CEDAR RAPIDS — Thwarted by the coronavirus pandemic from launching the mentoring programs it intended, an organization seeking to curb youth violence has pivoted to other ways of helping this summer.
The Creating Safe, Equitable and Thriving Communities Fund is a partnership between the city of Cedar Rapids, Linn County and the Cedar Rapids Community School District that grew out of wide-ranging discussions about addressing youth violence.
At the end of 2019, the fund awarded seven grants for proposals that largely focused on engaging at-risk youth with supportive mentoring and other programming.
But because of the virus pandemic, much of that programming had to be canceled or changed.
“Many of these programs were centered on mentoring youth — matching youth with mentors, working with small groups, having discussions, providing peer support, learning conflict management skills, understanding history and who they are,” said Rachel Rockwell, program officer for the fund at the Greater Cedar Rapids Community Foundation.
So instead, the seven grantees, along with other local nonprofit, government and community organizations, have launched the “ReSET 2020 Youth & Family Challenge” summer outreach program as a way of adapting their work and helping families and individuals navigate the new realities and added stress that come with it.
The ReSET 2020 programming, Rockwell said, will narrow its focus to addressing the needs of specific “at-risk” families in the community and work to provide support and connect them to the most relevant resources.
Rockwell noted that “at risk” does not pertain only to violence but includes families struggling with food insecurity, housing uncertainty or dealing with the coronavirus or other issues.
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“This is a way that we can all pivot and all work together toward one common goal,” she said.
ReSET 2020 has chosen roughly 60 families — many of which were identified through the SET-funded organizations, as well as through social services, the school district and juvenile courts. Most of the households have a number of youths between 10 and 21 in the home but lack the needed support.
The families were identified using a set of four risk factors that included previous exposure to violence in the school, household or neighborhood; previous behaviors that can lead to involvement with the criminal justice system; previous school suspensions, expulsions and referrals to law enforcement; and having family members — including adults or other youths — who are or have been involved in the criminal justice system.
“So, if one or more of those four factors is present, that’s how we are assessing that and saying they potentially have elevated risk of being impacted by community violence,” Rockwell said.
“The concerns are that some of the youth in these homes might lack the supports they may have gotten in school, or maybe they are not able to connect with positive adults, and with much of the city’s summer activities canceled, they won’t have access to the mentoring or activities that many of those programs would provide,” she added.
Based on research-based violence intervention methods, Rockwell said, the ReSET 2020 Youth & Family Challenge program will include programming tailored toward these youths and families who are believed to be most vulnerable to violence.
Efforts will include anti-violence messaging from credible community leaders, engagement through street outreach teams for regular check-ins, care packages and porch talks, incentives and awards for program participation and reliable intervention methods.
“Over the summer, we’re going to have a number of challenges for our ReSET families, along with incentives for participating in the challenges and rewards for completing them,” Rockwell said.
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The first challenge included a request for a 30-to-90 second video of a personal message of safety, peace and hope for youth and young adults. Those videos have been posted online.
The effort has engaged more than 40 youths so far and has 39 challenge participants, and ReSET 2020 Facebook page has gained roughly 325 followers since it was launched in May 2020.
“The real goal of this program is to keep these families safe, not just safe from community violence but also to help keep them healthy,” Rockwell said. “When we talk about ways to keep our youth and families safe, we are not just talking about gun violence. Now our messaging includes best practices for preventing COVID-19 infection, where to turn for help during the economic crisis, supports for coping with unusual stressors, and how to stay safe while exercising rights to protest.”
Rockwell said the ReSET 2020 program is the beginning of what she believes needs to be a communitywide response.
“What we ultimately want to see is a community level response, and this is a start, but it’s disconnected at this point from the full, comprehensive response that I think is needed to really see a significant reduction in community violence,” she said. “But it’s the beginning of preparing nonprofit organizations, and community-level leaders to be able to do that work, because what we need is a multi-sector approach where community leaders, law enforcement, social services, and community members are all on the same page and that we are working with one voice to one common goal and that’s to keep our community safe, and to keep our youth safe and out of prison, and alive.”
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