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What we'll lose 

If Colorado Springs community centers close, the fallout could be immeasurable

Three little boys.

Jessica Amiot can't count everything that Deerfield Hills Community Center has done for her family, let alone the community, but she knows it saved those kids.

Her sons, 13-year-old Andrew Valdez, 12-year-old Timothy Valdez and 8-year-old Daven Simonds, were almost swept away. Born to a single mom, in a poor neighborhood, the boys were put in foster care a few years back when Amiot went to drug and alcohol rehab.

It wasn't any surprise, really. Almost every adult the boys knew — certainly all their relatives — had ended up behind bars at some point.

When Amiot got out and made a home on the south side, she knew she couldn't do a whole lot to change things for the kids. At least not on her own. She had to work, and that meant she couldn't be there when the boys got off school. The two older ones would be free to wander the streets doing whatever — and their friends had already started getting in trouble with the law. Worse, Daven meticulously followed his brothers' example.

So Deerfield Hills was a surprise blessing, a place with affordable day care for Daven, where the two older boys could hang out, with adults watching. It turned out even better than she thought. At the center, the boys found mentors in the workers. They created a second, fully functional family for themselves. And they started loving school.

"They could be in so much trouble if that community center wasn't there," Amiot says.

Now, Andrew is looking forward to college (he'll be the first in the family) and one day being a chef. Timothy's an excellent athlete and at the top of his class academically. Daven is in the gifted and talented program. Even Amiot has gotten something out of the center — other adults to talk with who know what's going on with her kids and can help her to be a better parent.

So Amiot's three boys — and plenty of other kids — have been given a shot at a better future thanks to Deerfield Hills' two rooms, two outdoor basketball courts, playground and handful of staff members.

Net cost: as little as $231,000 a year.

Throwing out the baby

Four community centers, including Deerfield Hills, are scheduled to shut down March 31.

Financially, it's been a run of bad years for the city, and things aren't expected to shape up soon. In 2010, grass will be left to die in parks. Bus service has already been halved. Even police and fire have felt the squeeze.

Council decided to give some parks facilities, including the four centers — Hillside, Westside, Meadows Park and Deerfield Hills — the first three months of the year to secure enough money to keep their doors open. The centers need to raise about $1.28 million total for 2010 alone, or else workers may soon board up the windows.

Located in relatively poor neighborhoods, centers are places to pick up donated food, access affordable preschool and day care, work out, attend classes, meet neighbors, and forge friendships. On a typical day you may find seniors line dancing, or families hauling away boxes stocked with cereal, meat, bread and frozen fruit. Last year, the four centers, which together cost $1.7 million a year to run, saw 228,492 visits.

It was Sean Paige, Council's newest member, who suggested the three-month reprieve for these centers, and he seemed earnest in his conviction that the money could be raised if the community was involved.

"At times in government," he told an audience at the Westside center in January, "you hear that it's either one way or the other; you either close it, or keep it open. ... The majority of Council and I said, 'Let's do something different.'"

Paige's freshman idealism helped convince colleagues to support his plan, but Vice Mayor Larry Small says he always knew the goal was impossible. I mean, come on.

"I never in my wildest dreams imagined that someone would come up with $400,000 to keep Hillside Community Center open," Small says.

Instead, Small was (and still is) hoping that a majority of Councilors will eventually vote to give the centers a full year's worth of funding, to buy more time to "restructure." As of this printing, it appears a minority — including Mayor Lionel Rivera, Paige and Councilor Bernie Herpin — plan to vote to restore funding through 2010. They need to convince one more Councilor to vote with them.

But if Councilors knew this would take longer than three months, why didn't they just offer a year's funding to begin with? Better yet, why didn't they or their predecessors initiate the restructuring process years ago?

After all, Council knew in 2008 that many more budget shortfalls were ahead, and that community centers were in danger. And Council and city staff should have known restructuring wouldn't be easy. Just up the road, Denver has been attempting the same thing. Years of diligent effort there are just now starting to bear fruit.

So then, did Councilors just not care? Were they unaware that community centers are proven crime-fighters, or that centers give many of our city's seniors a reason to get out of bed? Was Council indifferent about closing centers despite the fact that kids like Andrew, Timothy and Daven depend on them?

The answer seems to be "no." Most Councilors have spoken eloquently and emotionally about the work of the centers. And in the recent past — before this latest budget crisis — Councilors repeatedly rejected the notion that centers should be closed to save money, saying the programs they offer are irreplaceable.

