CHAMPAIGN — Community members and Champaign school district staff filled the city council chambers Tuesday to hear about a proposal aimed at providing "wrap-around" social help for African-American youth and their families.
The result of more than 400 hours of meetings and work by city staff and school officials, the proposed Youth and Family Empowerment Initiative would be a partnership meant to support youth and their families by providing them with mentorship, therapy, career development and anything else they might need. It's meant as a direct response to increasing gun violence in the community.
In a tragic illustration of the consequences of that violence, Tuesday's meeting began with a moment of silence dedicated to Franklin STEAM Academy eighth-grader Elijha James Booker, 14, who died Saturday after being shot at a home he was visiting in the Garden Hills subdivision.
"In the last year, we've seen our youth and those involved in gun violence becoming younger and younger," said Tracy Parsons, community relations manager. "We should remember that night of the basketball game at Central High School, and how it sent a shockwave through our community. We've tended to say it's far away, but that's when we realized it could happen anywhere."
Over the last two years, Parsons and the community coalition have started intervention programs, the Youth Assessment Center and other programs, "but children are still falling through the cracks," he said.
"Now we have something much more intentional than what we've been willing to do before," Parsons said. "For the first time, we're talking about individual kids. We brought a list of students and started talking with these kids. That's when I started realizing they're just kids that have lost hope. This is on all of us and our ability to address this."
As part of the proposal, the initiative would aim to hire a program manager with a mental-health background; four family intervention specialists to provide "direct intensive support, one on one"; a therapist and researcher; as well as immediate service through a 24/7 hotline. Their job would be to provide service to impacted students and their families.
If approved, it would mean $200,000 to $250,000 in recurring expenses for the city and a match by the school district. The total cost for the proposed program could be between $372,000 and $436,000.
But council members questioned city and school district staff on whether that money would be enough to do everything the program intends and if the proposed staffing level would be adequate.
They noted that the proposed initiative sets a goal to have each specialist handle between 20 and 25 students, but about 213 sixth-through-12th-grade students who have frequently exhibited academic and behavioral issues are already on a list of potential initiative clients.
Council member Angie Brix asked Deputy City Manager Joan Walls if the team that put together this proposal believes that the indicated staffing level is adequate. She also questioned the ability of the manager to be the point of entry for the program, the assessor for who will enter the program and the managing authority for the specialists all at once, asking if it is realistic to expect that person to do all those things.
"Realistically? No," Walls said. "But we're putting information together in order to get this launched. And while looking at getting this in place with the budget we have, we wanted to present the proposal with one manager and four specialists."
Council member Matt Gladney wondered just how much this model will rely on community volunteers. Walls said the program team doesn't know the details of the volunteer roles, and it will be under the purview of the manager position.
Despite some questions on funding, structure and design, the proposed program was widely supported by community members who spoke during audience participation, including members of the Boys 2 Men mentorship group. Almost all of them also urged the council to consider funding this at a higher level than proposed.
During their comments, council members offered their enthusiastic and unanimous support for the initiative while still dealing with unanswered questions and concerns over staffing.
"I'm very grateful this is being worked on," Gladney said. "But I'm also concerned about things like the staffing levels. With all the families that will need assistance here, I worry about burnout on behalf of the staff members. We want them to be able to do their jobs well."
Brix said that when it comes to issues like this, her thoughts go straight "to cost, and who's going to do this and that, and how we don't have enough answers."
"But what I'm certain of is the people in this community and the people who care and showed up tonight," Brix said. "It says a lot about our community and the people we'll have behind this initiative."