Out of God's Hands

Why aren't more churches reaching out to kids in gang-ravaged neighborhoods?

Can a model car save a kid from the mean streets of Phoenix?

On a recent Wednesday afternoon, Isaac Avila, 11, focuses all his attention and an overused paintbrush on the underside of a '61 Ranchero Custom. Satisfied with the paint job, he sorts through dozens of plastic pieces in the box, taking them out, matching them up. Gluing some together, putting others back, poring over the instructions. Back to the paint. Now back to the box.

Clearly, this kid's in heaven.

Kids brush up on reading and math and (below) music at the First Presbyterian Church DUCK program.
Kids brush up on reading and math and (below) music at the First Presbyterian Church DUCK program.
Music at the First Presbyterian Church DUCK program.
Paolo Vescia
Music at the First Presbyterian Church DUCK program.

Or, at least, church.

Avila is one of about 40 kids participating in "Downtown Urban Community Kids" (DUCK), an after-school program sponsored by the First Presbyterian Church at Fourth Avenue and Monroe Street in Phoenix.

DUCK is enough to make compassionate conservatives and maybe even some compassionate liberals ecstatic.

Funded almost entirely through private donations, DUCK recruits children from the Matthew Henson projects just south of downtown Phoenix at Ninth Street and Buckeye, one of the most depressed, dangerous neighborhoods in town. To qualify, a kid's parents can't make more than $6,000 a year; many kids come from Spanish-speaking households where both parents work, increasing the need for both after-school supervision and help with homework.

DUCK offers both, and more, including free transportation to and from the projects. Unlike after-school programs that might keep kids busy with kickball, DUCK offers a multifaceted, enriching program: homework sessions, journal writing, organized sports, self-esteem training, choir, field trips, one-on-one mentoring with church members -- and, yes, model building.

This is Isaac Avila's third year in the program. A quiet boy in an Orlando basketball jersey and shin-grazing, baggy white shorts accessorized with a pager and a hoop through one ear, the sixth-grader says he wasn't going to come back this fall -- he could be hanging out at home, "just playing around" -- until he heard there were going to be models.

"I wouldn't be here if it weren't for models," Avila says, gluing a round knob onto a carburetor.

John Heeringa, one of Avila's instructors, confirms that once the cars are done, it's on to model planes, and even a field trip to Luke Air Force Base. Then model rockets, and a visit to the planetarium at the Arizona Science Center.

In Isaac Avila's vernacular, that's tight, dude. But for the DUCK staff, it's a carrot.

"It's not the program that's important, it's the relationships we build," says Steve Keller, First Presbyterian's executive director.

DUCK is a smash hit. Keller says the fall program filled up in 20 minutes. He's hoping to expand to 100 kids by December. But that won't begin to fill the need in the Matthew Henson projects, let alone the rest of the Valley.

Who will fill in the gaps? In 1994, the Republican Revolution swept America, decimating governmental social programs and pushing the task of caring for kids like Isaac Avila toward private entities, including faith-based organizations. Presidential front-runner George W. Bush has upped the ante, promising he'll offer financial incentives to churches who take on the job.

That's as it should be, says Jay Heiler, who served as chief of staff and criminal justice adviser to Governor J. Fife Symington III, and is a big fan of Bush's philosophy.

"Faith-based organizations are exactly what should be getting involved, exactly where the involvement ought to come from in terms of reaching down into the grittiest places in our communities and trying to help families and young people there," Heiler says. "The government is always going to struggle, trying to fill that bill. . . . It is not a function that government can perform efficiently or with the compassion that people hope for when they form government programs to do these things. What's hoped for is compassion, what ends up being produced is bureaucracy and confusion."

Heiler believes church involvement will increase if incentives are made available.

"You gotta have resources to do anything," he says. "Even Mother Teresa needed resources."

But it would take an awful lot of those resources to close the gap that exists here in metropolitan Phoenix. Whatever the reason, the reality is that for the most part, local faith-based organizations have not stepped up to the plate.

National organizations like Teen Challenge (a religious, gang/drug intervention program) and MatchPoint (a religious youth mentoring program) have chapters in the Valley. Valley Interfaith Project, a local multidenominational organization, has successfully encouraged its members to fight for government funding for kids' programs, and to start their own.

But such efforts are an aberration. This summer, New Times surveyed 310 churches and other religious institutions in the 10 Maricopa County zip codes with the highest incidence of juvenile crime (1998 figures) and found fewer than a dozen organized after-school programs for neighborhood kids -- or other programs specifically targeting at-risk children from the area -- run by local churches.

Sure, there are programs for kids who already belong to the religious institution. (Or who are willing to join.) St. Mary's Catholic Church in Chandler and Temple Chai in Phoenix (the only synagogue in the area surveyed) have youth groups for their members. The Korean American Bible Presbyterian Church focuses on Korean-American youth. The Muslim Community Mosque in Phoenix offers classes in its liturgy.

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