Weed out the bad, seed in the good

Federal program funds grass-roots efforts to improve areas in decline

Whether it's playing PlayStation 2 games with their friends, snapping goofy digital photos of one another in a high-tech computer room or running laps in the gym for a 'Canada to Mexico' relay, the kids at the Wattles Boys & Girls Club in Southeast Portland have it all.

About 225 youths, ages 6 to 18, visit the cheery club each day after school to meet friends, finish homework and, most important to their parents, stay out of trouble.

Terry Green, a junior at Marshall High School who hangs out in the club's teen lounge nearly every day after school, puts it best: 'Ain't no way you can get in trouble out there if you're in here.'

The club has existed just off busy Foster Road since 1947 but was completely remodeled last year with a $1 million grant from Hollywood Video Chief Executive Officer Mark Wattles.

This spring they'll use other grant money to improve their study and gang enforcement programs; purchase a club van to transport students to the club from nearby schools Ñ Kelly Elementary, Woodmere Elementary and Lane Middle School Ñ that serve as 'safe havens.'

Those funds come from a federal program called Weed and Seed. The program serves as a collaborative effort to 'weed' out the bad influences in neighborhoods, such as drugs and gangs, and 'seed' in positive reforms, such as open lines of communication and community centers like these.

'We get the proactive, preventative side,' said club director Ryan Scott. 'Intervention (such as jail, drug and alcohol programs) cost three times what it does to do this.'

Just about everyone who has a stake in the community Ñ neighborhood associations, police, district attorneys and various other groups Ñ come together regularly to tackle problems ranging from drug houses and youth truancy to helping low-income residents with lawn work.

For its contribution to neighborhood livability, the Portland Weed and Seed program recently won an award for outstanding community policing. The award was presented by the Chief's Forum, a group of citizens who advise Portland police Chief Mark Kroeker on community matters.

'It's very meaningful,' said Sharon White, who coordinates the program in the Brentwood-Darlington neighborhood. 'It rewards the people who've been a part of this whole collaborative effort.'

Weed and Seed began in Brentwood-Darlington two years ago, and has existed in the Albina neighborhood since 1996, primarily focusing on educational and economic opportunities, gentrification issues and improving relations with the police.

Attack root of problem

At the Wattles club, the program administrators believe it's not only key to have a supportive and safe environment, but to add an educational component to the mix.

So every afternoon at 3:15 p.m., the kids drop what they're doing and have a group meeting before 'power hour' begins. Called Project Learn, it's their time to read a book, work on homework or participate in another 'high-yield' activity for at least an hour.

'I like going to the computer room,' said Lents Elementary fourth-grader Ryan Jenkins. 'I like playing chess and checkers because I used to be in the chess club.'

Scott said they've just begun to track the children to determine if Project Learn helps attendance and improves grades in the classroom.

The Weed and Seed funds also pay for a gang-prevention program that teaches staff to recognize high-risk youth and attracts teens to the center.

It helps that older kids had a say in what amenities they wanted before the center was remodeled. They got restaurant-style booths, a pool table, a comfortable sofa and a video game system.

'They wanted black walls, but we said no,' Scott said. 'But we chose the darkest purple we could find for the floor tiles.'

Success story

Back in the neighborhoods, the impact of Weed and Seed is evident.

Resident Susan Cox said she wouldn't be living in Brentwood-Darlington today if the problems that pervaded the area two years ago were still as bad.

'It was getting really run down, people weren't taking care of their property, there were speeding cars and strange activity at the apartment house at the end of my block,' Cox said. 'It just wasn't a place I wanted to live in anymore.'

But a community police officer working with Weed and Seed began chipping away at the problems, and things started to change for the better.

Neighbors say continual collaboration between law enforcement and social service agencies eventually led to cleaner yards, a decrease in the number of drug houses, and a greater feeling of safety.

McDaniel Reynolds, the senior neighborhood district attorney who works with police on drug enforcement missions funded by the program, said there has been a 98 percent success rate in evicting residents of drug and other chronic nuisance houses.

'Neighbors can have their lives back,' he said. 'They don't need to worry about who's driving down the street.'

Nowadays, Cox said, she and her husband enjoy a 25- by 16-foot cement patio they laid at their home last summer Ñ a symbol of their decision to stay in the neighborhood.

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