First of four state-funded anti-violence programs to begin soon

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Through her volunteer work in group homes and in dealings with her own two teenagers, Talanda Burton says she’s learned that many young people just want an adult to take an interest in their lives.

“They just need someone to pay attention, get involved,” said Burton, a mother of four.

The promise of making a difference – and the potential of a part-time job – brought Burton and nine other Austin residents to an orientation session last week to learn about a new, state-funded anti-violence program called Mentoring Plus Jobs, run by Kingdom Community Inc.

The idea, based on a model used in Philadelphia, is to train youth to spread messages about life skills and health issues to their peers – and in the process, give them the confidence and people skills needed to communicate with strangers, said Regina Underwood, the program’s coordinator.

Starting in May, youth and adults will be trained on a topic each week – such a HIV/AIDS prevention – and, wearing ‘Mentoring Plus’ hats and T-shirts, will hand out educational fliers near shopping areas, in parks and at job or health fairs, Underwood told the applicants. Sixteen adult mentors, three supervisors and 80 youth between the ages of 15 and 21 will be hired in coming weeks.

“We’re gonna be right here in Austin,” she said. “We’re gonna blitz this community with some wonderful, powerful messages.”

Mentoring Plus Jobs is the first of four programs that will soon be operating on the West Side thanks to $1.2 million in state Neighborhood Recovery Initiative grants. The way the program began in Austin drew some controversy earlier this year after grantees were named.

Some community members said the grant money was doled out unfairly, and in the lead-up to the Feb. 22 aldermanic election, opposing candidates attacked 29th Ward Ald. Deborah Graham for her part in the process.

Critics railed that of the four areas funded (mentoring, leadership, prisoner re-entry and school counseling), at least two grants went to organizations with ties to the alderman: part of a $290,000 mentoring grant to Kingdom Community, run by Graham’s pastor, Rev. John Abercrombie, and some of a $100,000 parent leadership grant to the Learning Network Center, headed by Luther Syas, who some said circulated aldermanic petitions for Graham.

The African American Mentoring Group, Westside Health Authority, Living Word Christian Center Prison Ministry and Campaign for a Drug Free Westside also received funding.

Graham said she had nothing to do with those decisions. As requested by Gov. Pat Quinn’s office, Graham said she suggested organizations that might oversee the whole $1.2 million operation – among them Circle Family Health, which was selected and awarded a $275,000 grant. But that’s where her involvement stopped, she said.

It was Circle Family Health, not her, that oversaw how the money was parceled out, Graham said – a statement backed by Circle’s CEO, Dr. Andre Hines.

The decisions were made by an advisory committee of residents and people from area nonprofits, Hines said.

That committee – which was open to the community – included Syas of Learning Network Center, Atena McPhaden and Odette Alleyne of Westside Health Authority, and Vanedda Taliferro of Kingdom Community, according to a list provided by Circle Family Health, although it is unclear whether those members were present at the Dec. 9 meeting when votes were cast. (See list below.)

Hines declined to provide a list of that meeting’s attendees.

If they were there, Hines maintains that any committee members who were in the running for grant money did not vote in the categories for which they were being considered.

Applicants at Kingdom Community on Thursday didn’t seem fazed about any controversy; after the 90-minute orientation, nine of the 10 were eager to fill out applications. The lone opt-out had scheduling problems.

Underwood, with her straight-shooting, likable demeanor, made it clear that the job may be trying at times. Some of the youth could be a handful, as kids who’ve been incarcerated or in trouble at school will be the first recruited, she explained. For mentors, being non-judgmental is key, she said.

“You can’t look at a youth and see his colors and say, ‘I’m gonna have a problem with him.’ You’re gonna have to wipe that out,” Underwood said. “We really want to change some behaviors with these kids.”

Beyond that, there are few requirements for mentors, Underwood said. They may have a criminal record, although no child abuse or sexual abuse charges are allowed.

“We’re not looking for PhDs,” Underwood said. “We’re looking for regular people from this community.”

Mentor jobs pay $11.25 per hour for about 12 hours per week.

Additional orientation sessions will be held at Kingdom Community Inc., 5151 W. Madison St., Tuesday, March 29 at 5 p.m.;  Wednesday, March 30 at 2 p.m.; and Thursday, March 31 at 2 p.m.

Space is limited. Contact Regina Underwood at (773) 379-7229 or to RSVP.

Other Neighborhood Recovery Initiative programs are expected to begin receiving their grant money in the coming weeks, said Project Director Vickie Rivkin, who works for Circle Family Health.

Here’s a list of the advisory committee members, 22 of whom attended the Dec. 9 meeting at which decisions were made about which groups would share in the $1.2 million. (Note: Committee members’ names were provided by Circle Family Health, but organizational affiliations were made, when possible, by AustinTalks.)

Al Taylor

Anthony T. Raggs, Root-Riot Urban Garden Network

Atena McPhaden, Westside Health Authority

Bob Mead, Circle Urban Ministries

Charles Levy

Cora Montgomery, Circle Family Care

Dr. Ilean Kelly

Earlene Holman

Frankie White

Fredrick Jackson

Gloria Harris

Greg Brown

John Williams

Jonathan Currie, Austin Safety Net Works

Linda Horton

Lisa Hopkins

Luther Syas, Learner Network Center

Lyn Mack

Margie Ware

Megan Olson

Mike Ivers, GoodCity

Naeem Karriem, Developing Young Minds

Odette Alleyne, Westside Health Authority

Reggie Bachus Jr., Austin Coming Together

Rosita Dotson

Thomas Bowling, Westside Youth League

Vanessa Taliferro, Kingdom Community Inc.

Vicki Taylor

William Park


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