KU program helps Kansas City, Kan., teens ‘see their future self’

Kansas City, Kan. — Now that it’s July, Wyandotte High School senior Tahj Harris said he hears gunshots every day.

“I’m used to it,” he said. “I don’t think much about it.”

For many teens in the northeastern corner of Kansas City, Kan., violence feels normal.

Wyandotte junior Barry Anderson said he had a handful of friends growing up who were killed. Fellow junior JeKyia Hall said she was around 9 when she first saw someone shot to death. Sumner Academy sophomore Destiny Johnson recently lost her uncle to gun violence.

“We see a lot of people get shot. A lot of people see their close friends die,” Johnson said.

Kim Monroe hears about it from kids in her area all the time.

“Home situations that are just insane, violence around them,” Monroe said.

In December, 15-year-old Taveon Brooks, whom Monroe raised, fell victim to that violence — the F.L. Schlagle sophomore was killed in a drive-by shooting just around the corner from the school.

“We are prime to lose our future in this county,” she said. “We’re killing off our youth over stupidity. I don’t know what the answer is. I know we cannot afford to let this continue.”

On the last day of school for the eighth graders at Northwest Middle School, a few dozen gathered for their weekly after-school program — last week, it was a field trip to ReachKCK, a community center on Parallel Parkway, where the kids are invited to spend their summer shooting hoops in the gym, playing electric guitars and taking pottery classes.

“It’s in your neighborhood, it’s for you. We want you to be here,” ReachKCK director Tricia Hutchison told the kids.

The visit was part of a program called ThrYve, which stands for Together Helping Reduce Youth Violence through Equity.

University of Kansas behavioral scientist Jomella Watson-Thompson is raising her kids in Kansas City, Kan. She started ThrYve a few years ago to curb youth violence in the city.

“The goal was really to help support our young people on a more positive trajectory, and to help them to be able to see their future self,” she told KCUR-FM.

The project is funded by a $1.7 million federal grant awarded to KU, and it’s administered by KU’s Center for Community Health and Development. With dozens of community partners — like ReachKCK, the police department, juvenile court, the schools and the city — the program is designed to create safe spaces, and eliminate the barriers that keep teens from succeeding.

“A lot of times we think, the youth, they don’t want to plug in. And what I find is if we give them the opportunity and we give them the support they need, they plug in pretty well,” Watson-Thompson said.

But those barriers are very real for these kids.

County data shows that children under the age of 18 in portions of the northeastern corner of Wyandotte County make up the county’s most “vulnerable” population.

High unemployment, high incarceration, low income and low high school graduation rates are just a few factors residents of the area are up against, far more so than the rest of the county. And that area, according to census data, is predominantly black. Kansas City, Kan., has a history of redlining, the practice of denying mortgages or loans to people in an area based on race, which explains why racial segregation is still very present today.

Public health research shows these are determinants for health and well-being, or risk factors, as Watson-Thompson calls them.

“Violence is more the symptom of these other challenges,” she said. “Ultimately, we want to decrease these kids’ risk for violence.”

Part of ThrYve’s work is in helping the youth identify and understand these challenges, and providing them with basic support. These are things that may seem small to a lot of people — like transportation, help finding jobs, access to computers or access to healthy foods — but that mean a lot to these kids.

“When you have support systems, whether it’s your neighbor, whether it’s your church, that can help to buffer the negative effects,” she said.

ThrYve serves nearly 100 youth at three schools: Wyandotte High, Sumner Academy and Northwest Middle. The program provides help with homework, and gives the kids something to do other than sit at home on their phones — not to mention a stipend each semester.

They get to tour the KU campus and do career placement testing and future planning.

Harris, 17, has already picked out his college in Mississippi, where he wants to play the tuba or trombone for the marching band.

“I’m ready to go to college. I just want to go and live my life and explore,” he said. “ThrYve helped me work toward that goal.”

Hall, 16, said she learned about peer mediation, a skill she never knew she had. La’Nya Meade, 15, said she found a support system and community through ThrYve, one she thinks none of them had before.

“I know a couple people here that have been caught up in bad things, but they come to ThrYve and learned, ‘I can no matter what go to college, build a better reputation, have this behind me,'” Meade said.

Wyandotte County has a nickname among the kids. “Crime-dotte.” They hate it.

“Part of changing the narrative is shifting the opportunity for our young people to know that what they think matters,” Watson-Thompson said. “And once you do that, you’re putting a young person on a trajectory to be a person that will be more likely to engage in their community or address problems at the broader level for a longer period of time.”

That’s why a big part of the program is giving back to the community. The kids spend time picking up trash and attending community meetings.

“I think it’s working,” said Johnson, 14. “We just need more people to work toward that goal. I feel like our community looks bad, and we just need to build it up. I feel like people would actually want to live here.”

As someone who’s seen the community fall apart in big ways over the years, Steve James — the ThrYve mentor at Northwest Middle, who actually attended the school as a kid — believes these kids will change Wyandotte County.

“If you’ve never shined up a nickel, you don’t know the value of that nickel. And nobody ever shines this up, so people really don’t know the value of this community anymore,” James said. “The younger generation, they’ve never been shown what this community can actually be. It’s time to show them, and have them be part of it and not just push them out of the way.”

One of his students, 14-year-old Nicholas Brass, said he learned a lot from James over the past year about lifestyle choices.

“He wants us to change our future, to think about it. I still don’t know what I want to do, but I know I want to have a decent future. That means I got to be responsible,” Brass said.

For the moment, Brass said, he’s spending his time thinking about how to better his community. He said he wants to see revitalization of the abandoned shops along Quindaro Boulevard in the northeast and a grocery store for the area.

Meade said she knows the community needs a lot of work and sees that stopping the violence and understanding trauma will help.

“I’ve been around a lot of this my whole life,” Meade said. “But I know that if right now, I’m talking about (the violence), I’m telling people to stay away from that, then it will stop. The gunshots around the corner will stop. I’m speaking up about it now so that it’s not happening to our kids and grandchildren.”

Through ThrYve, Meade said she has learned her community isn’t bad, it’s just that it’s up against tough odds. But Meade and her peers want to take the county back.

Over time, they believe the violence will stop.


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