Section: Amherst

Program targets needs of Nashua's at-risk youth

Nashua Telegraph Staff   

NASHUA - Amid the laughter that filled the room, Nashua resident Aldonys Reynoso, 13, struggled to cut the brightly colored ribbon with an orange pair of safety scissors.

Finally, somebody handed the youth a sharp pair, and with a snip, the police officers and state officials that filled the recreation room of the Nashua Police Athletic League center on Ash Street erupted in a cheer.

The crowd, which included Nashua Police Chief Timothy Hefferan, Attorney General Kelly Ayotte, First Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph Laplante and Mayor Bernie Streeter, among other notable officials, had turned out Friday to celebrate the opening of the PAL Youth Safe Haven at the center.

Funded by a grant from the Milton S. Eisenhower Foundation, the program is a cooperative effort involving local police, officials from the Nashua School District, the Nashua Housing Authority and the New Hampshire National Guard to help target the needs of at-risk youth.

Through the program, PAL officials and a soon-to-be-hired civilian counterpart will work with Nashua School District 21st Century officials to track the educational progress of 100 students whose parents have signed them up for the program.

"It's been our honest and legitimate goal to be involved in community policing, and to effectively serve we have to forge new partnerships to be able to do that," Hefferan told the crowd.

"With the Eisenhower Foundation, the school system, the housing authority and PAL, we pledge that we will continue to build a kind of relationship that we have so far on friendship, on trust, and on respect with our future that is our youth," he said.

According to PAL program director Kevin Landry, the program - which will operate Monday through Friday from 3-6 p.m. at the center - will allow PAL officials to have more "Instead of just being open as a community center, we will also have specific programs, for instance homework every day," Landry said.

Reynoso was just one of the 30 or so "regular" kids who frequent the center on a daily basis, he said.

The program will also allow Nashua police to assign two police officers to areas specified by the Nashua Housing Authority.

"That officer is going to be the liaison between what goes on with these kids when he or she responds to calls for service in the housing authority, and then communicates that information back to this program here," said Hefferan after the ribbon cutting.

The program was modeled on the Japanese policing structure called Koban, said Melissa Silvey, Dover Housing Authority director of family services who helped found the state's first Youth Safe Haven in Dover in 1999.

"The concept is putting a city officer on every city block," said Silvey explaining the eastern practice.

"That city officer knows every family on that street, knows every kid's name; that is why their crime is so low," she said.

"The whole point of this safe haven is building trust with police. You can have police presence everywhere and still not have trust," Silvey said.

"To do that takes a lot of work and you have to get out of your vehicle and you have to start mixing with the neighbors," she said.

Silvey said that after the program was started in Dover, calls for police services in targeted areas dropped almost two-thirds in the first year, then spiked in the next year.

"And so we had to look at that, and we surveyed residents as to why, and it was because they felt more comfortable reporting, and that their report to a police officer wouldn't just be pooh-poohed," Silvey said.

Through the Dover Youth Safe Haven program, Silvey said, parents fill out a form at area schools allowing program officials to see their child's report card and to track their child academically and get progress reports from the school.

The kids pick the programs that they want to attend; however, the primary program that they must attend is homework studies, which runs everyday right after school for one hour, she said.

Program officials then check homework and monitor the child's grades in those studies.

"The key factor is that you are bringing in a circle of partners who are all communicating with each other," Silvey said.

Grant money expected for the program will be in the $100,000 to $200,000 range, depending on the program they create, according to Doug Hayes, commander of the police department's services bureau, which overseas the PAL program.

"This is a significant benefit to the PAL program as it has existed," Hefferan said.

"PAL is done solely on fund-raising, and it is a fairly rigorous endeavor . . . That money coming in will support not only some of the new programs we will have to more narrowly focus on kids, but I envision it helping in defraying some of the fund-raising efforts that we do every year," he said.


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