Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Group brainstorms solutions for safe teen hangout downtown - Gazette

Parents, community leaders discuss ways to get youths more involved in activities, decision-making

by Jason Tomassini | Staff Writer | Wednesday, Dec. 17, 2008

The need to provide a safe hangout for teens displaced from a popular hotspot by the construction of a new community building in downtown Silver Spring drew about 40 parents and community leaders to a meeting Saturday at City Place Mall.

"Downtown Silver Spring is where all the youth hang out because they feel safe; we want to continue that," said Lillian Buie, community affairs manager for Downtown Silver Spring, the property manager for Ellsworth Drive and City Place Mall.

The meeting was prompted by the death of Tai Lam, a Montgomery Blair High School freshman who was killed in a Nov. 1 shooting on a Ride On bus while he and a group of friends were returning to their Long Branch neighborhood from downtown.

Most in attendance said teens need a new place to congregate now that the artificial turf field at Fenton Street and Ellsworth Drive is off limits for the construction of the Silver Spring Civic Building and Veterans Plaza.

"Kids do not have a safe space to hang out and be productively engaged in the late hours," said Emily Sudbrink, who has a teenage daughter and works for Montgomery County Public Schools Safe and Drug-Free Schools Program. "At this age, kids want to hang out in large groups. We need to create space with a variety of things for kids to do."

Many attendees wanted to create a space where youth-focused nonprofits such as Impact Silver Spring and the Gandhi Brigade — organizers of the meeting — could share space and pool resources to offer teen programs. They also cited the need to give teens more say over the kinds of events and activities offered.

Suggested locations for the space included the new civic building or the current site of the Silver Spring Library, which will become vacant when a proposed new library is developed.

Specific programs to engage teens were also suggested, including an internship program at local retailers. Marilyn Seitz, owner of Pennyworth Thrift Shop on Bonifant Street, said her store has partnered with Montgomery College and high schools to establish a work-study program.

College students learn retail skills for their courses, while high school students receive student service learning hours, Seitz said. She would like to see more businesses get involved in such programs.

Seitz has enlisted 15 students at her store since September. "The kids are not quite as dependable [as other staff]," she said. "But they learn how to be dependable."

Jose Dominguez, executive director of Pyramid Atlantic, said he would work to establish an internship program at Pyramid's Community Arts Store on Ellsworth Drive.

Because youth yearn for attention, the publicity that criminal behavior receives makes it attractive to other teens, said Michael Petty, director of public safety for Downtown Silver Spring. It is important to give leaders within youth groups the responsibility to make a positive impact downtown so others will want to follow, he said.

"If they come to Silver Spring so much, it gives them a sense of ownership," Petty said.

"And they will take more care of it," Seitz added.

Another program discussed at the meeting is a proposed adult-youth ambassador program that would match adults with teens to greet others in downtown Silver Spring. The teams would notify pedestrians of sales in the downtown or upcoming events and provide a less-threatening image of youth to adults, according to Buie and Impact Silver Spring Director Frankie Blackburn.

A meeting for those interested in developing the ambassador program is set for 7 p.m. Jan. 2 at Potbelly Sandwich Works at 917 Ellsworth Drive. A "test run" of the program will be conducted and participants will its potential.

"We want to let young people know they are welcome here," said Phil Moses, a parent and Silver Spring resident, noting that that message "needs to come from responsible adults, not just security."

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