Plans are underway to create a youth council and a drill team and to organize regular social nights for teens
Spaghetti and hot dogs are on the menu for the initial Family Fun Night at 6 p.m. today at the Salvation Army in Cape Girardeau. The two entrees don't seem compatible, Nancy Jernigan said, but "the kids will love it."
Jernigan, executive director of the United Way of Southeast Missouri, is hoping to see hundreds of children and their parents show up.
For more than a year she and other members of the River Corridor Task Force have planned a series of Friday events to provide activities and support to the children of low-income families in Cape Girardeau.
The task force sent fliers to Blanchard, Franklin and Jefferson elementary schools, churches on the city's south side and in Red Star neighborhoods. Jernigan said task force members are hoping word-of-mouth spreads.
Bill Barkley, chairman of the task force and plant manager for Procter & Gamble, said young people need support. He has first-hand experience, growing up under difficult circumstances in Leary, Ga. He said it is vital to create an oasis of hope for the children.
"I was raised by a single mother of 13," said Barkley, the seventh child in the family. "It was my mom, it was having very good counselors in high school. It was having people in church I could look up to. It was people who loved me enough to hold me accountable."
Jernigan said the task force grew out of budget meetings.
"We were talking about transforming United Way from a fundraising organization to one that really looks at the issues and has a community impact," she said.
It is called River Corridor Task Force to reflect outreach to people living in the Red Star area, near North Main Street, and those living on the city's south side. Some of the task force members are NaTika Rowles, director of the Boys & Girls Club; Denise Lincoln, director of the Family Resource Center; Cape Girardeau Councilwoman Debra Tracy; Dana Swan of MERS; Cape Girardeau police officer Ike Hammonds; as well as parents Rose Harris, Sanford and Shelly Moore, Pat King, Phyllis Johnson and Terry McLeod.
They chose Friday night to avoid competing with tutoring programs and the United Way's LIFE initiative, which helps children stay in school, and Boys & Girls Club after-school activities.
Salvation Army majors Ben and Beth Stillwell volunteered their building for the Friday gatherings.
Tonight's event starts with a 6 p.m. dinner, prepared by Church Women United. At 6:30, the children will be grouped by grade and shuttled among five 20-minute activities -- sports, arts, career and education, health and life skills, character and leadership -- based on the national Boys & Girls Club programs.
Shirley Stevens is working with Hammonds to show children how to produce a healthy snack with a funny name, Ticks on a Toilet. Debra Mitchell-Braxton and Dana Swan have a career exercise planned; Chris Eastridge of Cape Girardeau's Parks and Recreation Department and letter carrier Terrance Lane will lead dodgeball games and sign children up for basketball teams; Betty Mosely is teaming up with Southeast Missouri State University art professor Pat Reagan to offer string art, drawing and a creative button project; Phyllis Adams and Rob White of the Boys & Girls Club will run leadership role-playing exercises.
While the children play, their parents will gather in another room with Lincoln to plan future activities. Jernigan said plans are also underway to create a youth council and a drill team and to organize regular social nights for teens.
"We're not trying to hand out stuff to people," Jernigan said.
She said task force members hope to see the Family Fridays grow into other events on other days of the week.
Jernigan said the biggest hurdle for any outreach program is finding ways to build trust. That will take consistency and time, she said.
"It's all about relationship building," she said. Because Mayor Jay Knudtson has strong relationships with leaders from the city's south side, Jernigan said, he was invited to attend but not expected to speak or perform any duties. She hopes to see more city officials in addition to Tracy.
Their presence is critical, she said, because part of the task force's job is mentoring adults to assume leadership roles.
"We want the community leaders to take over and sustain this," she said.
Barkley said it begins with getting families to show up at the Salvation Army building tonight. The evening is not limited to families living on the city's south side. He has volunteered for similar community building programs in Green Bay, Wis., and Albany, Ga.
"The future of our community will be determined by how much we're willing to invest in the youth," he said. Choosing to devote time to encourage disadvantaged children, he said, will help them find a path to success in the future.
"It will give them hope."
To get a ride to the event or learn details, call 334-9634. The Salvation Army is at 701 Good Hope St. in Cape Girardeau.
335-6611, extension 127