Summer youth concerns lead to 'Faith Force' partnership

Township Youth Services is attempting to create a partnership of local congregations to offer structured activities once a month.

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By KEN TRAINOR

At the end of 2004, John Williams, director of Youth Services for Oak Park Township, started to get the uneasy feeling that this summer could be long and hot.

"A lot of things are happening around us," Williams said, "good things."

The Chicago Police Department, for instance, is cracking down on gangs and drugs on the West Side, and it's showing results. Good results.

"But when they squish in one place," he said, "there's activity elsewhere." Williams detected some of that spillover in Oak Park, where a few youth disturbances culminated in an incident in which a kid pulled a gun and fired a shot in the air. No one was hurt, but it got his attention?#34;as well as the attention of the Oak Park police.

"We always get a little nervous about the summer when the weather begins to break," Williams said.

The antidote is to keep kids busy, and Williams decided to try "to engage more partners, find ways to offer more positive alternatives."

He decided to call on the churches.

Williams sent letters, e-mails and made phone calls to every religious organization listed in Answer Book, the WEDNESDAY JOURNAL community guide, about 54 total. He told them the Gang and Drug Task Force, which has been addressing at-risk youth issues for the past 10 years, had experienced some scary moments lately and asked for help.

He scheduled a meeting in February, where he and Police Chief Rick Tanksley explained the situation, and they started discussing ways to work together.

The result is a fledgling organization called "Faith Force." Thus far, representatives of 27 different religious groups from Oak Park, River Forest, and Forest Park have attended some or all of the monthly meetings, with a core planning group of 12 to 15, Williams said.

Because planned, supervised activities are one of the best antidotes to youth violence, Williams proposed that congregations commit to one night a month for two hours, offering activities to middle school and high school kids?#34;preferably welcoming even those who aren't members of the congregation.

"We're asking them to give us one day a year, 24 hours, two hours once a month," Williams said.

The activities offered can, and should, vary?#34;any and everything from Parcheesi to basketball to macrame classes, he said.

In fact, one of the benefits of the meetings held thus far has been networking among the congregations, sharing the kinds of programs already in place. It also has given Williams a chance to inform religious groups about some of the programs Oak Park Township sponsors.

"We're learning about what's being done and what's possible," Williams said, "so we don't have to reinvent the wheel."

A "Yahoo group" has developed, thanks to Rev. Steve Knapp of Forest Park's St. John Lutheran, which further facilitates the sharing of ideas.

"You'd be amazed how many 'First Uniteds' there are," Williams observed after scanning the participants.

He's hoping a more centralized list of programs will come out of all this planning, so people can better coordinate youth activities.

"It's not a competition. We want more things available so kids have options," he said. "Ideally, we want them to have too many to choose from. What a good problem to have."

And what a wonderful thing, he said, "to have safe, supervised places for them to be together with adults who like kids and care about them?#34;Catcher in the Rye kind of people who won't let kids fall off the cliff."

The key now is to get the adults revved up at a time of year when most are winding down (as the school year ends). He hopes some congregations will start their activity nights this summer, but the group is also planning a bigger event in September, a full day's celebration of youth, preferably outdoors in one of the villages' parks.

A subcommittee is currently trying to recruit kids from various congregations to help plan the event.

"Adults would play a supporting role," Williams said.

Otherwise, there's no strict timetable or deadline for the new Faith Force. "If everyone partners and does a little," Williams said, "it becomes quite a big thing. Kids need to know they're valued and that adults want to engage them. The good guys need to do more recruiting than the bad guys."

The next meeting of Faith Force is Tuesday, June 7 at Oak Park Township Hall. Call John Williams at 445-2727, ext. 130 for more information.

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