Program aims for EPIC change — from gangs to good

Program aims for EPIC change — from gangs to good

CHAMPAIGN — Gang leaders are really good businesspeople, says the Rev. Eugene Barnes at the Metanoia Centers in the Bristol Place neighborhood.

Think about it: "They make vast amounts of money, then invest that money," Barnes said. Unfortunately, they usually invest that money unwisely.

So getting to them early is the idea. Direct them to focus that business acumen on something more positive — like starting a legitimate operation — and maybe that will lead to a better future for young people in Champaign, he thinks.

That will be the aim of summer programming sponsored by the Metanoia Centers and the City of Champaign Township this year.

"If we can intervene early, I think we can avoid some of the complex problems we're seeing now," Barnes said.

The group is already taking applications from teens who want to be a part of the program. They'll be paid a "small stipend" and next month will act in a play, telling the fictional story of gang members who incorporate as a nonprofit and work with the city council to solve an issue. They plan to record that play and televise it on CGTV Channel 5.

Another segment of this summer's programming will focus on starting a business: How to generate an idea, write a business plan, find startup funding, incorporate and market a product. Barnes is calling that segment E.P.I.C, Entrepreneurial Pathways in Champaign.

City of Champaign Township Supervisor Andy Quarnstrom said it's common for Illinois agencies like his to fund a youth program. The township's primary function is to provide monthly general assistance grants to Champaign's poorest people — but Quarnstrom thinks some future township clients can be deflected with education like this at a younger age.

Historically, he said, townships are reactive. People fall into a position of dire need, and the township helps keep their heads above water.

The summer program through Metanoia Centers is an example of an alternative means of assistance. If that means one teen participant is kept off the general assistance roll later in life, Quarnstrom said it's worth it.

"Provide to them whatever they need to be successful in life early," he said. "Ideally, you eliminate the need for them to come to the township later in life."

The messages of civic engagement and a business focus came out of discussions with teens that began last summer, Barnes said. He oversaw a "North End Youth Council" which met in the Metanoia Centers' small house in the troubled Bristol Place neighborhood.

Out of those discussions with the teens came ideas for gang intervention and youth development, Barnes said. Those themes are being incorporated into this summer's programming.

He is hoping E.P.I.C can continue beyond this summer on a rolling basis, and the City of Champaign Township has agreed to provide $5,000 in seed money. The two groups are still seeking donations.

Barnes said that the social issues in Champaign today are a "Petri dish for disaster." A 26-year-old man was killed in Champaign last month as a result of gang violence.

Barnes said he wants to start a "conversation with the gangs" about focusing on something legitimate. That's the idea behind the play, in which the fictional Lords gang "has decided on an alternate course of success for them."

"Often times we're telling our children what the cannot do," Barnes said. "But we seldom tell them what they can do."

Quarnstrom wants young people to see that they can successfully get involved in decision-making.

"I think that it's important that our youth understand that they have a voice and can get involved and effect change," he said.

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