It seems more likely that this failure to act was tied to a failure of imagination. Councilors may not have seen a way to forever fund the centers without city money. Community centers, after all, are 80 to 90 percent subsidized. And raising rates to cover costs would put the centers out of the price range of most of their customers.

Indeed, City Parks and Recreation director Paul Butcher says the centers will always operate at a loss (if they operate at all). So if a private company or nonprofit was willing to keep the centers going, it would need to accept that.

It seems the community centers need a miracle. But the people who love them aren't waiting for one. In the last month, moms, dads, grandparents and high schoolers have come together with great joy, enthusiasm and imagination and put up one hell of a fight to save the centers they hold dear. They've held square dances and yard sales, fliered neighborhoods, hit up companies, talked to nonprofits, and written business plans. They've already raised thousands of dollars and interested big names, like the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.

All that's earned some admiration from the top.

"If I were looking at investing in a community center," Herpin says, "the enthusiasm of the users would make a big difference to me."

20 questions

Before anyone started thinking about answers, neighborhoods had a lot of questions.

Paige held January meetings at each center in an attempt to answer those questions and rally the troops. The Councilor, accompanied by city staff, faced 50 or more people; when the plastic chairs filled, seniors and women with crying babies opted to stand for two hours. School kids came, some of them still in sports or scouting uniforms.

Initially, there was a lot more passion than organization. At the first meeting at Westside, the crowd fumed when city staff could not provide a breakdown of center expenditures.

"Give us some numbers!" the crowd yelled.

Eventually, west side activist Dave Hughes, a white-haired senior with an oversized cowboy hat and a machismo demeanor, stood up and demanded the numbers be provided to him within the week. Staff agreed to post something on the Web site.

Other meetings were just as contentious. People wanted answers: "Why can't the city pay for the centers instead of buying cars for employees?" "Can the El Pomar Foundation help us out?" "Why does the city always cut services that poor people use?"

Or they just voiced concerns. Shaking her head, one woman at Deerfield Hills said, "Three hundred kids are going to be running around this neighborhood this summer with no one to watch them."

But toward the end of each meeting, the tension and panic died down, and people started looking ahead. At Hillside's meeting, a man stood up in the crowd and offered to give some of his own money.

"This has to start somewhere," he said. "So it can start with me."

This is what Paige had hoped for when he started hosting these meetings, that people would work toward solutions together. And that in doing so, they wouldn't have to work through the parks department's bureaucratic approach.

Initially charged with leading the effort, the department posted an application to be filled out by anyone who wanted to take over a center, or even pay rent to teach a class in one. All applicants would have to find the 24-page form on the city Web site (no easy task), answer all the questions, and turn it in by Feb. 26. Then the applications would go to a special board to be reviewed. Any good offers could then be negotiated by the parks department — hopefully before the centers closed.

"We were going out to cast the widest net," Butcher said earlier this month, "and we thought the best way to do that was to give everyone the information. So that's why we went with the application."

But Paige was ticked off about the long form. Who was going to fill that out? Wasn't it intimidating?

(Note: The answer may be yes. Other city assets that are losing government funding this year are finding money, but not through the application process. The parks department is working with a swim lesson company on a possible contract for three city pools, and a nonprofit is also trying to raise money for the pools. Nonprofits associated with both Rock Ledge Ranch and Starsmore Discovery Center have raised their own funds.)

The application is still online. There hasn't been a serious offer yet.

Organizing 101

In a small room in the back of Hillside Community Center, Eric Phillips has fallen victim to several cantankerous office machines.

"It'll be just a minute," he keeps on telling the crowd of about 15 people who have gathered on a weekday night in January.

But after about 10 minutes, Phillips decides to ditch the laptop for a squeaky green marker and a whiteboard. Despite the hang-ups, he's enthused.

"We are an official task force!" he tells the group with a wide grin.

There's some light applause, but the audience apparently doesn't understand this to be much of an honor. After all, to join the Community Center Task Force, they simply raised their hands at one of Paige's meetings.

Phillips, the leader, is a property manager with a passion for helping kids and the elderly. The rest of the people here include moms in knitted sweaters, 20-somethings in tight jeans, a few teenagers still overcoming their valley-girl speak, and one gray-haired man in black leather.

Notably, there is not a necktie in the room.

Phillips says that if this group can come up with a significant chunk of money, city leaders won't want to shut them down.

"We have some City Council support," he says. "Small, and of course, Sean Paige, and we'll work on the others. My guess is they don't really want to do this."

