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It's Official: Haven Open

Youth Safe Haven kickoff brings community, county and state officials' support.

Members of Vecinos Unidos/Neighbors United celebrated April Fools Day with the kickoff of a new youth Safe Haven in Herndon.

Surrounded by community members, local law enforcement, members of the town council, Del. Tom Rust (R-86) and Rep. Frank Wolf (R-10), those responsible for bringing the after-school program to the town outlined its purpose.

"With this extra funding," said Chris Griffin, president of Vecinos Unidos, about the awarded $75,000 grant to create the Safe Haven, "we as an organization will be able to reach extra families and children in Herndon."

AWARDED TO VECINOS Unidos through the Milton S. Eisenhower Foundation, the $75,000 grant will allow the group to further its already growing after-school homework assistance programs.

Currently the group runs an after-school computer and homework assistance program from the Neighborhood Resource Center during the week for Herndon's elementary-, middle- and high-school students.

In addition, through the Eisenhower Foundation, the group runs a Quantum Opportunities Program — another after-school program set to help potential at-risk high-school students succeed in, and graduate from, high school.

Based on that program — where high-school students go to an apartment at Herndon Oaks after school and work on homework with hired advisors — Safe Haven will be run out of the Parkridge Gardens Apartments.

But, Safe Haven will be geared toward elementary- and middle-school-aged children.

"Quantum has done so well," said Alan Curtis, president and CEO Eisenhower Foundation, "that we wanted to award you with a Safe Haven."

Introduced to America in 1988 by the Eisenhower Foundation — a continuation of two presidential commissions devoted to helping youths, minorities and those in poverty — the concept of a youth safe haven replicates a common Japanese program.

The concept is that an after-school safe haven operated by civilians in public housing, other low-income settings or a public school would be combined with a police ministation — allowing the two to share the same space, according to the Eisenhower Foundation.

"This offers protection and police get to know the residents — it's also helping children understand police officers are their friends," said DJ Ervin, department director of evaluation and policy analysis, Eisenhower Foundation.

Herndon Police Chief Toussaint Summers Jr. said he is excited for the Safe Haven because he has been looking for ways to increase police mentorship in the community.

"For good community policing two things are needed, partnership and problem solving," he said. "The problem is the kids — our kids need something to do so they don't fall victim to gangs."

In addition, Summers, head of the Northern Virginia Regional Gang Task Force, thanked Wolf — present at the kickoff — for continuing to support the town in its fight to end gang activity in the area.

"We have been hit by a phenomena here with regards to gangs," said Wolf. "We've seen a breakdown in the American family and the need for mentors and role models is high."

Wolf said the hope is that through programs such as the Safe Haven and Quantum Opportunities, children will see there is an alternative to gang involvement.

SCHEDULED TO OPEN in late April or early May, the program will offer children the opportunity to build adult mentor relationships, receive homework assistance and participate in multiple field-trip activities.

In addition, Vice Mayor Darryl Smith said the group will work with the Boys and Girls Club — scheduled to open soon at Hutchison Elementary School — and the other Vecinos Unidos youth programs.

Vanessa Bennett, Safe Haven coordinator, said the hope is the program will run five days a week and serve 50 children — adding if more show up, they will not be turned away.

Initially she said the program will start out slow, operating two to three days a week, but the hope is as more volunteers come forward, the program will expand.

"We will have a desk set up for the Town of Herndon police to use to do their paper work," she said about the police interactions. "They can stop in whenever they want and play with the kids, do mini-presentations on stranger danger, whatever they want."

Smith, a retired Herndon Police captain of 30 years, added its important for the police to establish positive relationships with the area's youth because as they grow up the police could have more interactions with them — both positive and negative.

Wolf also emphasized the importance of community involvement from all levels, not just the police, saying the more involved a community becomes, the better off the children are.

"This area is changing and it desperately needs programs like this," he said. "You can solve it, or you can deal with it — we can solve through a program like this."