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Who's Watching the Teenagers?

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The organization charges $3 per year for after-school services.

Heading east, the buildings take on a more urban look. In the heart of the city are impressive landmarks, testaments to Cleveland's recent revitalization.

There is the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, six majestic stories of glass and steel rising like a pyramid on the shore of Lake Erie. Jacobs Field is also there, home to Major League Baseball's Cleveland Indians. Gund Arena, the Cleveland Science Center, and the Galleria are part of a Cleveland that is no longer the punch line of jokes about the smell, crime, and the city's lack of culture.

Since 1954, the Boys & Girls Clubs of Cleveland have served the city and its suburbs.

Seven after-school club facilities are scattered throughout the city, serving about 5,000 children ages 6 to 17. The organization charges $3 per year for after-school services.

Len R. Krichko, the president of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Cleveland, is proud of the group's history. "The Boys & Girls Clubs of America have been around since 1860," he said, adding that the groups serve 2.5 million young people a year nationwide. "I think our national motto says it best, 'Boys & Girls Clubs, the positive place for kids.' We allow young people to explore life to their fullest."

The clubs focus on six subject areas: outdoor environmental education, citizenship and leadership, cultural enrichment, health and physical education, personal and educational development, and social recreation.

The social recreation category allows the students to interact with their peers in a setting other than school.

"You find that a lot of the schools don't have after-school dances because of the violence," Mr. Krichko said. "You can't find that kind of recreation in the inner city, so we have dances or parties so the kids can have that experience."

Each of the seven centers has a gymnasium, a library, a game room, a kitchen, an arts and crafts area, and an outdoor play area, as well as a learning center with computers for tutoring and homework assistance. Many of the students receive a scholarship to take part in the program.

"These are not handouts," Mr. Krichko said. "Kids today are proud, and they really want to work, so we allow them to work off the money we pay." While $3 may seem like a pittance to some, Mr. Krichko says the clubs look at it in terms of what some families can pay.

Most of the club's funds come from the United Way and charitable foundations in the community.

"For some families, that $3 is a loaf of bread and a gallon of milk," he said. "Should we ask a family to give that up so a child can come to the center?"

The organization has a budget of about $1 million a year to run the centers. Each has a full-time club director, a full-time program coordinator, and six part-time staff members. Most of the club's funds come from the United Way and charitable foundations in the community.

The clubs are a weapon in the fight for the future of the community's children, Mr. Krichko said.

''What we do best is we make [the children] responsible citizens for tomorrow, making sure that they become employed, are going to school, and not living a life of crime or violence," he said.

The clubs also have 20 collaborative partners in the community, such as Case Western Reserve University's School of Medicine, that assist with staffing needs. Medical students from the school volunteer to teach health-education classes to the youths at the center. Those classes may cover AIDS prevention and awareness, adolescent sexuality, or drug-abuse prevention.

"The communities that we are in have been largely generous in helping us out," Mr. Krichko said.

A Visit to East Cleveland

Farther east is the area known as East Cleveland. The population here, and in the suburbs that surround it, is predominantly African-American. Behind a large stone church, in what used to be a school building, is the East Cleveland Neighborhood Center.

The center occupies five floors of the six-floor building. The cafeteria is in the basement, where dances for the older students are sometimes held or where guest speakers talk to the young people about dreams and responsibility.

Each of the building's stairwells is meant to remind the children in this neighborhood of the steps they may have to take to get past poverty, crime, and discrimination to reach the goals they have set for themselves.

Life-size paintings of African-Americans, done by students at the center, take the steps with the children, along with the words: "We are still climbing ... and climbing ... and climbing ... higher ... and higher ... we can't stop."

Centers like this are locked in a battle with drug dealers and gangs who offer children money for carrying or distributing drugs.

Off the main hall is a meeting room with a mural painted by the youngsters who use the center. Underneath a rainbow, surrounded by scenes from the lives of black Americans, are words in large, bold black print that seem to boom from the wall: "The ruin of a nation begins in the homes of its people."

To the right of that statement, "Our branches are many, our roots run deep." Directly above the entire painting are the words: "The road to success begins with knowledge."

Welcome to the East Cleveland Neighborhood Center.

The center is partly funded by the United Way and serves about 50 children a day. Students here attend one of two groups--one for children 5 to 12, and one for teenagers 13 to 17. Each pays $5 a day to use the center.

Emanuel Onunwor, the center's director, says it is tough keeping youngsters coming back for arts and crafts when the lure of the street is stronger.

Centers like his are locked in a battle with drug dealers and gangs who offer children money for carrying or distributing drugs.

"The drug dealers don't go to the older kids, they go to the younger kids who can't work," he said.

The director said that rather than an after-school drop-in center for teenagers, he'd like to see "teen-employment resource centers."

"We have to try to give these kids skills that will carry over into real jobs in the future."

Emanuel Onunwor
Director, East Cleveland Neighborhood Center

"We have to try to give these kids skills that will carry over into real jobs in the future," Mr. Onunwor said. "To keep the kids coming back, you have to have the bucks."

The center's after-school program includes tutoring, teaching cultural awareness, drug-abuse prevention, arts and crafts, and sports, according to Lillie Cockrell, the after-school-program coordinator.

Morgan Strathman-Alexander, who runs the teenagers' program, said the center's bottom line is to provide a safe haven for children who otherwise would be left on their own in the afternoon.

"All you ever hear about on the news is about the bad that goes on in these neighborhoods," she said. "What about all of the good that goes on, too? It's everybody's job to help these kids do something productive with their lives."

The program at the ECNC includes three structured areas: Life Skills and Drills, a drug- and alcohol-abuse and pregnancy-prevention program for girls 13-15; Helping Young Women to Cope, which concentrates on girls who are involved in domestic violence at home or with a boyfriend; and the Pride Team, a drama program in which the students perform skits about drug- and alcohol-abuse awareness.

The center also takes part in the Cleveland Cavaliers Charity Basketball League, a program sponsored by the professional basketball team and Crossroads, a teenage pregnancy and parenting service.

"Since this is primarily a prevention program, everything we do has a prevention component to it," Ms. Strathman-Alexander said of the teenager program at the center.

"So many of these kids, especially in a community like East Cleveland, live with drugs in their lives everyday," she said. "The center is the only positive thing that they have. We try to tell the kids that you don't have to have a baby when you are 15 just because everybody else is doing it, and you don't have to be involved with drugs and gangs."

The lessons here are never lost, even during afternoon exercise time. Rose Armstrong, an after-school instructor, tells the children: "We must learn how not to be selfish. We must learn to show more love and respect for one another and our differences."

Tony Wiggins, 15, sits off to one side of the gym as the students bend and twist in time to the counselor's words. He is a student at a local high school who likes to come to the center to play basketball. But, he says, now that he is older, he also has fun helping counselors with the younger children here.

"I volunteer as a helper for the younger kids," Mr. Wiggins said. "But I still like to play basketball."

Stacy Rogers, 12, is a member of the elementary group. She says it's the neighborhood center that keeps her out of trouble.

"If I wasn't here at ECNC right now, then I'd be at Phoenix Place," she said, referring to a Cleveland youth-detention center.

Ms. Strathman-Alexander said she believes that giving young people choices is the most important aspect of her job.

"We want the kids to experience the simple things in life because there's more to life than what they see and live," she said.

This story, part of our "Communities" coverage, is being underwritten by a grant from the Annie E. Casey Foundation

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