He may be right. The task force, however, has no choice but to take the threat of closure seriously. So, supporters of Hillside and Deerfield Hills are here. (Meadows Park and Westside will eventually join, too.) Before tonight's first "official" meeting, they've already achieved a lot:

• Volunteers are working on a business plan for the centers.

• A documentary on the effort to save the centers is being filmed, and will be used to attract donations from local businesses.

• Phillips has gotten on the board that will look over any applications to take over the centers.

• Concept Restaurants and the Texas Roadhouse on Eighth Street have agreed to do fundraisers.

• The task force is on Facebook.

Not bad. But a lot more needs to be done, so tonight, Phillips divides the group into committees with specific tasks. The marketing group needs to make fliers and organize door-to-door groups. The local business committee has to hit up every major company in town. The fundraiser team will work on yard signs, bake sales and the like. The media group will contact print, TV and radio news. The nonprofit committee will be talking to El Pomar and churches. And the long-term planning committee will look at grants and government stimulus money.

Every time Phillips asks for volunteers, the hands fly up. Taraya Bland will talk to El Pomar. Angeleah Marquez knows friends at her high school will canvass neighborhoods. Shadow Reed will design a flier. Doug Jones knows how to apply for federal grants.

Phillips leaves the pumped crowd with his favorite African proverb.

"A single bracelet does not jingle," he says. "So we need more than one."

Crime fighters?

Vision and foresight could have averted this crisis. There could have been a grand plan for these centers, instead of a last-minute, last-ditch rescue mission. Brian Kates, the facility director for Meadows Park and Westside, is haunted by this.

Kates has a list of grand plans that will never be realized. At the top is his favorite: turning the centers into a sort of community center-police substation combo.

A small percentage of the public safety sales tax would be all that was needed to keep community centers going. Police could be moved out of the fancy downtown Police Operations Center, and into the community centers, which are in higher-crime neighborhoods. They could forge positive relationships with people in the neighborhoods — connections that could ease distrust of police, and lead to easier crime-solving.

"I've seen it a million times," Kates says. "There's a crime in the neighborhood and we [at the center] hear about it ... the cops will come down and they don't even know where to start ... [and] sure enough, there's someone in the center who knows everybody's daddy and everybody's auntie."

A few years back, Kates helped design a program that put cops in the same room with teens at a community center. The police didn't do a whole lot — they were just there, hanging out with the kids. But it worked.

"They became known as good people, as role models, and not the po-po that you have to fear," Kates says. "It didn't take much."

Kates isn't the first to recognize community centers as weapons against crime.

Back in spring 2008, a well-known former Denver gang member was killed. Denver police were worried the death would spur violence in the coming summer. At a meeting, a citizen suggested offering free summer programming at Denver's centers, as a way to keep kids off the streets. Mayor John Hickenlooper liked the idea, and directed the parks and recreation department to offer free admission to kids 17 or younger between June 2 and Aug. 16.

Youth admission at the centers rose 43 percent during the free period compared with the year before. While violent crimes perpetrated by juveniles grew 21 percent during the summer of 2007 "paid period," they dropped 18 percent during the 2008 "free period." Not only that, but juvenile crime rates dropped much more steeply than adult crime rates — an effect that could be seen in the free period, but not in the spring or fall "pay periods" that buttressed it.

A similar, but less dramatic effect, was noticed in 2009, when the free period was repeated later in the year and with less media fanfare.

The 2008 "free period" cost the city $156,928 in expenses and foregone revenue. But while it may be harder to quantify, crime prevention has its own monetary value. Less crime means less money spent on policing, courts, jails and prisons. Sending a person to prison for one year currently costs states an average of $29,000.

If centers can keep kids out of trouble, and save money, why not take the idea one step further, Kates wonders. Why not turn centers into a place where cops and kids work together to keep their neighborhoods safe? It's worked in some cities since the 1960s, according to Michael Scott, director of the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing, a national organization that works with the U.S. Department of Justice.

"Although the police and community certainly hope that crime might be reduced as a result of the greater police presence in a neighborhood," he writes in an e-mail, "the primary mechanism through which community police stations can be effective is if they ... promote greater and more friendly interaction between police and local residents such that improved relations translates into increased trust and confidence by residents of the police, which in turn translates into more effective collaborations on specific crime and disorder problems."

Pretty impressive. And yet when Kates talked to Butcher, his boss, he didn't get an enthused response.

