis Smith. And District 9 Councilwoman Demetrus Coonrod has been pushing for the city to prioritize reopening all 18 centers and is imploring the public to apply to work at one of the sites and continue advocating for themselves.
"We're begging for people to come to work for the YFD sites," Coonrod said during the council meeting. "We've even increased the pay, not once, but twice to $15 an hour. So if you know anybody who wants to get on board and really impact these kids' lives pull out your phones fill out that application if you want to be a part of that change."
Veronica Glasco, an employee at the Westside center who wore a shirt to the meeting that read "Recreation Cares," said she hopes the city will address concerns as soon as possible.
"I'm asking Tim Kelly to think before the 25th [of May]," she said. "We need answers, like today. We need answers. I can't even go to the center just to check on the building to make sure the water is still on without a kid running up to ask 'Is the center open?' It leaves me speechless."
Those interested in working at one of the summer programs can apply at bit.ly/cha-job.
Contact Tierra Hayes at firstname.lastname@example.org.