Safe Haven Established

Safe Haven Established

After-school program offers homework help while increasing student-police mentorship.

Taking the figurative statement, "it takes a village to raise a child" and making it real, Vecinos Unidos/Neighbors United has expanded its after-school services in Herndon to assist potential at-risk youths.

Through a $75,000 annual grant awarded to the group by the Eisenhower Foundation, the organization is preparing to open an after-school youth Safe Haven program — the first in Virginia.

"There is definitely a need for a safe place for children to be," said Vanessa Bennett, Safe Haven coordinator. "And especially for adult mentoring and help with homework."

Through the program 50 Herndon youth, ages 5 to 18, will have the opportunity to interact with a Herndon police officer — or multiple officers — as well as receive homework assistance and have a safe place to stay until parents come home from work.

"It's those critical hours after school where children are home alone," said Bennett. "We're giving opportunities that a lot of kids in the area do not have."

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.

To decrease crime, Japanese police opened neighborhood-based ministations to integrate with the community.

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.

"The [Japanese model] puts police in a location to work with the community, but also specifically the kids," said DJ Ervin, department director of evaluation and policy analysis, Eisenhower Foundation. "This offers protection and police get to know the residents — it's also helping children understand police officers are their friends."

Ervin said there is a Safe Haven in Washington, D.C., and although other groups may have replicated the concept, the Herndon location will be the first Eisenhower Foundation funded Safe Haven in Virginia.

In addition there are currently 10 other Eisenhower Foundation-funded safe havens in the country and two international locations preparing to open.

"It was natural to come to a place like Herndon," said Ervin about the first Virginia location.

"It was a combination of Darryl [Smith] and Rep. [Frank] Wolf (R-Va.)," he explained. "With Darryl having already established a program there, it was natural to work with him and Vecinos Unidos."

Vice Mayor Darryl Smith, who helped create Vecinos Unidos/Neighbors United, said the expansion of programs for youths will help deter them from problem activities.

"The kids won't have far to go to get help after school and their parents that are working two jobs won't have to worry about them," said Smith.

"A lot of young people grow up thinking 'I don't belong here,'" he said. "We need to reinforce all the good, positive things their parents try to implement over the weekend during the week."

Although the ultimate plan of the Herndon youth Safe Haven is to integrate community groups and sponsors, to eventually take over funding, Ervin said the Eisenhower Foundation will play a role in technical assistance and training for organizations interested in replicating the model.

Chris Griffin, president of Vecinos Unidos/Neighbors United, said the new program will be similar to the current after-school homework assistance offered at the Neighborhood Resource Center, but will reach a different population of children.

"We needed somewhere where we have the space for continued activities," she said, adding although the NRC is a good location, space can be limited.

The new Safe Haven location — at Parkridge Gardens apartments off Florida Avenue behind Herndon Middle School — will benefit children without transportation.

"There are a lot of elementary-school kids and middle-school kids across the street at Jefferson Mews," said Griffin. "It's well situated to assisting the community."

In addition, Griffin said the apartment complex has offered to subsidize part of the rent so the group can afford to run out of one apartment.

THROUGH THE PROGRAM — slated to open in April with an April 1 kickoff by Wolf — children will be given opportunities to build adult mentor relationships, receive homework assistance and participate in multiple field-trip activities, among other things.

Bennett said she is speaking with Herndon middle and elementary schools to increase awareness of the program and hopefully get the first 50 children signed up for the initial two to three day a week program.

Although she said there are still details that need to be worked out, they have outlined goals they hope to accomplish.

"We don't want to take kids already in our after-school program," said Bennett. "We really want to take new kids to expand our outreach."

In addition she said the Herndon Police Department was excited to get involved with the students and offer mentorship.

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

Smith, retired Herndon police captain of 30 years, said the program is a great way to generate positive police relationships.

"Better relationships with young people is going to be beneficial for the police department," he said, explaining as they grow up the police could have more interactions with them — both positive and negative.

"A lot of young kids are afraid of police because they only see them on TV," he said. "This way they can meet them one on one."

Although the program will start out slow, Bennett said they hope to expand to five days a week as more volunteers come forward, in addition to offering a summer camp program.

"Students can come as needed, but we would like to see them as often as we can," she said. "We want to target youth and give them a safe place to be."