"You really want me to go to the police chief, when he's facing cuts and reductions as well, and ask him to carve out of the budget for the community centers?" Kates remembers Butcher telling him. "What makes the community centers so special?"

When asked, Butcher says he thinks the policing centers are a great idea, but he doesn't think it's in the police department's budget. Even if the centers replaced current substations the cost wouldn't be zero. The centers would need a lot of expensive remodeling to ensure security.

And there's the time factor to consider. Maybe a grand plan like this could have been at least part of a solution if someone had pursued it years ago. Maybe any number of grand plans could have been. But there's just not time for that now.

Playing German kickball

Nine-year-old Aramis and 12-year-old Jonathan are seated at a table at Meadows Park Community Center, ignoring their cheese and crackers.

Crunch, crunch, crunch. The boys' mouths wag up and down. The kids are — apparently with some pleasure — inhaling baby carrots. Nagging mothers, eat your hearts out.

The after-school food here is provided by Care and Share Food Bank for Southern Colorado. A lot of charities provide programs through the centers, from the kids' snacks to free groceries for needy families, to the Pikes Peak Community Action Agency's financial tutelage, to the Golden Circle Nutrition Program, which provides hot meals for seniors for a $2 donation.

Jonathan takes a break from eating to say what he likes about Meadows Park (besides the free carrots).

"German kickball," he blurts out quickly.

Um, OK. ... but what would you miss if the center closed?

"I won't have anywhere to study my homework."

At this point Jonathan gets up from the table, grabs his math homework out of his backpack, and begins carefully unraveling a problem in pencil.

Interview over.

Program coordinator Latishma Walters stops behind the boy and pats his shoulders.

"He's a straight-A student," she whispers.

Once Jonathan's out of earshot, Walters tells the rest of the story. Jonathan and his younger brother immigrated to America years ago, but their mother is still in Africa, waiting for permission to join her sons. Until then, the boys' grandmother cares for them, but she doesn't get off work until 8:30 at night. So the boys come here.

"This is really like his home," she says, nodding toward Jonathan.

Earlier in the day, on a visit to Hillside, program planner Jackie Tafoya explained that kids do homework first, then construct craft projects, play board games, or even compete in spelling bees or conduct scientific experiments. Most centers offer a preschool program in addition to day care. At Hillside, that program is full, and it's easy to see why.

Under the careful tutelage of "Mr. Juan" and "Miss Jalisa," 4- and 5-year-olds are already learning to write their letters, and 3-year-olds are triumphantly learning their shapes.

"That one's the hexagon!" Asia, a chubby-cheeked toddler, yells, throwing her hands in the air triumphantly.

She's right. (For those of you wondering, a hexagon is the one with six sides.)

Anyway, Tafoya says the kids' programs are successful because they emphasize education and personal responsibility. They offer stability — the staff here rarely turns over, and it's not uncommon for kids to grow up attending a Hillside program, then volunteer at the center as teenagers, and then end up working for the center as adults. Mr. Juan, for instance, grew up in this center.

So what's so special about these places? What keeps people coming back? Back at Meadows Park, crafting is over and Kierra, a hyper 9-year-old with perfect bouncing curls, has time to talk.

What do you like about the center?

"German kickball!" she says.

OK, what the heck is German kickball?

The answer comes 10 minutes later. One team stands in a corner of the gym. The other stands in the middle. One of the corner kids kicks the ball. The middle team chases after it. The corner kicker has already started racing, trying to make a full lap around the gym. Meanwhile the middle kids are throwing the ball at her. If they hit her, she's out. If she catches it, she scores an automatic point for her team. If she makes the lap unscathed, she scores a point, and the next person on her team starts running immediately, trying to make the next lap. Three outs per inning.

As the ball repeatedly smacks the sides of the gym, Meadows Park youth programming director Bob Rais tells me, "People love that I give their kids back to them exhausted."

At a community center, those parents can buy a month's worth of after-school care for as little as $27.50, and last year an eight-week, all-day summer camp cost as little as $157.50. Without the centers, many would be forced to quit their jobs to stay home with their kids, or to leave them home alone.

"People in this neighborhood depend on this," Rais says, over the squeals. "Quite frankly, many of these parents are working two jobs to make ends meet."

For a moment, Rais smiles intently at the kids, who are now arguing over an "out." Then he walks over to round them up.

Like the rest of the community center workers, he got his termination notice weeks ago.

stanley@csindy.com


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— J. Adrian Stanley


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— J. Adrian Stanley

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