Sunset Park residents demand more youth programs

Over 200 parishioners from Our Lady of Perpetual Help (OLPH) filled a meeting room after mass one recent Sunday and appealed to local politicians and community leaders to help create more positive after-school and weekend programs for youth in Sunset Park, where parents and even teenagers themselves say they do not feel safe walking around at night.

All three elected officials or their representatives who were present agreed to the church group’s request to form a public task force that will address the need for improved public safety and more positive influences for Sunset Park youth. This included Congressmember Nydia Velázquez, Councilmember Sara González, and Assemblymember Felix Ortiz.

Their support elicited loud applause from the intergenerational crowd of adults and children, some of whom spoke of their own experiences struggling with keeping themselves and their kids safe.

“I used to live on a street where I would be afraid to come out because there would be people smoking in the halls and staircase of my building,” explained Estrella Gonzalez, 18. “[While walking home,] I would have to say ‘excuse me’ but why should I say that to get where I live? [Now,] I see many people get in trouble for drugs, violence and gangs. That’s why we need the help of elected officials to stop it before it gets worse. We need police to protect our blocks.”

Gabina Rodriguez, agreed, using her brief speech to speak of her 19-year-old nephew who was killed five years ago near one of the “hotspot” blocks identified by the OLPH community group as a hub of drug sales and violence.

“The youth in this community are having difficulties. In the building where I live, there are youth smoking, strong fights in the streets. We need to have a solution for this,” said Rodriguez to the assembled officials. “There is no worse struggle than a struggle no one takes [efforts against]. Please work together with us.”

Although representatives of the 72nd Precinct did not attend the meeting, representatives from the Police Athletic League (PAL) and the Guardian Angels were on hand to offer their help.

Richard Guevara, director of field operations at PAL, said that the nonprofit organization was open to working with residents to establish a Teen Impact Center, where teens can go for three hours a day, three days a week, to work, attend workshops and counseling sessions, and do social activities such as board games and sports. “Having kids busy helps drive them away from drugs and bad influences,” said Guevara.

A Junior Angel Program with the nonprofit Guardian Angels, which is like a neighborhood watch program, was also proposed by Benjamin Garcia, patrol director with the organization. The program would be for kids aged six to 16 and would need parental permission.

The meeting was organized by the OLPH Community Committee with help from Brooklyn Congregations United.

The Task Force being formed between the community committee, elected officials and nonprofit leaders will continue to meet and will report back to residents in July at another public meeting. OLPH and the PAL will also be working together to see if the Teen Impact Center can be opened by October. If you would like to get more information or join the effort, contact OLPH.

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