- Associated Press - Saturday, June 25, 2016

WILMINGTON, Del. (AP) - For many kids, summer is a time spent with new friends at camp, hanging around a backyard pool or at the beach. But for many in the city whose families can barely afford the basics, summer is a struggle to find something to do.

There are 12,000 kids ages 5 to 18 in Wilmington, according to the U.S. Census and more than 9,500 of them live below the poverty line. The city offers about 1,200 slots, about 10 percent, for free or low-cost summer program options.

There are alternatives - through nonprofits, churches and other community groups - but they are often more expensive and, as a result, out of reach.

That leaves thousands of kids with nowhere safe or supervised to go this summer.

“A lot of the stuff is not affordable, and there’s really not enough of it,” said Tekeshia Bunch, a single mother of two teen boys in north Wilmington. “You have to figure out how to divide when you have more than one child, how you’re going to divide the little bit of income that you have.”

The lack of affordable activities leaves Bunch’s two teenage boys and thousands like them with little to look forward to this summer.

Yasser Payne, associate black American studies professor at the University of Delaware, describes the poverty in Wilmington as “breath-taking.” He said that the summer offers opportunity for triumph, but also tragedy. The tragedies come from youth having a lack of productive opportunities and activities combined with having a lot of opportunity for idleness and free time on their hands.

Payne said many kids without constructive options will see the streets as a viable opportunity.

“As opposed to really taking them under our wing and being mentors to them and all of that, what are we looking for?” Payne asked. “We’re looking for a solution where we don’t actually have to resource the community to reduce the social challenges in Wilmington.”

The city also operates four public swimming pools: Foster Brown, Prices Run, Hicks Anderson and Eden Park. The pools are open different days from about 1 p.m. to 6 p.m.

Entoile Morehead, 33, a single mother of three, wishes there were more opportunities, especially for young girls, in the city during the summer.

“The things that they had when I first moved to Delaware, I don’t see them anymore,” Morehead said. “There’s nothing anymore, so those things might be gone but there was nothing to replace them.”

Like many parents, Morehead believes the lack of things to do contributes to the city’s violence.

“It scares me, and I feel like yeah, if everybody was occupied or had something better to do then no, I wouldn’t have to worry about (violence),” Morehead said. “Those things wouldn’t cross my mind. They wouldn’t cross anybody’s mind.”

Morehead remembered a time when her son, 13, went with four friends to one of the public pools and all five boys had their bikes stolen.

“If they had something to do, maybe the bike wouldn’t have gotten stolen,” Morehead said. “These kids are only doing what they’re seeing the older people doing and if they don’t have anybody else to show them a different route . they’re going to do exactly what they know.”

Payne said the summer, generally speaking, is predictive of more “risky” behavior.

“They’re engaging in behavior that we all would say is not ideal,” Payne said. “I think longer hours in the day, no jobs or joblessness, you have more of an opportunity for idleness, you have more of an opportunity for youth, black male youth in particular, to engage in violence, to engage in substance abuse, sales of narcotics.”

Twhy Shalynn, a Wilmington native and East Side resident, is more worried about her child having a safe environment this summer, more so than cost.

With framed photographs of her 7-year-old daughter filling the walls of her living room, Shalynn understands that Mia’s future begins with how she spends her summers.

“With everything that’s going on in the city right now, I am a little reserved as far as sending my daughter anywhere,” Shalynn said.

Shalynn spends time riding her bike through the west side of Wilmington with her husband twice a day to see the community centers and determine if they are safe for Mia.

“I feel like my daughter is safer with me,” she said. “It’s not that I don’t want to send her . but I’m definitely going to keep her safe.”

Shalynn described how she sometimes puts a music box in her daughter’s room to drown out the sound of police, ambulances and violence in her neighborhood.

The city provides programs during the summer that are “positive outlets” through the Department of Parks and Recreation, city spokeswoman Alexandra Coppadge said in an email. “Throughout the year, the Department of Parks and Recreation offers a variety of educational and recreational activities in an effort to engage local youths in the City of Wilmington.”

Each child costs parks and recreation about $1,000 according to Shawn Allen, deputy director of Parks and Recreation.

“We just don’t have the funding to fund the whole city,” Allen said. “If we had a million dollars, we may be able to fund more kids.”

The agency receives roughly $400,000 from the state and $350,000 from the city for summer programs, according to Allen.

“I would say if we had additional funding from all the people who want to do things for youth in the city,” said James Lane, director of Parks and Recreation. “We could do more. We’re limited by the amount of resources we have.”

This funding provides 550 spaces in its Summer Youth Employment program. Yet, with close to 2,000 kids applying annually, Allen said their biggest issue is trying to make the opportunities fair for all of the kids.

Having 550 kids this year is significantly more than almost four years ago when 270 were chosen for the program.

The department’s top officials are looking for additional funding sources to create more opportunities, such as Bank of America, which donated $65,000 this year to Parks and Recreation operations.

Parks and Recreation, which runs Summer Enrichment Camp, Summer Recreational Camp and Camp Barnes, offers 50 to 60 kids at a time trips to amusement parks, baseball games, museums and more.

Many nonprofits offer summer programs for youth, but it has been difficult to raise awareness, said Romain Alexander Wilmington, City Council’s chief of staff.

“I think there is a lot for young people to do,” Alexander said. “I think the challenge is, sometimes, to get them connected to those opportunities, and encourage them to participate.”

Hicks Anderson, the only government-owned community center in Wilmington, tries to provide a “safe haven” during the summer with extended hours throughout the weekend.

Since the beginning of 2015, there have been more than 20 shootings within five blocks of the center.

Payne believes the solution to help youth is simple: Provide more resources.

“Youth don’t want to go nowhere, they just want better opportunities,” Payne said. “The resources are at the county, state and federal level. That’s who has the resources and that’s who needs to, in more aggressive ways, intervene.”

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Information from: The News Journal of Wilmington, Del., https://www.delawareonline.com

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