Cedar Rapids: come together to help our kids

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In the past week, we have celebrated the thousands of volunteers who joined forces in our neighborhoods to prevent the damage of another flood. We have seen the photos and videos of people sandbagging homes and businesses, places near and dear to our hearts and our friends’ hearts. Volunteers assembled beds at shelters, brought food and water, offered baby-sitting when school was canceled. The volunteers have come in all forms: old and young, rich and poor, black and white. Our citizens rose faster than the floodwaters and prevented a much greater tragedy from unfolding. We learned our lessons from the 2008 flood and worked together to avert another crisis.

But in the midst of warding off one tragedy, we hear of another. A 13-year-old girl, Ireshia Parks, was shot and killed in one of our historic neighborhoods at eight o’clock in the morning. Ireshia would play Barbies with her 7-year-old neighbor, who now will cross the street and wonder where her friend has gone. A 13-year-old boy was charged with involuntary manslaughter and carrying a weapon.

It’s a tragedy that we have experienced before. Her death comes one year after the city lost another teen — 15-year-old Aaron Richardson — to gun violence. Then a 13-year-old was charged after shooting and killing 15-year-old Senquez Jackson. Then a 16-year-old was charged with shooting and killing 21-year-old Brandon Johnson.

It’s time to come together again.

And it is time to look honestly at ourselves and examine our priorities. We have given and sacrificed much to save buildings. The city spent between $5 and $6 million to erect temporary flood barriers. Businesses allowed employees to miss work (and be paid) to volunteer. People volunteered around the clock. Are we willing to do as much to save the life of a child?

There is a crisis in this city. These are tragedies that will repeat themselves if we do nothing. Children are drowning in a flood of poverty, violence and despair. Children’s lives will be lost.

We can prevent it. We know that a positive adult role model and mentor is critical in the life of a child. We know that we need safe places with adequate adult supervision for kids outside of school hours. We know that conflict resolution skills can help people resolve differences without violence. We know that guns are too easy for children to acquire.

We desperately need volunteers. Big Brothers Big Sisters has 125 kids who are enrolled in their programs and waiting for a Big. The LBA Foundation, Marion Cares, Boys & Girls Club, and other non-profits need volunteers. Think of it: we all had commitments and obligations this weekend, but we set them aside to help. If you sandbagged for 4 hours one day, that’s all you would give to be a “Big” for an entire month (and it’s only 2 hours a month to be a Lunch Buddy). We can make the time.

Our city must also devote resources to help children who live in at-risk environments. We cannot overcome the barriers kids face without funding. If we had all shown up to combat the flood, but no one provided sand or bags or plastic or barriers, it would have been futile. No one questioned the city’s spending for flood barriers, for we know prevention costs less than cures. If we can find $5 million in the budget for temporary flood barriers, we can dedicate the same amount to permanently protect the children who are in harm’s way. A city that is not safe for all children is not a healthy city.

Perhaps we are overwhelmed. There were some this week who did not want their house sandbagged. It was a lost cause, they said. But it left volunteers feeling frustrated. Some we could convince by saying, “Let’s try. We have nothing to lose.” So let’s volunteer. Let’s commit funding. We have everything to gain.

It is different to volunteer in the life of a child than it is to volunteer for the flood. It requires a commitment over time to establish a relationship with children, to show that they can rely on you, and to transform their futures. But a small amount of time each month can save a child.

At one point Sunday, I posted my cellphone on Facebook and asked people to come join me in sandbagging the Time Check neighborhood. Friends shared my posts and soon, dozens and dozens of people texted — asking to help, asking where they should come and what was most needed. So let’s try. My cell number is (319) 213-5437. Text me and I’ll find you a volunteer opportunity where you can make a difference.

Can we love our children the way we love our neighborhoods? We can prevent another tragedy, but it takes all of us working together.

• Jenny Schulz is the executive director at Kids First Law Center, which gives children a voice in custody, divorce and other conflicts. Comments: jenny@kidsfirstiowa.org

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