Bridgeport's 'SOY' – Grassroots Activism To Prevent Youth Violence

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 By Doug Maine
CTLatinoNews.com
 

Save Our Youth, a grassroots organization formed by Bridgeport parents and other concerned adults just two years ago to prevent youth violence, has grown to have a master list of more than 800 youths who have taken part in its various programs.
“We’re very diverse. We never know who we’re going to get at any event. We don’t target any specific ethnicity; we don’t target any specific part of the city,” aid SOY founder and Bridgeport native Isaac Vann, better known as DJ Redd Blaze, who serves as executive director and vice president of its executive board. “Our staff is 100 percent volunteer, from the president to the interns. We do it all from the heart. We do it all for free.”
Youths, from Bridgeport and beyond, can register for free on SOY’s website, www.SaveOurYouthWCHS.com. After they do, they receive notices about the group’s upcoming events, Redd said.
The group’s newest initiative is a co-ed Youth Kickball League, with divisions for ages 6-10 and 11-18. The registration deadline is May 11.
Youths from other cities and towns can, and do, take part in the group’s events, but, “we kind of put a focus on Bridgeport because in 2012, when we started, there was a lot of youth violence,” he said.
Most of SOY’s events are free.
“It’s really not hard to run an organization like this if you keep it simple,” he said. “We see a lot of organizations come up and they disappear,” because they run out of money, he said.
Though unpaid, staff members and other volunteers must undergo background checks. Gennifer Negron, SOY’s treasurer and human resources manager, said, “we do a full, thorough criminal background check on them ; we (check) the sex offenders list, and we also make phone calls, and that’s just the beginning.”

 Programs open to all

Negron, a mother of four, was one of the group’s first volunteers. “I was more in tune with the needs of the community, and my father had recently passed away, and he was big on volunteering in the community and giving back,” she said.
“I’m not surprised to see how fast it’s grown in so little time. It’s amazing how a team gets together and focuses on a mission. I’m so proud of what we’ve done,” she said. “The need was there and the opportunity was there. Our challenge really is to get the community to support us, to participate in our events and fundraisers. The more support we get, the more we can do to support the kids.”
Other programs in the city tend to focus on one thing — a particular age group or activity, such as a sport, she said, while SOY is all-inclusive and invites non-English speakers. “If there’s a language barrier, we have volunteers who speak both English and Spanish,” Negron said.
All programs are open to youths up to age 18, though events are often targeted to particular age groups. “Any 18-year-old must be currently in high school to participate,” Redd said.
Though it’s harder to get the older teens to come out, especially for educational- or preventive-type programs, “we make everything fun,” he said. “Once they come, they love it. We get kids who cry when their parents come and they have to leave.”
Tammy Boyle found out about SOY through its Facebook page. After having her sons Michael, 14, and Mekhi, 12, in another afterschool program, she’s found SOY events more affordable and has gotten to know many of the parents involved in the group.
“They’re very organized. They’ve always had people on standby for safety and security,” Boyle said. “The events are all youth-driven. It keeps the kids coming.”
Boyle believes SOY has had a positive impact on the city. “I just wish more people would see what this organization is doing for the community,” she said.

 Responding to needs
 

Before forming SOY, board members were all friends who agreed that something needed to be done for Bridgeport’s children and adolescents. They held a few events before formally organizing themselves as a registered nonprofit organization.
“Funds have been a challenge since day one. We do various fundraisers throughout the year,” Redd said. “We typically plan around our funds,” he said, noting that an iPod raffle in-progress is expected to net SOY about $500, so they’ll budget that amount for an upcoming event.
Tutoring and homework-help programs, health and fitness, teen life skills and wellness and awareness groups, a chess club, youth bingo, a step team, theater production group, arts and crafts programs and a GED class are among the activities SOY sponsors.
SOY receives some financial support from the state for youth preventive programming, such as anti-bullying workshops, courses on anger management and “Girl Power” and “Raising Boys into Men” groups. Their goal is to help youths avoid the pitfalls of the streets, gangs and violence.
A few state Department of Children and Families employees volunteer their time and professional expertise, helping to lead some of the preventive programs. Their contributions are invaluable, Redd said.
“We had a couple of boys who had real anger management issues, and (we saw) how they took in and used  information,” from the class, defusing tensions at a recent pool party, he said.
When he was growing up in the city, Redd said there weren’t many things for young people to do, and those that did exist were not affordable to most families.
Everything SOY has done has involved a learning process. “My experience comes from being a deejay and doing events, being a promoter,” Redd said, who is also the father of three.
“I grew up in the system, from foster care to group homes to being incarcerated. What I really wanted to do was put a reverse to the incarceration, to give kids something positive to do,” he said.
Being part of the programs sometimes serves as an incentive for youths to stay out of trouble. When their grades are starting to slip, or they’re experiencing other problems, Redd and other staff volunteers work personally with them and their parents and teachers. Parents and other relatives often give SOY staff members progress reports on how their child is doing in school.
“These kids really look forward to the things we do. They call me, they text me,” he said, so that interest becomes leverage in encouraging youths to keep their grades up and not get in trouble.
“I do stop by their schools sometimes, just show my face. It shows we really care,” he said.
“We’ve never had a problem getting kids to come to our events. The only problem we’ve had is getting adults to come out to events (and) some of our fundraisers,” Redd said. “We have a very low cancellation rate. Once we announce an event to the kids, we do everything in our power to make sure it happens.”


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