Philly coalition urges next mayor to not leave underserved youth behind

The Kids Campaign wants the next administration to improve community safety, mental health services, and tackle gun violence “starting on day one.”

Corey Theodore smiles for a portrait

Corey Theodore, an 8th grade student at Edmonds Elementary School, talked about how organized sports kept him from getting into trouble at a Kids Campaign panel discussing new strategies for community safety at the Columbia Street YMCA on Oct. 23, 2023. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

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A youth and parent-led coalition says the time is now to tackle decades of health inequities affecting Philadelphia’s most underserved children.

The plea comes from an initiative called The Kids Campaign, a nonpartisan group serving more than 100 Philly youth-serving organizations urging the city’s next mayor to take action on day one.

On Monday afternoon, the coalition drafted a set of policy memos aimed at addressing a wide variety of quality of life and safety concerns.

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A group of about 30 community partners gathered at Columbia North YMCA to hear the proposed plans. They address elevating trauma-informed practices, community engagement, uplifting families, and career and education opportunities.

A Kids Campaign panel is seen at the YMCA
The Kids Campaign, a coalition of over 100 organizations that serve young people in Philadelphia, convened a panel of leaders to discuss what the next mayoral administration in the city could do to help keep kids safe at the Columbia Street YMCA on Oct. 23, 2023. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

One proposal is for the next administration to expand school and community-based diversion strategies for youth who commit “minor infractions.” It calls for improving education opportunities to decrease recidivism and the school-to-prison pipeline.

Members are also proposing an expansion of the Philly pre-K program by offering a 30-day service guarantee for children ages 3 to 5 who need early intervention services.

“I’m eager for the next mayor, for whom promises to reduce violence a top priority,” said Maritza Guirdy, a parent and child advocate, “will make out of school-based diversionary programs accessible to everyone.”

Guirdy, a former victim of gun violence and an armed robbery by a teen, has spent years helping youth stay active and “kept busy” in their community.

“Children are just like us. They’re going to make mistakes,” she said. “We need to make sure that they have places to go, activities to be a part of, and have the guidance to help them make better choices. We also need to make sure that when they make mistakes, that it’s not going to prevent them from recovering and then lead a healthier life.”

Maritza Guirdy speaks on a panel
Maritza Guirdy, a parent and child advocate, talked about being robbed at gunpoint by a high school student who was eventually caught and spent time in the juvenile justice system. Guirdy shared her hope that the student would have a diversion option at a Kids Campaign panel discussing new strategies for community safety at the Columbia Street YMCA on Oct. 23, 2023. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

As of Oct. 23, Philadelphia has recorded 351 homicides this year. Gun violence has been a front and center issue during the city’s 2023 mayoral election, with some calling for strengthening police tactics to cut down on violence.

The Kids Campaign insists the root cause of gun violence is a lack of opportunities. But some are concerned that proposals to increase the police force ignore bigger issues, such as restoring access to educational and economic capital.

“When we talk about gun violence in the city, I think the root causes are that we don’t provide enough opportunities — positive places, safe places for kids,” said Shaun Elliot, president and CEO of Greater Philadelphia Y (YMCA).

Elliot said there’s an “absolute need” for what the police do, but he does worry that historical underinvestment manifests itself in problems like gun violence, which ultimately requires more enforcement.

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The Greater Philadelphia Y serves nearly 50,000 children, with services ranging from child care and recreation to youth mental health services. It works with the Philadelphia School District, the Office of Children and Families, and the Public Health Management Corporation to deliver services for children.

The organization has been devising plans to modernize branches in its West, North Philly, and Center City locations. It’s also contemplating bold strategies to incorporate medical clinics and affordable housing in its long-term goals.

“Let’s drop in resources now and we’ll see the benefits 5, 10 years down the road,” he said. “Unfortunately, our election cycles are so short that we get so focused on what’s immediate. We don’t focus on 5 to 10 years down the road.”

Dontae Privette, the director of community engagement at the Philadelphia Youth Sports Collaborative, said the next administration must invest in cleaner parks and recreational spaces. The West Philadelphia native has worked in youth sports for 15 years, and at most recreation centers he’s served, facilities haven’t been updated in decades.

Privette runs a community program at Kingsessing Recreation Center. He said that public and green spaces are an asset to Philadelphia, but in underserved neighborhoods, there’s a disparity in modernization, monetary resources, and cleanliness.

Dontae Privette speaks on a panel
Dontae Privette, a coach and director of community engagement with the Philadelphia Youth Sports Collaborative, talked about increasing the funding for recreational sports and the city’s professional sports teams at a Kids Campaign panel discussing new strategies for community safety at the Columbia Street YMCA on Oct. 23, 2023. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

“The grass is overgrown. There’s rocks all over the field. There’s needles on the field,” he said. “Some gyms have not been upgraded since the ‘80s or the ‘70s. In some cases, recreation centers have no toilet paper, soap. If you need it, the city doesn’t even have it in the budget to purchase it.”

As for what the next mayor must invest in immediately, Privette’s main concern is giving young residents clean and safe play spaces.

“You gotta have a solution for these kids. You gotta have great programs, great people that are pouring and investing into them,” he said. “All of those things are not necessarily under attack, but just not available to them as they should be.”

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