Anaya Mireles and Malaya Muldrew, both age 16, said they were excited when they were offered work at the Sam and Bonnie Pannell Community Center in South Sacramento’s Meadowview neighborhood.
“If you don’t have a job or anything you’re just sitting in the house bored all day,” Muldrew said.
They’re now there a few times a month helping a new culinary group serve to-go dinners at a safe distance during the COVID-19 isolation period.
Mireles is happy to be getting paid, but says she’d rather focus on her academics.
“I wanna be at school getting my credits to graduate, so it sucks that I have to take this free time that I don’t really want.”
She’s spending her time at home preparing for the SAT, even though many California schools are no longer requiring it. But she says other teens are not as driven.
Leaders in Sacramento’s outlying neighborhoods that have historically struggled with teen violence worry that the long stretch of time off school will open the doors for trouble.
“An idle mind is a devil’s playground,” said Berry Accius, a mentor with a nonprofit called Voice of the Youth. He’s also one of the community center chefs overseeing the work Muldrew and Mireles are doing.
He’s worried that teens will drift off track without the structure of classes and positive influence from teachers. Some of his mentees are calling him for support during the break.
“Home’s not a safe space, the neighborhood’s not a safe space, there’s not enough food there,” he said. “Sometimes school is the safest place for these kids to be at for those few hours.”
Right now, he says he’s seeing a lot of them outside, even when they’re not supposed to be.
Muldrew says shutting down the places where teens usually gather will lead to frustration.
“We can’t go to the mall, can’t go to the movies,” she said. “That’s when kids are gonna start terrorizing stuff, and that’s when the problems are gonna come.”
Mireles is worried that if teens stay cooped up during the isolation period, they’ll find ways to lash out later in the year.
“We are gonna get antsy waiting,” she said. “I do feel like there’s gonna be problems in the mall … cause on the first day everyone’s gonna be there. They’re gonna be stealin’, they’re gonna be doin’ all this cause they haven’t been able to do anything for a while.”
The Arden Fair Mall was the site of two different fights that had to be broken up by law enforcement in Jan. 2019. Hundreds of teens were involved. After that, community leaders banded together to fund intern programs and “pop-up” events like basketball, silent discos and board game nights.
But those group gatherings are off-limits under the state’s new orders. So leaders are finding other ways to keep teens engaged.
Greg Garcia works with a nonprofit group called Cities Rise to try to keep teens connected to mental health help. He’s been holding Zoom video conferences with teens where they play games and chat. There’s a “breakout room” available online for those who want to have a one-on-one video conversation.
“This is kind of like America’s wartime,” he said. “There’s going to be people grieving, missing their friends, they might have loved ones that are sick. We’re worried that young people aren’t going to have the same level of support they usually have, because in their afterschool programs they’re usually talking to someone.”
Sol Collective, a nonprofit arts hub on Broadway, is hosting a virtual youth spoken word tournament on Instagram this Friday night, including a “screenshare writing workshop,” open mic and musical guest.
In the Foothill Farms neighborhood in North Sacramento, Paris Dye of Liberty Towers Church is organizing a “virtual pop-up” on Instagram this Saturday night, with help from the city of Sacramento, the Sierra Health Foundation and the Black Child Legacy Campaign.
Dye says a neighborhood teen will host it and put up a challenge for anyone who’s online. It’ll be a contest where teens record themselves doing freestyle rap, spoken word or another medium. Organizers will deliver “prize packs” of board games, snacks and gadgets to the winners.
Dye said via text that the COVID-19 situation provides “great opportunities to lead by example and help young people make responsible choices.”
“We cannot abandon their existing traumas and victories after working all these years to make them part of the process,” she said.
Leaders who’ve been active on this issue recently celebrated new Sacramento Police Department data showing there have been no juvenile homicides in the city over the last two years.
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