<1b>By Sanford D. Horn
About three years ago Vecinos Unidos, then a three-year-old organization in Herndon, neared extinction.
Three years later, the organization, whose name means Neighbors United, Inc. is not only incorporated but the recent recipient of a $90,000 grant from the 20-year-old Milton S. Eisenhower Foundation in Washington, D.C. Eisenhower was the brother of former president Dwight David Eisenhower.
"The Eisenhower Foundation looks at youth programs not just around the country, but around the whole world," said Herndon Police Capt. Darryl Smith, one of the founders of Vecinos Unidos.
Vecinos Unidos is an organization with about 100 children from ages four to 16, who participate in four soccer teams and a homework study program at the Neighborhood Resource Center. The group is also affiliated with the Elden Terrace Apartments where adults help children in the four to six-year-old range with "numbers, alphabets and communications skills," said Smith, giving credit to the group's president.
WANDA TANKS-GREGORY of Chantilly, a Fairfax County Public School truant officer, is the three-year president of Vecinos Unidos. She is familiar with Herndon youth having worked for Northern Virginia Family Services, running a drop out prevention program at Herndon High School.
"Through community networking, I heard of Vecinos Unidos during their infancy stage. Initially, it was focused on Latino groups. Now, it deals with more than Latino groups — North American, South American, African youths," said Tanks-Gregory.
"I started out as an observer and I just fell in love with the group. I stepped up when there was a fear of folding and I've been president about three years," said Tanks-Gregory. "We're always looking for volunteers — to help run the tutorial program, the soccer league, the Boy Scout Troop." She added that she is searching for a full-time coordinator that will be paid for via a portion of the Eisenhower Foundation grant.
The full-time coordinator should be a self-motivated individual with case management skills, experience with at-risk youth — "that's our focal point — these are kids falling through the cracks," said Tanks-Gregory. "These are not the creme-de-la-creme we are working with."
VECINOS UNIDOS caught the attention of the Eisenhower Foundation because of its already established partnership in the community that included Elden Terrace Apartments, said Johnnie Gage, co-director of the Youth and Policing program.
"We replicate what works, the Safe Haven model, that got our eyes on Herndon, the combination of the housing complex, law enforcement, the youth development organization and schools," said Gage.
"We have four goals: educational achievement, an increase in educating children in life skills; mentoring, community service; and health, safety and recreation," said Gage, noting that the goals are a part of the Quantum Opportunities program.
The grant will pay for the full-time coordinator that Tanks-Gregory is searching for, five computers, copywritten software and the matching funds for the children selected. Gage explained that the matching funds was money set aside for the children participating in the program for the four years from freshman year in high school through graduation.
Based upon resources, up to 20 rising high school freshmen will be able to go through the program. Each student is required to perform 250 hours of work in each of three disciplines per year for four years. They will receive a nominal stipend for their work in the areas of educational achievement, youth development and community service.
The stipend will be matched for the students who have registered for college or a vocational school. The first round of students will be selected before the coming school year. The $90,000 grant is good for one year and will be renewed each year, said Gage.
"We're committed to seeing it through the four years for each group of kids," said Gage.