Empowering the east side

City awards grants to three organizations serving youth

Springfield Mayor Misty Buscher (second from left) and state Sen. Doris Turner, D-Springfield, (in red vest) pose with volunteers assisting city residents in the wake of widespread property damage and power outages caused by the June derecho. Most of the people in this photo were members of a youth mentorship program operated by Better Life Better Living for Kidz, which is in line to receive a $215,000 grant from the city.

Mentoring, recreation, financial literacy and employment-readiness training for children and young adults on Springfield's east side are among activities that could be funded with $645,000 in grants approved in November by the Springfield City Council.

The three organizations in line to receive the grants – part of $3 million in special state funding for the Springfield Police Department – are the Springfield Park District and two local nonprofits, Better Life Better Living for Kidz and One in a Million Inc.

Each is scheduled to receive $215,000 in 2024 if their specific plans for the money are approved by Police Chief Ken Scarlette and the granting agency, the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity.

"Providing the right recreation, you can instill the values these kids need," said Antwaun Readus Sr., vice president of Better Life Better Living. "Our community is 200% behind this."

The council accepted the $3 million overall state appropriation in June. It included money for a range of programs and services, including an increase in the number of neighborhoods covered by ShotSpotter technology, several more ShotSpotter Community Connections events, additional police body cameras and a police cadet recruitment program and police internship program.

But the original stated use for the $645,000 – to help establish a "teen empowerment zone" on the east side – has changed somewhat. That's why follow-up approval for use of the money must receive DCEO's blessing, based on ordinances adopted by the council.

Many of the after-school and summertime youth services funded by the grants were intended to be offered out of a community center planned for the proposed zone, which includes Comer Cox Park, Chamberlain Park and the nearby former campus of United Cerebral Palsy at 130 N. 16th St. and 1415 E. Jefferson St.

The city bought both UCP properties in 2022 for about $400,000 in state grant funds, but Ward 2 Ald. Shawn Gregory said the city doesn't have the approximately $1 million it would take to renovate the buildings for use as a community center.

With grant money on the way for programming for the teen empowerment zone, a project talked about for several years, Gregory said he pushed for the council to disburse the $645,000 to east side groups that have been involved in discussions about the zone.

It's up to the organizations on where they want to serve their young clients, he said.

Even without a community center on the old UCP campus, at least for the time being, the programs will help young people set themselves up for success in adulthood and avoid getting in trouble with the law, Gregory said.

"We've got to keep them busy," he said. "We want to have as many safe spaces spread out in our community as we can. We have a lot of groups doing good work, but it's proven that we need more help."

Approval of the three grants came after tense debate at the council's Nov. 21 meeting. Several council members raised questions about the way the three groups were chosen – without specific written plans and without a formal bidding process, though a bidding process wasn't required.

Ward 8 Ald. Erin Conley told Illinois Times she voted against ordinances awarding money to the groups, not because they were unworthy but because "it seemed like we were doing things out of order. I didn't see what the rush was."

Gregory, whose ward includes part of the east side, walked out of the council chamber at one point when he became upset about the number of questions being raised about what he described as a relatively small amount of money for "a poor part of town."

Gregory told Illinois Times later that he believes his fellow council members "understand me and my passion to do right for the community."

He said approving the three grants sooner rather than later would help get money into the hands of the groups quicker. Conley said she disagreed with Gregory's argument.

Gregory said it's likely DCEO will approve the groups' plans so the money can be disbursed by February at the earliest.

Ward 3 Ald. Roy Williams Jr., whose ward also includes part of the east side, was blunt about his frustration with alderpersons' questions.

He said during the meeting that he was amazed by the "gamesmanship" of some council members who "take us through pure hell to get a small amount of money."

In the end, Conley was the only one of the 10 alderpersons to vote against the grant to Better Life Better Living.

Readus said Better Life Better Living, which has been operating on a part-time basis for more than 10 years, would like to continue and expand its mentoring, job training, art, music and audio-visual programs for youth with its grant.

The group is well-known for its Sunday Funday programs in Comer Cox Park, he said.

Conley and Ward 10 Ald. Ralph Hanauer were the only council members to vote against the One in a Million grant. Williams, whose brother, Mike Williams, is president of One in a Million, voted "present" on the grant to that organization.

Illinois Times requested an interview with Mike Williams, who instead replied with a text message that said he wouldn't talk about One in a Million's plans until DCEO gives final approval.

The ordinance approved by the council for One in a Million's $215,000 grant listed several potential uses for the money, including expanding the group's technology center and supporting A Way Out, a program aimed at "providing educational, recreational and mentorship opportunities to the youth in the Eastside community."

Potential focus areas for the grant include expanding the group's computer lab, conducting coding classes, typing and technology workshops, and continuing to develop e-sports programs, according to the ordinance.

Votes against the grant to the Park District came from Conley, Hanauer, Ward 1 Ald. Chuck Redpath and Ward 4 Ald. Larry Rockford.

Derek Harms, executive director of the Park District, said the scope of the proposed summer employment, job shadowing and recreational programs to be funded by the grant haven't been finalized yet.

"We've got a longstanding working relationship with the city," Harms said. "We are in the planning stages. There are still some unknowns."

Dean Olsen is a senior staff writer at Illinois Times. He can be reached at [email protected], 217-679-7810 or twitter.com/DeanOlsenIT.

Dean Olsen

Dean Olsen is a senior staff writer for Illinois Times. He can be reached at:
[email protected], 217-679-7810 or @DeanOlsenIT.

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