City to fund youth programs

Youth programs will receive additional funding, Mayor John DeStefano Jr. announced at a Wednesday news conference in City Hall.

The mayor, city officials and nonprofit leaders outlined plans to collaborate and share resources to expand the city’s programming for young people. Despite concerns that funding for youth services would be cut as a result of the recent economic downturn, youth services remain a priority for the city, the mayor said, promising to expand the budget for youth programming in the coming year. But some officials — including Director of Youth Services Che Dawson — hesitated to lend their full support to expanded youth initiatives, claiming the need to improve existing programs before any further investment.

“We need larger conversations about how we can serve youth better,” Dawson said.

The city plans to maintain its funding for its youth grant and summer jobs program while adding 10 additional schools to its Open Schools initiative, which previously kept five public schools open during summer afternoons to provide children with a safe place to play. DeStefano also introduced an “asset-mapping” Web site designed to advertise information about youth-related activities and resources — an “inventory of everything kids-related,” in his words.

Although he pledged support to youth programs, DeStefano admitted that grassroots collaboration will be crucial for further progress: “We want to make sure everyone is on board,” he said.

The sentiment was echoed by Sheldon Tucker, a longtime volunteer with New Haven Family Alliance and Youth Rights Media, two local nonprofit youth groups. While he said he welcomes the mayor’s renewed focus on youth initiatives, Sheldon said he believes community leaders and the city can still play a more active role.

“We can see more elders getting involved,” he said. “Groups like Youth Rights Media make a real change to the community but most of our funding still comes from fundraising.”

During a youth services committee meeting Wednesday evening, the Board of Aldermen expressed concerns about community participation and the efficacy of youth programs. The New Haven Mentors, a program conceived by the Board of Alderman to link City Hall employees with local youth, has been met with lukewarm support.

“Many mentors start out very enthusiastic,” said Ward 7 Alderwoman Bitsie Clark. “But when kids don’t click, the mentors lose interest.”

The efficacy of the city’s Youth Council, a board of representatives from each public school in New Haven, was also a concern. While the council acts as a forum for possible new youth initiatives, the absence of communication with existing community programs means suggestions are rarely implemented, Dawson said.

Ward 21 Alderwoman Katrina Jones highlighted the challenges that New Haven teenagers face when looking for entertainment. She noted that teens in New Haven have been “under-served” in terms of having a venue for teen-related activities and events. She said, however, that with the current economic climate it is unlikely the city could afford to finance a teen center any time soon.

“It would come at the expense of the taxpayers,” Jones said. “I know the taxpayers couldn’t afford a teen center right now.”

DeStefano will announce the city’s projected budget for the coming year next month.

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