'Forgotten citizens': Young people say what they need in Atlantic City

  • 4 min to read

The screen door slams each time one more neighborhood kid filters into Danielle Fletcher’s Indiana Avenue home. Fletcher hustles around her kitchen, putting french fries in the oven, frying chicken on the stove and cutting watermelon into slices.

For Fletcher, whose 17-year-old son K’vaun was killed in 2016 by a stray bullet, these monthly dinners aren’t just for feeding the youth in her neighborhood. It’s keeping them away from the negative influences she says they’re exposed to every day.

“You can come to Aunt Danielle’s house, you can get a plate, you can play basketball, you can watch TV, you can play video games, as long as it keeps them off the streets,” she said. “That’s my main purpose.”

In Atlantic City, where one in four residents is under 18, structure and opportunities for young people are lacking. Many believe creating more programs and better utilizing the ones in place should keep young people out of trouble in a city where six of the seven fatal shootings this year involved people 21 or younger.

Jim Johnson, special counsel to Gov. Phil Murphy and author of the state’s transition report on Atlantic City, has said in meetings with the community that the city’s 10,000 young people are “the forgotten” and “the invisible” citizens.

“It’s a lot of broken promises in Atlantic City,” said Domanique Townsend, 24, who helps run the nonprofit Peace Amongst Youth with Fletcher and her mother, Kelly Cors-Atherly. “That’s why a lot of youth now, they’re to the point where now they need more action.”

Just steps across the street from Fletcher’s house is the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Complex, one of four schools that house the city’s recreation programs.

The building hosts recreation five days a week in the winter and four days a week in the summer. But the doors were once opened longer.

In the wake of the city’s 2015 fiscal crisis, rec program hours were reduced and the department faced major staff cuts, dropping at one point from about 50 employees to about four, a move that saved the city $2 million annually, according to previous reports.

Institutions dedicated to helping youth, such as the Police Athletic League and the Boys and Girls Club, have since expanded their influence in the city, but Mayor Frank Gilliam said in June the Rec Department plans to roll out new and existing programs in the fall.

Many young people still sense a gap in opportunities.

“All we probably can do is play basketball and probably football, but otherwise there’s not enough to do here,” said 14 year-old Quanirah Montaque.

Like most of the 14-year-olds in Fletcher’s house, Montaque talks about wanting more fun and games: an arcade, a roller-skating rink, a trampoline park and maybe a “Fortnite” video game competition.

The young people in their early twenties whom Fletcher feeds are also hungry for more constructive opportunities and employment.

“All there is to do is to survive. Keep your head above water,” said 22-year-old Ronald Laws, who said he has lost a majority of his childhood friends to gun violence or incarceration and was himself a gunshot victim in 2016.

A survey of 812 Atlantic City youth between fourth and 12th grades conducted in February by the nonprofit Search Institute showed 53% were adequate or thriving, meaning they have assets to make positive life choices. However, 47% were considered challenged or vulnerable.

According to the state’s transition report, more than a third of the city’s children live below the poverty level and must confront crime and deprivation.

“They act like it’s our fault when they’re failing us,” said 21-year-old resident Jaquan Campos. “We’re not failing ourselves. We’re doing what we know, what we see.”

Youth in the survey scored lowest in “constructive use of time,” the need for opportunities — outside of school — to learn and develop, and “positive identity,” the need for young people to believe in their own self-worth and to feel they have control over the things that happen to them.

Michael Bailey, who has worked with the Police Athletic League since 1982 and served as recreation director in 2016, said the city is doing a lot with its hands tied with regard to funding.

“The reality is that parents need to find out the programs that are available and get their child in a program that suits them. Often people say there is nothing for the youth to do in Atlantic City. But in actuality there is plenty for the youth to do,” he said. “They need to discover the services and to take advantage of them.”

But in Bailey’s experience, programs are only half the equation.

“It does help when children see that you’re interested in their overall being, not just them coming and throwing out a basketball,” he said. “It’s not always about programs. It’s about caring.”

For Atlantic City to improve the lives of its youth, part of that caring means rebuilding trust that has been lost in the past several years.

“Even after we speak, they’re not going to listen till it’s too late, and then they’re going to say that we never spoke,” Campos said. “No, you just weren’t listening.”

For the kids who piled onto Fletcher’s couch in May, making fun of each other playing video games and taking turns talking about what they want to see in Atlantic City, they will have to wait on the next promise.

“After today, right? These kids are going to talk about what they told you and then they are going to look forward to it,” Townsend said. “They’re going to go back, they’re going to talk about it and then they’re going to wait for it.”

Contact: 609-272-7239 aauble@pressofac.com Twitter @AublePressofAC

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