August 12, 2006
By TINA A. BROWN, Courant Staff Writer
For three weeks this summer, about 25 Hartford youths, mostly boys, picked up brooms, rakes and shovels and swept away the empty bottles and trash discarded on Albany Avenue.
Their involvement in the Saving Our Kids from The Streets program was by many accounts a positive experience for the youths. Some community leaders and local police say it might even have helped keep violent crime at bay by engaging teenagers who had the potential to get into trouble.
Everything appeared to be going well until recently; on Aug. 4 and Aug. 7, the youths and some of their parents staged sit-ins on the picnic tables and bleachers at the Albany Avenue police substation to protest that they haven't been paid for their work.
The youths, who were promised about $140 a week, have not been paid anything.
"It's time for us to get paid," said 17-year-old Arcenio Dunker.
Dunker said he accepted the job because he is fond of the Rev. Patrice Smith, who runs the program, and because he needed the salary she was offering. He counted on the cash to fulfill a promise to his mother that he would help pay for his 3-year-old daughter's shoes and new clothes.
"We aren't making complaints against [Smith]," Dunker said. "She made us feel like we were being saved from the streets. We did something legit, and now we ain't getting paid. I feel like I'm doing community service. I just want what we worked for."
Smith said she was under the impression that she would eventually get some government funding to pay the youths, but that she never intended to mislead anyone.
Smith said she was encouraged when she received positive feedback about her proposal during meetings in May and June with city and federal officials who run the Weed and Seed program. Under that program, $85,000 in federal money was available this summer to bolster existing crime-prevention and youth programs in the city.
Smith said she submitted a written proposal, but local police sources and city officials who operate the Weed and Seed program said Smith talked about her program but, to their recollection, did not apply for a grant. City officials said no documents were available to prove or disprove her claim.
"There is no record of applicants who applied but did not receive Weed and Seed funding," program coordinator Richard LeGrier said.
Whether or not she submitted an application, however, would not have helped the young people looking to be paid. Smith's program did not meet the government's criteria for Weed and Seed funding, LeGrier said, because the federal program does not fund salaries or start-up costs.
"These young people are most at risk," LeGrier said. "They put in work. What [Smith] is doing is taking advantage of the safe haven."
Smith herself concedes that she interpreted the positive feedback she was receiving from local officials as a promise of funding.
"A lot of people promised to help me" before the controversy erupted, Smith said. When the funding didn't materialize, Smith said she accepted donations of brooms, rakes, garbage bags, lunches and dinners from nearby businesses, parents and volunteers.
Smith, who said she admitted to the youths two weeks ago that she didn't have the money, said Wednesday that she was caught off guard by the two sit-ins and some of the anger over the issue.
"I told them to go home but they said they wanted to stay," Smith said, adding she thought the youths were satisfied with doing the work and playing basketball and other games at the substation. "Those kids are loyal to me because they know I love them."
"It became more about saving lives, keeping them constantly busy. I don't want to close any more caskets."
But those who did the work, and their relatives, said while they appreciated Smith's dedication, the youths deserve their money.
"They went out in the street in the hot, burning sun," said Tonya Willis, the aunt of one of the youths. "We are all out here trying to keep them out of trouble."
The program this summer attracted positive attention from Hartford police Capt. Richard L. Kemmett Jr., the commander of the Northeast District, and Eric Crawford, a violence intervention specialist for Hartford public schools.
"Without her, some of these kids would be going on the wrong path," Kemmett said. "She puts her heart into a lot of kids who may be trouble, or who may have gotten into trouble and are trying to straighten themselves out."
Crawford defended Smith's intentions but he questioned her ability to handle her business, and said Smith's immediate problem could be solved if other groups in the area help her fulfill her financial commitment to the youths.
"It was a great concept but she has to be more business-minded. Existing programs should help to get these kids paid. Don't let our kids suffer."
If Smith doesn't get help, Crawford said, the ripple effect could be damaging to the entire community. "The kids will go through life not trusting anyone when it comes to money," Crawford said.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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