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Group promotes after-school programs to ease gun violence

COVENANT BLU-GRAND CENTERThe return of a robust number of after-school programs is the latest course of action being pushed as an answer to gun violence in St. Louis. 

Unleashing Potential, a curriculum-based before- and after-school program in 12 locations serving 1,000 students in the city and county, is urging more people to invest in such programs. The program was formerly called Neighborhood Houses.

“I remember after-school programs when I was little, and we used to have a good time and a lot of stuff to do before we went home,” said Ray Watson, 49, who attended St. Louis Public Schools. 

“These kids need that,” he said. 

According to the nonprofit, leaving school-age children with a significant amount of unsupervised time can lead to crime and other dangerous activities. It also makes those same adolescents at twice the risk of substance abuse, sexual behavior and gang activity when unsupervised for 11 or more hours per week. 

In the city of St. Louis there are an estimated 269,000 youths who lack access to before- and after-school programs. 

Noting the 12 children under the age of 16 lost to gun violence here in the last four months, Darlene Sowell, CEO of Unleashing Potential, said it was the responsibility of the entire community to strategize on prevention as an important tool and part of the solution for the crisis.   

Because of that, Sowell is calling on school leaders, parents, local and state policymakers, law enforcement and after-school leaders to further push the programming. 

“Gun violence has affected families, schools, churches and neighborhoods,” Sowell said. 

In addition to preventing youth violence, after-school programs support working families and provide opportunities in the community. 

Unleashing Potential’s Up program not only aims to provide a safe educational option for busy parents, it offers Conscious Discipline, a research-based behavior management model that empowers staff to use everyday conflicts to teach children important life skills and encourage pro-social behavior. 

In addition to that development, the program is an extension of regular classroom learning. It consists of math, literature, character education, fitness and nutrition. 

Children are also exposed to cultural arts, which encourages creative expression in a supportive environment. Some examples are cooking classes led by Operation Food Search; art classes by Artists-In-Residence; and dance classes by COCA (Center of Creative Arts). 

A hot meal and homework assistance is also part of the after-school program. 

“That is really great,” local educator Marie Hughes said. 

However, she said, “I think that we first need to raise student attendance at regular school because if they aren’t going there, they most certainly won’t be going to an after-school program. And I believe that the school-age children who are involved in gun violence and other crimes are prone to truancy.”

“That said,” she continued, “I believe that after-school programs will help to cut down on a lot of bad things, because there are so many good things that are edifying that can be learned during that time instead being left to do whatever they want to do without guidance.”

Unleashing Potential recently held a “Show Me Afterschool Community Conversation” as part of the national celebration of Lights On Afterschool, an annual advocacy event. Hundreds of after-school programs celebrate the importance of the programs. 

Unleashing Potential worked in conjunction with SLPS, Missouri AfterSchool Network, United 4 Children, Jennings School District, Steam in Programs and Provident Behavioral Health.

Unleashing Potential is based at 1000 N. Vandeventer.

Bill Beene Bill Beene was born and raised in north St. Louis. He has been a journalist for 12 years. He enjoys cooking and roller skating. He lives in the historic Ville neighborhood.

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