In an era where much of the discussion about urban youth speaks of violence, East St. Louis, the nearly all-Black city directly across the Mississippi River from its larger neighbor, boasts of a program that has reduced gun crimes and boosted high school graduation rates.
And to hear local officials talk about, it has been an incredible success story.
The Christian Activity Center stands directly adjacent to the Samuel Gompers housing projects in the Olivette Park neighborhood in East St. Louis. At one time, the high school dropout rate in the area was nearly 50 percent, city officials say. Today, because of the influence of the program, more than 95 percent of the students graduate from high school.
“This is a community that was stricken by gang violence, drug activity and all the things that plague an urban community,” said Alvin Parks Jr., the mayor of East St. Louis, speaking with BET.com.
“But this program, and its director, have added to the lives of these young people structure, discipline, consciousness, spiritual awaking and academic preparation. It’s been a real model program that has made a significant difference in our city,” Parks said.
The program’s director is Chet Cantrell, a soft-spoken minister who came to the center 25 years ago. Each week, nearly 700 young people come to the center to participate in everything from computer training and test preparation to basketball and arts programs.
The center's core programming emphasizes education, technology, spiritual development, arts and recreation and emotional wellness. The center is supported largely by private donations from individuals, organizations, churches, corporations and grants.
“They come here and get fed, then we do homework with them and tutoring,” Cantrell said, in an interview with BET.com. “It’s kind of a school that operates after school. We have a computer lab here, we have leadership classes and offer assistance with reading and math. We try to offer a lot for them.”
More than anything, Cantrell emphasizes that young people are innately talented, bright and driven to perform well and they need only the right support to draw out those qualities.
“We want to create a new paradigm for our kids, and give them the tools to live in it.” Cantrell said. “We know success in raising children is giving them what all children of the world need. Your kids, my kids, African kids, Asian kids, Eskimo kids - all need what kids need. Our philosophy here is based on that principle.”
Cantrell points out that East St. Louis – and communities like it – are often stereotyped and negatively portrayed by media and by residents themselves. He said, the most important role for his center is to have realistic understandings and expectations of the young people they deal with.
“There are so many bad stories about East Saint Louis that the danger is that those that tell them and those that hear them, come to believe they embody all of the truth,” Cantrell said. “Many people in our city have come to believe these things about themselves, and with this kind of vision, despair and resignation follow.”
He said that there needs to be a greater understanding that East St. Louis is full of “compassionate people, people who know how to take care of other folk, who passionately care for others.”
He added: “Ask a kid from our city if there are there more African-American males in college or in jail, they will invariably say there are more. This is not true. But it is what they believe.”
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(Photo: Courtesy of Christian Activity Center)