The city of Owensboro will extend hours at the Dugan Best Recreation Center next week and begin the process of developing several youth-oriented programs aimed at stemming an uptick in violence on the city's west side.

According to Parks and Recreation Director Amanda Rogers, the community center's summer hours will change from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday to 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. the same days. While school is in session, she said, hours will remain 2:30 to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday but will make the same extension from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Saturdays.

New hours will go into effect beginning Monday.

Rogers said the changes are a product of discussions she had personally with leaders of the ad-hoc citizens-advisory group My Brother's Keeper, which attended a city commission meeting in June to call on the city to do more to end westside violence.

"We're going to try that for a six-week trial run," Rogers said. "That will get us a few weeks in the summer and a few weeks during the school year -- some time to really publicize it in the community. We'll check and see if that's something that's being utilized. As long as people are coming through our doors, we're glad to be open and stay open whatever hours we can to make that beneficial to the youth of our community."

My Brother's Keeper has blamed the rise in violence on young people with few other options than to turn to drugs and crime for money. Crime in Owensboro is, of course, not just contained to the west side, but a number of neighborhoods in that area have earned a grim reputation for violence in recent months. So far this year, there have been five murders within the city and two in the county, bringing the total number of gun-related homicides in Daviess County up to seven -- higher already than the total number from last year.

The recreation center provides activities and resources that enhance the lives of young people in the area and occupy their time with developmental learning activities, games, field trips and more. Rogers said the center achieved growth over the years but that it has, to some extent, failed to extend those opportunities to young people ages 14-16. It's an awkward age, she said, when children are beginning to earn their independence, and the center staff needs to be able to grow and adapt to the unique nature of individuals within that age group so as to not lose them to the streets.

In addition to the extended hours, the center will soon implement two programs -- one to bring Owensboro Community & Technical College resources to young people in order to help them find jobs, and another to tap into student athletes at Brescia University who can help young people with homework and tutoring.

"I think that will be a great expansion of connections and partnerships in the community and will help the young people who do attend our center see success in other young people that are here from Owensboro," she said.

Tim Collier, the founder of My Brother's Keeper, applauded the city's effort. The grassroots organization had asked the department to extend their hours to 1 a.m. every day, but, he said, they are understanding of the financial constraints that could cause.

What's most important, Collier said, is that the city as a whole make an effort and that the effort be made visible in the communities most negatively affected by the violence.

"That's showing us in the public that the city is willing to help," he said. "That's what a lot of people are asking for."

The department and My Brother's Keeper will partner to host a listening session at 5:50 p.m. Monday at the center to engage community members in an open dialogue about what role the center can continue to play in youth development. Both Rogers and Collier encouraged particularly young people to attend so that their input can be an active part of that discussion.

Mike Gray manages the Dugan Best center, which is celebrating its 45th year of service this week. Gray said he is happy to see the hours extended because he sees the impact programs there can have on youth.

"We're willing to do what needs to be done to help down there in this community," he said. "I don't have any problems working those type of hours, because, as I've said, the kids are our future. I want to be part of that future, and, if I can do anything to help that community, that's what I'll do."

One of those young people is J'nayah Hill, 22, a senior at Lindsey Wilson College who attributes her human services studies to the lessons she learned at the center.

She's giving back now, helping run some of the programs young people rely on there while she is away from school for the summer. She said she is a witness to the incredible impact the center can have.

"Going there over the years, I've learned a lot of things, such as discipline, respect, responsibility," she said. "I think those things can take you far in life, and I've learned those being a part of the center. It's provided a positive and healthy outlet for the children in my community, from indoor activities to field trips to summer lunch programs. I think that it's great to give back. I think that's what Dugan Best has provided for my cousins, myself and the kids nowadays who are going there."

Austin Ramsey, 270-691-7302, aramsey@messenger-inquirer.com, Twitter: @austinrramsey

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