Centers of Hope good for Atlanta’s kids

The young man talked fast to get his message in before we shooed him away. He certainly was giving it his all on this hot day. He told us his story: his name (Derrick), foster care, the streets, gang banging, jail and then, luckily for him, redemption.

Since we were stuck there anyway and he was quite engaging I asked him questions about gangs. He showed us the tattoos running up his arm, he told us about recruiting 12-year-olds into gangs, traveling the Southeast selling drugs, and he told us about the powerful influence of one particular foster mother. It was just a little seed of goodness she planted in him that years later grew strong enough to make him want to change his life. Now he’s selling soap concentrate door to door. He calls his vision “Dope, Soap & Hope,” and I hope his dreams work well for him. We bought a bottle and wished him well.

The conversation with Derrick has stuck with me for days and has me thinking about Atlanta’s issues with public safety, where kids fit in, and Mayor Kasim Reed’s Centers of Hope initiative, which will reopen and, eventually, overhaul the city’s recreation centers.

Everyone talks about needing to do something about crime and making public safety the No. 1 priority for spending. We need more police, of course.

Yet I can’t help but think: what are we doing to stop the crime before it starts? What about the kids who, like Derrick, have little guidance and no place to go, and are such easy targets for the sharp-eyed recruiters to the dark side? Where do they go after school or during the long, hot summers when the swimming pools are all closed down and the recreations centers are chained shut, and there are no playgrounds for miles around?

Do they then head down to Piedmont Park to mess with the people peacefully watching an outdoor movie ... or worse? Shouldn’t we do more to build beautiful, healthy boys and girls instead of waiting until they’re grown and in need of rehabilitation? Doesn’t that seem like a fiscally responsible tactic, too?

Kids need an engaging way to spend their time now more than ever. The average American child spends more than seven hours a day (yes, a day) with some kind of electronic device. Their health is suffering because they are sitting all day and not getting fresh air and exercise. The generation coming up now is threatened to be the first generation not to live longer lives than their parents. We’ve all heard it: obesity epidemic, vitamin D deficiencies, diabetes, and heart conditions. But did you know that the symptoms of all of these things could be alleviated by play, simple get-outside-and-run-around play?

The benefits of play go far beyond physical health and entertainment. Play also greatly benefits children’s social development, their ability to deal with aggression, their ability to assess risk, and their imaginations. It even alleviates symptoms of ADHD and helps kids make better grades. New reports show that playing outdoors even makes you smarter. If you could put all of the benefits of play into a pill, somebody could make a fortune!

Imagine what would happen if we provided our children with great places to play? Atlanta is a city that could easily become the greatest city in the country in which to raise a child if we just set our minds to it. And, what better and safer place is there for city children to play than in a city park with a staffed recreation center?

No, let me change that. What better and safer place is there for city children to play than in a city park with a Center of Hope staffed with well-trained and passionately engaged play workers? Not business as usual rec centers, but top of the line, life-changing, world-class recreation centers, or, as they call them in England, adventure playgrounds.

I’ve spent some time visiting adventure playgrounds in London, and there is a lot for us to learn from them. There are programs and free play just like here, but what really impressed me was how they are a lot less fearful than we are. On one cool day I saw kids warming themselves around an open fire pit that they tended (under a watchful eye of a play worker). I saw kids building a fort out of scraps of wood. In fact, that whole playground seemed to be built from scraps of wood that were painted in all of the wild, brilliant colors that children admire. They were learning things by having fun. They were learning to assess risk. They were learning to work together. And, they were so preoccupied with having fun that they didn’t even realize that they were learning.

Back on the home front, over the past year or so Atlanta shut down about half of its 33 recreation centers and 16 swimming pools due to difficult financial times. Our new mayor campaigned on reopening the 15 closed centers and seven pools by turning them into “Centers of Hope.” He knew from personal experience how very important they are to the community. It was a campaign promise that really resonated with the voters.

When Reed started talking about his Centers of Hope idea I admit I rolled my eyes more than once. It sounded like a politician running for office to me.

But he never stopped talking about them and what it meant for him as a child to have a safe place to go play. He speaks with so much passion and conviction that I stopped and listened. I think he really means it, and I think he’s really right. We need Centers of Hope in Atlanta and our mayor has the bold vision and commitment that absolutely must exist for this to be done not just right, but great.

Thankfully, Atlanta’s City Council has approved $3.7 million to slowly reopen the recreation centers. This will happen later this year with minimum staffing and programming, but at least the centers will be open until 8 p.m. and the ball will be rolling. Boston Consulting Group has agreed to develop the master plan for what a great Center of Hope will be. (I used to work for a competitor of BCG and know exactly how thorough a plan this will be.) Much more than $3.7 million is needed in order to include programming for at-risk kids and do the extensive repairs and renovations needed. A few companies and organizations have begun stepping up to make it all happen, but more are needed.

Everyone should get on the Centers of Hope bandwagon. It’s as simple as this: You can either give kids places to play, hang out, get worn out, get challenged, get inspired, or you lose one of our city’s greatest opportunities to grow great kids. If we go along with our new mayor’s idea, do our due diligence and find out what it takes to make these “rec” centers truly innovative, what will we be doing for the Derricks of tomorrow? What might we accomplish if we set it up so that we are able to pass along that little seed of goodness that turned this young man around? Great play workers are tailor-made for that great work, and Atlantans are tailor-made to pull together to make this all possible.

Cynthia J. Gentry grew up in Atlanta and is the Founding Director of the Atlanta Taskforce on Play.