A grassroots community organization triggered by a spike in violence on Owensboro's west side is calling on the Owensboro City Commission to provide more opportunities for young people in the community.
My Brother's Keeper, which was founded this month by concerned citizen and activist Tim Collier, attended Tuesday's City Commission to make its case.
Collier and members of the group specifically asked the city to extend hours of operation at the Dugan Best Recreation Center and help sponsor a youth summer jobs program.
Collier says the uptick in violence is a product of young people with few other options than to turn to drugs and crime for money. It takes adults and community leaders to "step up to the plate," he said, and create an environment that fosters meaningful alternatives.
"I think we as parents and as leaders of our community have dropped the ball," he said. "We have forgotten about the kids, and they've taken control of the neighborhoods. We need to take control back."
Crime in Owensboro is, of course, not just contained to the west side, but a number of neighborhoods in the 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.
Mary Harris lives on West Eighth Street in Owensboro, not far from where 25-year-old Nicholas Decker was found gunned down in his home just last week. Crime is becoming so common, she says, that she and her family are beginning to fear the neighborhood they love.
"I moved to Owensboro from Madisonville four years ago," she said. "I didn't know it was this bad, but sometimes I regret it, honestly. It's scary out there."
Harris regularly takes evening walks near the Dugan Best Park, but as recently as Monday, she said, large groups of teenagers have occupied the area around the recreational center there, fighting and shouting. And yet, she said, no one seems to be doing anything about it.
That's where the city can play a role, Collier says. The recreation center provides activities and resources that enhance the lives of young people in that area and provide them with options other than violence or drugs.
Currently, however, operating hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. during the summer and 2:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. while schools are still in session. By extending operating hours through the night to 1 a.m. every morning, the center would remain in compliance with the city's curfew and continue providing the "wholesome, quality, clean and safe environment for youth and adults" that it does during the daytime throughout the week, he said.
"The role of community recreation centers is especially crucial for communities that lack the necessary facilities to keep their children in safe environments," he said. "After-school programs provide a refuge for at-risk youth, helping to reduce crime rates, court costs and other costs to the community."
The city can also partner with local school systems, medical facilities, entertainment and recreational venues as well as retail and food-service businesses to provide employment and internship opportunities that are viable forms of early employment, Collier suggested. He said the city should fashion together a program for young people ages 14-24 to work at least five-hour days at minimum wage.
A paycheck and mentors can inspire a lot of good, he said. Recreational facilities, too, offer healthy alternatives. But My Brother's Keeper's efforts need city input, he added.
Owensboro's Parks and Recreation Department headquarters at Chautauqua Park used to serve as an eastside community center as well, but the department closed those services because of a lack of participation, according to Director Amanda Rogers. It's created an environment, Collier said, that calls into question the city's willingness to do what it takes to truly bring an end to the violence.
"As a community, as a caring parent and as somebody who just cares about his city, I'm just asking that the city just provide something," Collier said. "They're going to go to violence, and they're going to look up to the (wrong) people if we don't. It breaks me up because I really care. It really hurts my heart to see some young man laying there dead or see some young female who doesn't have enough money to feed her kid, who doesn't understand that there is funding in the city and they just don't know how to get to the funding. We need to educate these kids while they're young. The schools teach them how to read and write, but we need to teach them how to be young ladies and young men of our community because they represent Owensboro."
Mayor Tom Watson instructed city staff to meet with members of the grassroots coalition in order to assess the viability of their proposals. The mayor said he is "on your side" and belabored the slow movement of government policy.
Austin Ramsey, 270-691-7302, firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter: @austinrramsey